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How Multitasking Prevents Flow

I wrote code for years, and I recall well those days when I would close the door to my office and write code for hours at a time. Fairly often I would have the experience of looking at the clock prior to sitting down at my computer, starting to write code in earnest, and then looking up at the clock again and realizing that hours had passed—while I was totally unaware. It always seemed as if just a short period of time elapsed, and yet 4, 5, or even 6 hours had actually passed. We call this experience “flow.” Basically, flow happens when you get so focused on something that you completely lose track of time. The only time your flow is broken is when you get interrupted.

Getting into flow is a prerequisite of being highly productive—but flow doesn’t happen unless you eliminate distractions and interruptions. Thus, multitasking runs counter to flow, as do the continual interruptions of instant messaging, phone calls, text messages, and so on—basically all the busyness that we’re used to fielding today.

If you’ve ever experienced flow, recall how you felt—you were extremely productive, and that’s a really good feeling. Compare that feeling to those times when you’re sitting in meetings, trying to pay attention while simultaneously instant messaging with other people and constantly checking your email. At the end of that meeting you were exhausted, and you probably didn’t get much out of the meeting. Your body is telling you what should be obvious to your mind: The exhaustion you feel doesn’t match with any good level of productivity.

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