Flow is another concept I’ve been interested in for a while. I only started really focussing on it when I realised there could be an overlap with some of the other things I’m interested in, such as habit building. In this post, I’ll talk about where thinking about this explicitly has led for me.

Flow is kind of an interesting concept - in a nutshell, it reflects the hazy idea that you can get “in the zone”1 with greater or lesser ease and that the conditions for doing so are worth thinking about. The first thing that got me onto this was forever ago - as in, teenage years forever ago.

If you never ever try, you’ll never ever know

When I was a lot younger, I used to work as a shelf stacker at a supermarket. It’s still one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. You’d turn up at an ungodly hour and repeat the same task, several times a week. So in the absence of any clocks, how are you supposed to keep on track?

After getting told off a couple of times for being slow, I realised that I was at my fastest when listening to relatively fast-paced music, so I stuck to that. Then after a month or two of listening to the same album every time I went to work, I realised that you could use it as a timer of sorts. The music playing told you roughly where you needed to be at that point in time. This was pretty handy as it also helped with something else needed to do a repetitious job effectively: being able to blank your mind.

The remedy

Being able to blank out came in handy when playing sudoku many years later. Sudoku is a pretty interesting game: you can get a computer to solve it in the blink of an eye because it’s ultimately not that complex. For a human on the other hand, it can appear fiendishly difficult because there are too many things to think about.

That’s actually misleading, as it turns out. The way to get good at Sudoku (and increase your odds of achieving a state of flow), is to think about less rather than more. There are a number of simple strategies you can use to identify tiles on the board that have only one option left. They range from simple to fairly complex, but all of them if correctly applied will eventually lead you to filling in tiles.

Some of the strategies you can use include attempting to identify all the remaining tiles of one type, searching for almost-complete rows and columns and more complex things such as identifying possible locations in a row or column an unplaced number could go. The trick to executing them effectively is actually to keep things simple. If you start trying to go for a trick shot and doing a few different things at the same time, you’ll fall over quickly. But if you run through one strategy mechanically, then the next and the next then you’ll do well.

Magic people

This is where flow starts to come in. One of the keys to achieving a state of flow relates to the difficulty involved. If you can get it right - not so easy you get bored, not so hard it’s impossible - then you can find yourself in a state where everything feels almost effortless and almost instinctive. That’s flow.

Fortunately, the average Sudoku app caters to this nicely with a difficulty setting. At first I wasn’t really thinking about this, I was simply trying to incrementally improve by putting up the difficulty whenever my solution times started dropping. Then once I got to the Hard setting I started realising that I wasn’t really learning that much new but sometimes would fall into flow.2

It then became apparent that this was most likely to happen when I was faithfully applying the strategies I’d learned rather than trying anything new. That’s interesting, because it suggests to me that flow and learning something aren’t really compatible which shouldn’t necessarily be the case.

The other thing I noticed was that when I played Sudoku more regularly, I tended to be more likely to achieve a state of flow.3 This is interesting, because it suggested to me that there might be a link between habits and flow that’s a little deeper than I thought. I wonder if there’s some way of exploring this a bit more explicitly.

  1. Ugh. 

  2. You feel like a magician immediately after. 

  3. It wasn’t just a case of it being more frequent because I played more.