The atmospherics of flow

The flow state appears to be an altered state of consciousness, quite like being hypnotized. As with hypnosis, people vary widely in their inclination to it, and many seemingly trivial background factors influence susceptibility (in addition to obvious ones like medication state). Since flow is the most efficient and pleasurable state to work in, it would seem only natural to take stock of these factors in order to optimize them, and yet I hardly ever run across recommendations in that vein! Perhaps I don’t get out enough. Along analogous lines, but for a more clinical purpose, the idea of manipulating environmental conditions to modulate mental state is taken to the extreme with the Snoezelen, and I invite the adventurous to explore that more creative avenue. However, I’ve found a relatively easy and inexpensive set of tweaks that will do the job nearly as well, and so the following is a collection of recommendations based completely on my n of 1.

The first order of business is to figure out what doesn’t belong. Getting knocked out of flow is so much easier than getting into it, so rid your environment of attention vampires: movement in your field of vision, noise of all sorts but especially the high pitched variety, and what I like to call “distractables” – shiny or otherwise desirable things within easy reach that threaten to capture precious attention. Humans are the most egregious offenders, what with all their movements, and their variable pitches and rhythms, and their secondary sexual characteristics. Keep humans to a minimum.

What does belong is ultimately a matter of personal taste (and budget), but it’s typically better to delineate The Space Where Work Is Done in some way, usually with physical separation. It’s also nice if you can stick to working in that space, but if you’re hyperactive or ergonomically problematic you may find that impossible. My own work time is split between a desk in the corner of my room and my bed, because I am both of those adjectives. Even if I don’t intend to stay there long, I find that beginning the day at my desk provides the activation energy necessary to throw me into the proper frame of mind, and it has the practical advantage of allowing me to use things besides my laptop. Select your furniture on the basis of how long it will sustain a comfortable posture, and whether it allows for whatever amount of position-shifting you like, because sometimes you really do just need to sit with your entire body compacted into a tight ball. Also consider “alternative” furniture, such as kneeling chairs.

Visuals are an important component of a work space, yes, even in the 21st century when we’ve all got our heads in The Cloud. Some people enjoy the aesthetic of clutter, but it tends to make me prone to overload, and I think the vast majority of people are better off without it. I encourage tasteful (and preferably muted) decoration, and if you have beneficial associations with a particular image, color, or texture, try to include it. My most important visual elements are an analogue clock, which doubles as a medication tracker through the use of carefully placed stickies, and my calendar, which is necessary to remind me that days exist as discrete time periods, tend to follow one another, and will coalesce into weeks if they get out of hand.

The most dramatic way to control ambiance is with lighting. Light draws the eye, so make sure everything you want your attention focused on is better lit than everything you don’t. Bright, cool-toned light promotes wakefulness and is recommended if you tend toward the depressive, but those with manic tendencies may be better off keeping things dim. Especially if your workplace functions as something else, such as your bedroom, it’s good to have modifiable levels and/or colors of light, which can be done fancily with remote-controlled LED strips or dimmable fairy lights, or lamps for the lazy.

Some people like to dress up in real clothing to work, but this is unnecessary. The proper work attire is soft, doesn’t restrict movement, and is not at all distressing to tactile sensitivities. It should also provide adequate thermal regulation. And be clean.

The feeding state is a delicate balance. It is easy to over- or underfeed, neither of which are conducive to concentration. The variety matters as well: now is not the time for virtuous food. Eat stuff that tastes good, but not good enough to reminisce over, and pick something that won’t overburden your digestive tract (I’m looking at you, oatmeal). Food that is too boring will bore you, making you likelier to seek out other forms of easy stimulation, so save your virtue for dinnertime. And water! Drink water. An astounding number of people don’t replace the fluids that coffee has caused them to pee out, and then feel tired, and try to remedy it by drinking more coffee. Don’t get caught in this ridiculous loop.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is noise. Until very recently I preferred to work in complete silence and wore noise-cancelling headphones constantly, but an addition to my medication regimen has cured a bit of my misophonia and lately I’ve taken to listening to music while I work. This playlist is composed exclusively of tracks that are rhythmic, repetitive, and of course free of human-sounds (now and again I’ll indulge in some Sigur Ros). Ambient music, soundtracks and unremarkable classical music would also be sound choices. Noise does still tax executive function, so I prefer to make decisions without it, but once I’ve chosen a course it can set the tone, soothe anxiety and push me through tedious bits.

Most of these modifications are what you might call “facilitators”: they make it slightly likelier that you’ll enter or stay in a flow state, and tend to have an anxiolytic quality. (Flow generators are another worthy topic, but not one I’ll get into here.) The individual effect size of each of these is probably not large, but the overall effect of cultivating an environment filled with small cues that you’re supposed to be doing something productive is an excellent supplement to pharmacological aids. There may be a danger in getting too attached to such conditions – I’m unable to work effectively without them, although that was also true before they were available to me. So it’s possible an optimized workspace will spoil you for the coffee shop experience.

But I think we all know that real work isn’t done at coffee shops anyway.


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