Distraction and Flow State

Perhaps we can't blame our phones...

Before I begin, apologies for a broken link in last week’s newsletter. The link to Bragdocs was broken but this one works! I had a few people sign up and give their feedback last week — I’d love more ideas so please do let me know if you give it a try.

This week I found myself listening to the Knowledge Project Podcast — I have to say I do enjoy Shane Parrish’s dulcet tones and Canadian accent. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked (a required read for anyone trying to distract people through technology), was being interviewed.

I’ve both read his book and heard him speak before, but something he mentioned in this interview stuck with me. To paraphrase:

Distraction is not a function of external triggers but internal discomfort with what you’re meant to be doing at the time.

Like all of us, I frequently struggle to get into flow state. Increasingly now, as my role transitions from maker to manager, it’s less important that I carve out hours to code or design. But undistracted thinking time is still incredibly important and something I struggle with.

Putting my phone away or changing my environment helps to an extent, but Nir’s point above really resonates with me. The distraction follows me around because it’s actually already in my head. I look for the email inbox or the Twitter feed when my brain has already become distracted - by the time I’m scrolling it’s already too late.

My decision zoom level

I can roughly categorise the decisions I make into three zoom levels. As I zoom in, decisions get easier and shorter term, but less important.

Zoom level 1: Why?

Often there’s very little hard data in this zone. It relies on lots of conversation, unhurried thought and then decisiveness. You’re deciding what to do on the highest level, and these decisions feel existential and irreversible. A couple per quarter.

  • Why do (or should) we exist as a business?

  • What strategic move should we make?

Zoom level 2: What?

Given the above, what are the best ways of achieving it? These decisions are still often strategic decisions, but sit at a lower, more reversible level. Probably multiple per month.

  • What’s the best way of solving this problem or strategy?

  • What software stack should we use?

  • What hires should we make?

Zoom level 3: How?

The most granular level of useful decision-making. Often tens or even hundreds of decisions an hour, but each is very small meaning the fatigue is lowest and the confidence highest at this level.

  • How should this button look?

  • How should we structure this function, or data?

  • How should we structure our weekly catch-up?

Where I (and dare I say, humans) come unstuck is when I’ve failed to reduce the scope of whatever I’m working on at the time to the zoom level that’s required.

If I’m designing a button and worrying about our quarterly goals at the same time, it’s a recipe for me reaching for my phone and the comfort of the scroll. I’ve lost faith in the value of the work I’m doing.

Equally if I’m trying to solve a strategic problem but start sketching UI or imagining features it pulls me down into implementation which doesn’t help me answer the higher level question.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says his secret is making as few decisions as possible. Ultimately I think this is the key to flow state and efficiency — reduce the number of decisions you have to make to only the ones you are uniquely positioned to make, and knowing what decision you’re making at any given time.

553/500 words. Thinking of changing the newsletter name at this point. Also it’s late again!

Thanks for reading this, one of my regular musings on product strategy, life as a founder and moving from designer to early-stage CEO and onwards. You can also find me on Twitter and some older/longer writing on jonnyburch.com.

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