Flow state and breaks

Lately I’ve found myself at odds with trying to maintain focus at work while also taking a healthy amount of breaks to recalibrate my posture, rest my eyes, stay hydrated, stretch my legs and all that good stuff. It’s either one or the other most of my work days, and while I’m definitely still learning how to best manage this fine balance for myself, I thought I’d share a bit about what I’ve been doing lately that works for me. Please feel free to share any tips or tricks I may have missed!

The problem

Breaks are necessary for a healthy work life balance as well as problem solving, but on the other hand a period of flow state is necessary to navigate code bases, build out new mental models and features: you have to be focused! My interest is reconciling the two, and still feeling productive throughout (although friendly reminder here that productivity does not define your worth.)

How can we reconcile flow with the need for breaks?

  • Pomodoro technique: I can’t write a productivity related post without mentioning these it seems! While they don’t often work for me, I find starting one pomodoro chunk will help me focus pretty quickly.
  • Strategic saves in your text editor: I use vim’s sessions feature for these and find it very useful. The concept is that you save a workspace with a group of files open that’s related to what you’re trying to achieve. I always set my sessions at the end of the work day so that when I come back the next morning I don’t need to remember which files I’d left off in.
  • Good old pen and paper: This is probably my favourite tool that I’ve come back to time and time again. It’s a great way to take a break from the screen and summarize your thoughts before a break. I also use a notebook to apply the Ivy Lee method to my daily work tasks.
  • DnD mode: While I find dungeons and dragons great for other reasons that’s another post for another time I think; I’m talking about do not disturb mode here! This might be a setting on your electronic devices, but it can also mean setting a slack status that you’re busy, chunking out calendar time as “focus time”, and/or finding a quiet nook if you work in an open office to really dig into a new area of focus.
  • A glass of water (or a timer!): This might be a bit of a strange one, but I find getting a glass of water after my morning coffee to sip on helps me make sure I’m getting up and moving around at least once an hour or so. If you don’t need the help staying hydrated (I’m jealous!) then a timer would likely do here.

What I’ve learned so far

I’ve found that what works best for me can vary wildly, so being mindful and present has been an important tool in knowing what I need to calibrate for in my work habits. While compartmentalizing and organizing code in tidy little architectures that don’t know too much about each other is a nice goal I have, compartmentalizing my life is not! Everything is connected in your life, and it can be very useful to take a look at that big picture.

I’ve also learned that while I love the idea of productivity apps, in practice the more technology I bring in to help myself focus only ends up being a gateway to potential distractions.

A final note

Please understand what works for you is valid; I’ve learned my work habits and productivity are highly impacted by my emotional state so knowing that changes how I work (no Twitter or news when I take breaks if I can avoid it, avoiding other triggers, not intaking too much caffeine, etc.)

Similar to riding a bicycle and having to pedal extra hard to get up that big hill so that you can feel the wind in your hair and the rush of freedom as you go down the other side; the purpose of this post is to help encourage exploration of ways you can make that initial ramping up process a little easier so that you can get to the flow state rush sooner.