The Zone

This post is a translation from “La Zona”, in El canasto one of the most important productivity blogs in Spanish. La Zona is CC -by sa Jeroen Sangers. The Zone is CC -by -sa Jeroen Sangers and Miguel de Luis Espinosa.

If you are working in the zone you lose the sense of time. You are very focused and you enjoy what you are doing; surely you have been in “the zone” some time. There are people who spend much time in the zone. How do they do it?

Mihaly Csikszentminhalyi has published the results of his research in the book Creativity. Mihaly describes the zone as a mental state of deep concentration. In one of his experiments he gave an alarm to the subjects, so every time the alarm went on they noted down what they were doing and how they felt.

It is interesting to know that those who were doing something actively and focused felt happier that those who stared at Television mindlessly.

Additional research from Csikszentimhalyi showed that there are some secrets to work in the zone. There are a few things that you can optimize.

Clear targets

It seems obvious that you would always want to work with clear targets, but to define those targets is one of the hardest problems of knowledge work: targets are not always clear. That’s why Getting Things Done starts with asking for the Desired Outcome and the Next Action. Making those questions stimulates the zone.

Enough ability (control) and enough challenge (emotion)

The second requirement to enter the zone is that you have knowledge and experience enough to do what you are doing, but that alone is lacking. The work must contain something new to learn so it can stimulate you. A bit of emotion keeps you linked to the task. If you are curious about the outcome you more easily enter in the zone.

The task must not be too easy, but neither too hard. The problem lies in that is changing daily: what you learn this week, no longer stimulates you next year. Routine work can result in a reactive behaviour, but it helps you not to enter in the zone.

Immediate and direct reaction

For the zone it is also important that you receive a reaction, the sooner the better. If you are writing software you can verify its performance after every change in the code and if you are writing text you can keep it ten minutes and then read it again to see what’s missing.

Thanks to the fast reaction you can adapt the way you work. You will not feel like you have been working for hours or days without knowing if you are going somewhere.

Blurred sense of time, and lose of self awareness.

When you lose the sense of time you can tell you have been in the zone, “it’s so late already?”, “I have forgotten about time”.

That goes together with a lack of self awareness; you no longer think about yourself because you are only focus in the task at hand, the job, the problem you are solving.

Concentration and Focus

Foto courtesy Randy son of Robert, CC -byTo enter the zone you must focus. Focus is decisive: a great share of your energy goes to a relatively small task

For that it is important to work without interruptions for at least 15 minutes. And that is hard enough in a modern office where there is an incoming email notice or a phone call every minute. If you want to work in the zone, you must find a way to avoid interruption, at least for a time.

Inner motivation

There is one more aspect to enter the zone. You must be motivated to accomplish the task. What you do is what you want to do in this moment.

If you meet all of the zone’s requirement, you will see how you work productively and you enjoy it, without knowing. That’s the only downside of the zone, you can’t enjoy consciously.