Developer Productivity: Strengthening flow through meditation

Ellen Weaver
January 5, 2023
5
min read

What comes to mind when you hear the word "meditation"?

Is it skepticism? Disregard? Belief? Peace of mind? A tool for success?

Whatever feelings conjured up, positive, negative, or indifferent, it's important to acknowledge to proven productivity benefits meditation has to offer. It's the secret to strengthening the flow state.

Often referred to as being "in the zone", flow is a state of peak performance where your best work happens and your biggest insights are realized.

Purposefully entering flow isn't easy. It requires mental fortitude and pointed focus. However, like everything, repeated practice can train your brain to flow with ease. One of the best flow improvement strategy is meditation. Although there is a bohemian air surrounding meditation, notably in the West, its reputation as a tool to improve cognitive functions is researched and established.

Meditation strengthens flow in four ways: Improved attention, deepened insights, increased productivity, and stronger emotional regulation. This article discusses the basics of flow, specific meditative practices to leverage flow's impact, and the neuroscience that links meditation and flow to help you become a more productive developer.

This is the second article in the Codewars series "Developer Productivity". To read the first article, click here.

Flow 101

Positive psychologist and author of "Flow: The psychology of optimal experience" Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote that flow is "the process of total involvement with life."

Odds are you've experienced flow before. Flow is the state of mind when absorbed in a task, project, activity, or sport that everything else in the world melts away. Time loses structure, your inner critic goes offline, productivity skyrockets, and a feeling of satisfaction settles into you. When engaging in exciting or high stakes activities, flow comes easily. The same can't always be said for completing tasks your manager assigns or working on feature updates for a finicky client.

Experiencing flow is common, but the ability to control flow feels out of reach.

We suggest reading Developer Productivity: A guide to finding flow for a deep explanation of flow, its triggers, and its scientific groundings first.

Steven Kotler, Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective, found that the entire flow process is broken down into four phases:

1. The Struggle

This phase is uncomfortable. It takes place when you sit down and make yourself dig in to your work. It requires intense focus, and your working brain labors hard to actively process new information. Having the fortitude to hold extended focus is crucial to make it past The Struggle phase. Getting started is always the hardest part of anything.

2. The Release

When your working brain says, "That's enough! I can't take anymore!", it means it's time for a break. During The Release phase, you need to engage in a different type of activity that requires less struggle. Meditation, walks, or gardening are great examples of activities that give your working brain a breather. While your working brain takes a break, your subconscious brain picks up the labor of processing the information you've been struggling with in a much faster, more efficient way. Note: Watching TV or scrolling on your device should be avoided at all costs. In The Release, the activity you engage in can make or break the quality of your information processing and future productivity.

3. The Flow

After absorbing new information and allowing your brain to process, you're in the perfect position to start flowing. Chemicals that support motivation, creativity, and learning course through your body, and the areas of your mind that are typically preoccupied with self-scrutiny and doubt slow down, providing a larger mental capacity to think about your task. Your self consciousness drifts away during The Flow leaving space for your mind to work and access insights previously hidden in your subconscious mind.

4. The Recovery

Flow's cycle requires a lot of heavy lifting from your brain. Eventually those feel-good hormones dissipate, and you're left with the recovery phase. Flow is a demanding, exerting process. Just like you would rest and recover after a hard physical workout, the same goes for flow. The Recovery Phase requires emotional regulation and mental recharging in order to ramp back up for The Struggle phase. Without the opportunity to refuel, gearing up for another flow cycle is draining and demotivating.

Sounds great, right? Consistently tapping into flow changes the trajectory of careers. Flow is evasive, though. It takes intentional, disciplined cultivation to harness its promised potential. Meditation supports each cycle of flow, making that life-changing consistency tenable.

Improving attention through meditation

"Flow follows focus."

Kotler places the foundation of flow on those three words. Without the discipline to sit down and focus, don't expect to flow. Csikszentmihalyi expressed similar, albeit more wordy, feelings about flow's dependence on focus:

"Some people learn to use this priceless resource [focused attention] efficiently, while others waste it. The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal and not longer. And the person who can usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life."

Focus isn't easy. It's a discipline in and of itself. External distractions like notifications, texts, calls, and conversations with others pop up without warning. Sure, Do Not Disturb mode exists, but that doesn't keep anyone from picking up their phones out of curiosity, boredom, or outright avoidance. Even if you do manage to resist external distractions, internal distractions are only limited by your imagination.

Internal distractions are worries, problems at home, overwhelming emotions, your inner monologue running rampant -- you get the idea. Just like notifications and interruptions while coding, they are distracting and taxing. Putting a DND on internal distractions is possible. It just takes some practice focusing. And how does one practice focusing? Focused Attention Meditation (FAM).

Research suggests that the human mind is lost in thought 47% of the time. While not necessarily a negative, it's still important to peel yourself away and concentrate on your work. FAM strengthens the cognitive function of focus by slowly training your brain to become resilient of outside distractions. Not only that, meditation physically alters your brain in ways that strengthen one's ability to control themselves and weakens emotional reactivity.

A study showed that participants whose attention were fixed on breath or body "increased thickness in the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes, both linked to attention and control." Going further, Harvard Medical School found that FAM "showed a decrease in activation in the right amygdala" supporting their hypothesis that meditation can positively affect emotional stability and stress responses.

Because flow follows focus, the inability to generate and maintain focus is the number one gatekeeper to flow. Using a meditative practice like FAM helps re-train your brain to control focus, making the flow state more accessible.

Try it yourself

Check out these FAM guides and resources to improve your attention:

Increasing productivity through meditation

Productivity can be measured in many ways. Many end up measuring productivity against shallow metrics like commits and lines coded, while others get caught up in hours worked and deadlines met. Important, sure, but productivity is more nuanced than it gets credit for.

Productivity isn't solely based on getting tasks done as efficiently as possible. It also includes functions like problem solving, idea generation, and creativity, too.

Improved attention and productivity go hand-in-hand. With stronger attention, you're able to stay focused for longer periods of time, resulting in more productive experiences. Without focus, productivity dips and your working brain doesn't have much of a chance at absorbing new information. As discussed in The Release phase, productivity also hinges on the amount of information your sub-conscious brain is able to process.

An article published by The MIT Press discusses that subconscious mind more deeply: "For complex problems with multiple entangled variables, it often turns out that subconscious processes lead to better solutions than conscious deliberations because of the wealth of heuristics exploitable by subconscious processing.

However, in "Living Zen Remindfully", Austin discusses a study that examines divergent thinking's (non-focused thinking) effects on creativity. An interesting finding of the study is that the group with divergent thinking styles maintained a stronger link to the parts of the brain that control capacities like working memory and creativity, both essential for productivity.

While a non-focused approach to productivity sounds counterintuitive, it's actually what primes the brain to perform better. When in The Release phase of flow, you're switching from intense, willed focus to an absence of focus  -- giving your brain a break -- thus allowing your subconscious to do the heavy lifting.

Tapping into divergent, non-focused thought can be accomplished through open-monitoring (OM) meditation. OM is a practice that encourages monitoring events in your surroundings without reaction. Practitioners are encourages to notice without judging or ascribing feeling.

This study published in the National Library of Medicine reports that participants that practiced OM meditation excelled in the Alternative Uses Task (AUT) -- a test devised to measure creative output in areas of fluency, originality, flexibility, and elaboration. The study later goes on to say that, "OM practice restructures cognitive processing to a degree that is robust and general enough to affect performance in another, logically unrelated task." Clearing your mind and giving your brain a break heightens performance in other tasks, just like flow.

Another benefit of OM is increased information processing. A study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that meditators compared to non-meditators had markedly higher abilities in both local and global target processing and target selection, suggesting that meditation aids and expedites local and global information processing. Global processing refers to processing the big picture while local processing refers to processing more narrowly with greater attention to detail.

Giving your brain an opportunity to release and switch to a seemingly unrelated task like meditation  gives way to increased productivity by nurturing creative thinking and allowing your subconscious mind to process information. Leveraging meditation in The Release phase of flow strengthens the potency of the phase.

Try it yourself

Check out this list of OM resources and guides to improve your productivity:

Deepening insights through meditation

As discussed above, meditation gives way to deep subconscious information processing that supports the The Release phase of flow and ultimately results in increased productivity. Similarly, meditation also increases instances of insight, in part because of its link to the subconscious state.

Insight means "the capacity to gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of a person or thing." Often referred to as an aha! moment or a lightbulb moment, insights occur when information suddenly makes sense, sometimes out of nowhere.

One of the most interesting findings regarding flow surrounds neural oscillation (rhythmic electrical activity AKA brain waves). There are a five brain waves: Gamma, Beta, Alpha, Theta, and Delta.

  • Gamma oscillates in states of concentration.
  • Beta oscillates in typical waking life.
  • Alpha oscillates in very relaxed and passive states like daydreaming.
  • Theta oscillates in deeply relaxed, inwardly focused states and when entering REM cycle -- is an access point to subconscious mind.
  • Delta oscillates in sleep.

Kotler states, and research shows, that when in flow, the brain oscillates on the border of alpha and theta. Since theta waves hold access to the subconscious mind, the brain now has the key to information that was previously buried in the subconscious.

Recent studies show that gamma and theta waves are coupled, meaning that they align themselves in oscillation. While oscillating, a gamma wave spike occurs when new ideas crash together. This spike results a bolt of understanding -- the aha! moment, the insight.

Similarly to flow, intermediate meditation practitioners showed higher theta and alpha oscillations when compared to non-practitioners. Meditation increases the same neural oscillations that flow operates on. During both meditation and flow, the brain is oscillating in ways that promote access to subconsciously processed information and insights.

With meditation, aha! moments lose their unpredictability and occur regularly, particularly in instances of problem solving. Integrative body-mind training (IBMT) is a great tool to tap into insights. IBMT originates from Eastern traditions and focuses on "restful alertness that allows a high degree of awareness and balance of the body, mind, and environment."

A study published in the journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience investigated the relationship between meditation and insights and their affect on problem solving. It found that after a five hour meditative IBMT, participants were more likely to experience insight and aha! moments compared to the non-trained control group:

"Given that meditation often involves the putamen linked to the reward experience and formation of habits to maintain meditative state, the possible reason for the greater activity of putamen in the IBMT group than in the RT group at the insight moment may be that meditators are more sensitive to the positive ‘Aha!’ experience."

Try it yourself

Check out this list of guides and resources to help you deepen your insights:

Strengthening emotional regulation through meditation

Finally, The Recovery. Time to unwind.

This is the last phase of the flow cycle. After engaging in flow for hours, it's important to take care of yourself and recover properly. Your brain is likely to feel exhaustion after all its exertion.

Concentrating, information processing, deep thinking, and problem solving aren't easy. Restoration is doubly important considering The Struggle is necessary to enter flow again. Rest and recovery aren't solely physical activities. After a long day at work, you may feel mentally and emotionally tired, too.

Emotional regulation is most important in demanding situations and while recovering from a laborious day. Without it, big feelings get in the way of truly resting. If left unchecked, these emotions can derail flow and focus altogether.

Think back to earlier in this article when 'internal distractions' was discussed. A few examples given included problems at home, worry, and a harsh self-critic. Each of those examples are accompanied by emotions: anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, sadness, etc. I've certainly had days where I've allowed my attention to fixate on anxiety or fear instead of directing focus to something more productive. Everyone does.

A common form of emotional regulation is to bottle it up and charge head first into your work. Unfortunately, that's associated with decreased well-being. However, practicing a Mindfulness Meditation (MM) improves emotion processing and regulation, leading to a higher capacity for productive performance later.

Dr. Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychiatry and psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, sought to answer the question, "Why is it that some people are more vulnerable to life's slings and arrows and others more resilient?" The answer all comes down to the positive impacts mindfulness has on the emotional health of minds.

Going deeper, take a look at a summarized list of the neurobiological impact of MM practices:

  • Meditators showed enhanced emotional regulation and stress/anxiety reduction compared to non meditators because of meditation's effects on the orbitofrontal cortex which controls regions like the limbic system, amygdala, striatum, and hypothalamus, as well as sensory regions.
  • Meditation activates and trains metacognitive awareness in the prefrontal cortex.
  • Long-term meditators possess a higher pain tolerance/lower pain sensitivity than non-meditators. These functions are controlled by the somatomotor cortex.
  • MM practitioners showed increased bodily awareness which demonstrates a strengthened insula.
  • The anterior cingulate cortex, responsible for self-control, focused problem-solving, and behavioral adaptive response, showed marked increase among meditators.

Having a better handle on stress, anxiety, emotions, and internal distractions help decompress and restore energy after an arduous flow session. If emotional maintenance goes ignored, be wary of how that may affect your job performance. For example, slipping into negative work. Negative work is work that doesn't meet standards. It's a poorly done job that requires extra time and money to be redone correctly. That bodes well for no one.

Additionally, practitioners of mindfulness are better goal setters and have higher self-esteem, too. The ability to set and meet goals is one of several flow triggers, and the feeling of enjoyment and loss of self-criticism are two main flow characteristics. "By setting attainable goals—also, perhaps unsurprisingly, an indicator of Flow States—mindful individuals score higher on self-esteem measures as well. Instead of dreaming of the impossible and being continually frustrated by disappointment, mindfulness teaches boundaries that you can work within." - Big Think

Try it yourself

Here's a list of guides and resources for mindful meditation:

Conclusion

Meditation is a powerful tool that can be leveraged to increase productivity and flow. Specifically, it can improve attention, deepen insights, increase productivity, and strengthen emotional regulation. Focused Attention Meditation (FAM) can be utilized to improve focus, while Open Monitoring Meditation (OM) can be used to increase productivity. Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT) can be used to deepen insights, and Mindfulness Meditation (MM) can be used to strengthen emotional regulation. These practices can help practitioners to better access the subconscious mind, resulting in improved cognitive functions, emotional regulation, and productivity.

With consistent practice, flow and productivity can be achieved in an easier and more consistent manner. In addition to these cognitive benefits, meditation can also lead to improved physical health, such as decreasing stress and anxiety, and improving mental well-being. With the ability to access the subconscious mind, meditators can unlock their true potential. By utilizing the tools of meditation, you can reach a higher level of productivity and flow.

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