Flow

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Zorroa is growing and is actively looking for ways to protect the valuable work its team is doing. To help keep this level of respect for each other's time and work, we've started this internal document to allow all the Zorroa team members (new and seasoned) to have the space to learn, produce, and create.

Forward

I have been fascinated with flow my whole life — that sometimes elusive state of deep work where ideas flow and execution time slows down just enough to weave magic and do it right. In high school I arranged my schedule with a lot of finagling and luck to get a 4-hour block of art classes together. During that time I was able to explore concepts and mediums that would never have come together in the standard 50-minute art class.

I was able to weave in the stuff in the tech lab (a totally new concept at the time, my high school was a pioneer in bringing technology to students) in with my art. I was awarded the Technology Sterling Scholar for projects that brought art and tech together.

Later, in college, I started to understand the working conditions needed to find the flow. I would work early mornings and late nights before my family was up and running their lives.

I cultivated being an early bird so I could get into the flow before coworkers showed up to the office. When I owned my own company for a decade I structured our work so that we only had meetings on one day and could do the deep work clients were paying us for the rest of the week. I've experimented with many techniques over the years and have my own set of tools and tactics. Some of these have become obvious—like turning off notifications. Some are newer and tied to tools—like setting precanned Slack messages and making sure to use them properly so that they retain meaning. Some are lifestyle based—like making every pre-decision you can one day and executing the plan for the next week or month so not a single thought is spent on what to wear, what to eat, or what you are doing at night.

In late 2017 I took an insane step towards better flow — I left the successful consulting firm I'd spent 10 years building to join a new company. I wanted to deep focus on UX work and spend less time managing a business/team/clients.

I found something interesting (to be fair, my new boss, Dan Wexler) saw it coming: I got bored. I actually love the business side of what I do. I love meeting with clients and hearing what they are interested in and what we can do together. I actively enjoy looking at all of the work we have in the pipe and assembling the puzzle of work tickets to releases to teammates to deadlines. And then, after a couple weeks at that, I start to look longingly at calendars with empty days ready to fill with great design and deep thinking UX work.

So this little article was born. Pulling together thoughts and tactics from a team full of incredible people who have done amazing things in their lives—how did we do it, how do we want to do it in the future, and how do we build a company that sustains working in the flow.

—Amber Sawaya, VP of UX & Product // Zorroa

Welcome to Flow

When you hit the flow as a creative worker, magic is made.
I can't find the login for that.
Productivity increases output by a factor of 2-5x.
Hey, where is the login for test.pool?
Flow is that sometimes elusive state where everything else
Can you meet today at 3pm to look over the new spec?
in the world silences and falls away and it's just you and the work.
Do you want to go get coffee?
Developers, designers, data scientists, computer vision people
Is it going to rain today?
—all sorts of creative people often work best when they can
Shit. This database needs to be updated before we can deploy.
find the flow. It's where creative connections are made, deep
This is ready to launch, will you look over the UI real quick?
solutions are developed, and ideas struggle to become tangible.
Ok, cool, see you in an hour.

Did you ignore the italics or did they nag at you? Everything else is flow. Read it again, skipping those lines. Cutting out all of the distractions, seeing the real message, the big picture—that’s flow.

It's how we build complex but user-friendly software, like Zorroa Curator—an enterprise visual intelligence platform. We pull together massive databases with visual search and machine learning to find and make meaning of assets for media and entertainment and other data-heavy industries.

In early 2018 our team was growing rapidly. Our clients were coming on board faster than we expected. One of the biggest companies in the world took a shine to us and started introducing us to their clients. We knew we were on the cusp of greatness. We also knew that with all of that came a lot of noise.

Client meetings, investor meetings, internal meetings. People that love to work together and love what we are building and enjoy exploring ideas together. We knew we were about to lose the ability to get into the flow. So we said, stop. Let's make a plan, test it, iterate on it and protect our most valuable asset—deep thinkers that weave software magic. Every person at our company comes from a creative background, working at companies like Pixar, Dreamworks Animation, Technicolor, Tippett Studios—the list is long and daunting. We're all here because we love what we do and we don't want our lives consumed by meetings—but at the same time we came together to work together and to solve client problems.

So our Flow guidelines were born. The following pages are our experiments and tactics to protect Flow. We'll be iterating and testing these ideas and would love to hear yours.

Quiet Wednesdays

That's it really. We have our quick client and tech stand-up meetings first thing in the morning and then it's quiet. No meetings, no chatter. If you need someone or want to collaborate go ahead and hit them up, but give everyone a chance to get deep work done.

Quiet Weeks

The third week of every month is dedicated quiet week. We try to schedule meetings and client travel outside of this week. Same rules as Quiet Wednesdays.

Taming the Slack Beast

Slack is where we live. We have teams in Berkeley, Vancouver, and Salt Lake City. We have a guy in Boston. All of us work from home, coffee shops, coworking spaces, and a couple of us have unofficial outposts in Tahoe and Hawaii. While we have offices, our actual gathering space is Slack.

Slack is great—the ability to fire up a Zoom meeting and be face-to-face or pair program or review a UI at scale is incredible. These interactions are actually easier over Slack/Zoom than in an office together.

But knock-knock-brush, there is a lot of noise going on. Like Mickey Mouse dealing with the brooms in Fantasia that knock-knock-brush sound can come at you in an overwhelming wave.

Set Statuses

We configured the following status options as defaults for our team:

To use these appropriate we ask everyone:

  1. Only set a status when you want the person sending you a message to change their behavior. The idea being that status denotes your response ability.
  2. Do not set statuses for no reason or to be funny. In general, we want less statuses set, so you can skim down the line of people in the company and most of them won't have a status set.
  3. Use and respect the default status messages.
  4. Create your own status message for other situations like
    🐌 Slow Connection; or
    🤒 Sick but kinda here
  5. Make sure your status is accurate. Done with deep work, coming up for air? Turn off your status messages.
  6. Snooze notifications when you have a Do Not Disturb (Fast Work, Deep Work, etc) set. If it's an emergency someone can choose to push a notification through.

Threads & Reactions

Break off chatter into threads which don't send notifications to the channel.

Respond with reactions so people know you saw it and have weighed in 👍.

Note Urgency

We often start a message with something like [FOR LATER] to let the recipient know that we don't need them to look right now. Do that when someone has a status or just in general if you don't need something right away.

Mute Channels

If you don't need to read messages in a channel, go ahead and mute it. @name and @channel will still light up a notification. You can also set words you want to track (like UX and JIRA) if you have things you want to step in on if they come up in conversation.

We are often spread out, so keep #random and #general unmuted. This is where we, as a company, come together around the water cooler.

Make it Easier to Respond

This is a general note and not confined to Flow. If you need someone to look at something, make it dead simple for them to spin up and context switch.

If you are talking about a work ticket, give them a link (don't just tell them the ticket number). If you want to look at a screen together give them the InVision link.

Get Loud

Need to get someone's attention and they have notifications snoozed or a status set? If it's warranted, get louder. Ping them a couple more times on Slack. Send them a text message (people have their phone numbers set in Slack), call them if you must. Don't let the tools get in the way.

Trello Holding Board

Ideas and questions will come up all day on Quiet Wednesday and all week on Quiet Week. It's so tempting to just ping someone on Slack. If you haven't agreed to work together on something, don't step into someone else's flow.

Stepping into someone's flow sound elegant, but it's more like, "don't pull a tripwire while someone is running through the forest." It takes so long to come back from a headlong spill into rocks and pine needles.

We created a Trello board for this. Each person gets a column, anyone can add cards to another column. Then we can sync up and run through and ask questions/get stuff done. This helps both people; you don't have to remember to ask someone something and you didn't interrupt their flow either.

Back Your Meetings

Don't let meetings spread out all over the calendar. Put them together on one day or at least grouped. Back-to-back meetings sound grueling but give you the rest of the day to do work. Just make sure you give people time to get lunch or go to the bathroom. Hold efficient meetings and be mindful of meeting times. Here are some best practice tactics:

  1. All meetings should have an agenda sent ahead of time. Period. This can be a shared Google Doc or even just a quick bullet point list sent in the meeting invite.
  2. Consider 50 minute and 25 minute meetings — end early, give people a little breather.
  3. Keep meetings on topic, be ruthless with tabling items for later or having people break out to discuss a topic.
  4. Stand Up meetings should be just that—a quick line from each person/department on (1) if anyone is blocking them and (2) what you are doing today. Keep it to today, don't go over past work. This is just to align the team and sprint out the gate.

Use the Tools

We use lots of tools to collaborate, but tools are only as good as what you put into them. Make sure that sales info is in Prosperworks, work tasks are in JIRA, design drafts are in InVision, documents/spreadsheets are in G-Suite.

Empower everyone around you to find information if they need it. This helps people not get blocked by a piece of information that should be available.

Documentation

We're a small and nimble team, for awhile still. Documentation can feel like an extra step—but do it for yourself and do it for your team. Documenting your own processes ensures you aren't thinking up what needs to happen every time you do a deploy or get a client sign off.

Flow Requirements

We asked around the company to hear about everyone's flow requirements. Some had answers, some were just starting to think about it. Everyone agrees that a "quick question" destroys where you were and can take 20 minutes or longer to get back to it (if you can at all). There are studies on this. Here is what we got:

Wex: CEO/Developer
2 weeks, no meetings, hidden away in Tahoe.

Amber: VP of UX & Product
4 hours minimum, 4 days maximum and then she's bored.

Joshua: Frontend Developer
half an hour to enter flow, staying there for about half a day.

Juan: Principal Architect - Data Science
Depends on the work, if it’s something he knows how to do, 5-10 minutes. If he is solving a new problem, inventing a new technique, etc, it will take 1-2 days of thinking in the background (sometimes ramp up looks like procrastination).
5-10 minutes to enter flow, staying there for about half a day, is ok being interrupted.

Pre-decisions

This is if you want to get extreme about flow. This is also an absolute luxury for most people. Amber has the ability to do this. She has a home office (the command station), a coworking space in downtown Salt Lake City, no kids, and a husband who runs the household and does all the cooking when he's not training to row across the Atlantic Ocean.

Pre-decisions means making every possible decision before the opportunity presents itself. She also calls it No-Option Living, but that sounds sad to many people. Her Pre-decisions in a given month are:

  • Gym 7-8am Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; she attends a cross-fit type gym where 6 week programming windows are set and athletes stay safe and focus on injury prevention.
  • Food is planned for the entire month ahead of time.
  • Clothes stick to a uniform of all black/gray with similar style so everything goes together.
  • Friday nights are for junk food and sitting on the couch watching TV and decompressing.
  • Document processes so you don't have to think about how to do  repetitive things, just get them done.
  • Weekends are for projects and hanging out.
  • No work on Sundays.
  • Alone time Sunday nights to tidy the house, get ready for the week, and plan and meditate. Her husband is off playing D&D.

She parks in the same spots, eats the same food at restaurants, and generally wears the same paths through things. This frees her up to think about business strategy and UX work.

Further Reading

One of the best descriptions we’ve read about Flow is:

In the flow state, Csikszentmihalyi found, people engage so completely in what they are doing that they lose track of time. Hours pass in minutes. All sense of self recedes. At the same time, they are pushing beyond their limits and developing new abilities. Indeed, the best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to capacity. People emerge from each flow experience more complex, Csikszentmihalyi found. They become more self-confident, capable, and sensitive. The experience becomes "autotelic," meaning that the activity actually becomes its own reward. "To improve life, one must improve the quality of experience," he says. One of the chief advantages of flow is that it enables people to escape the state of "psychic entropy," the distraction, depression, and dispiritedness that constantly threaten them.

Authored by: Amber Sawaya, with input from Dan Wexler, Beth Loughney, Juan Buhler, Matt Chambers, Ken Pearce, Suzanne Baird, David (Grue) DeBry, and Joshua Davis

Learn more at Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

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