Getting “In The Zone”

I worked on nuclear power plant training simulators at Westinghouse with up to 250 colleagues. I obviously didn’t meet or get to know them all but I worked with and hung out with a bunch of them and some clearly stood out. One lady I was never on a project with but got to know at social events worked on what we called handler routines for a lot of small, common pieces of equipment in the plant and on the control panels: valves, pumps, gauges, alarm lights, and so on. This involved careful configuration of variables in memory and lower-level logic often down to individual bits. A lot of addressing and comparing was done directly in hexadecimal notation, which preserves the status of bits in the mind of the programmer. She was always impressive to talk to and something someone mentioned about her always stuck with me. It might have been her husband (who also worked with us and who co-wrote the Interactive Model Builder tool we often used there) who commented that “she worked on the stuff so much she could multiply in hex in her head”. That’s an odd thing to remember about someone but it illustrated something interesting. She had clearly gotten “in the zone” over time and had probably mastered quite a few related skills. That one stuck because it was rather esoteric.

Being “in the zone” is about doing something so much that you don’t make mistakes, don’t have to look things up, get exceptional amounts of work done in a short period of time, and generally feel great about what you’re doing. Interruptions inhibit getting “in the zone” and they can come in many forms. Phone calls, e-mails, text messages, meetings, extraneous noise, equipment failures, and people trying to talk to you are examples of short term interruptions. Changing tools, projects, jobs, and venues are examples of longer-term interruptions. That said, doing the same sorts of analyses and creating the same kinds of outputs over long periods of time, even if using different tools on different projects at different jobs in different venues, can allow you to get “in the zone” a different way. You can get there through intensity, doing the same thing over and over on a continuous basis, or by reflection, doing the same thing repeatedly over time.

Over the short or long term if you’re reasonably aware you’ll eventually see patterns in what you’re doing and will see a bunch of different combinations and permutations of things that illustrate different facets of your subject. You’ll build up numerous touchpoints you can expand and connect. You start with a few plugs of grass end end up with a lawn.

I’ve gotten “in the zone” at times in my career and it’s always been fun. There were times at Westinghouse where I’d worked with values in the steam tables so often I started to memorize them. There were times at Bricmont when I was banging out so much code that I rarely had to look up anything new, I never made syntax errors, and I could grind through edit/compile/test cycles for days and weeks on end. At my last two jobs I approached so many new systems and talked to so many users, developers, and subject matter experts that I got to where I could just feel how things fit together and what questions to ask to get the information I and my team needed. I’ve also spent so much time wallowing around in huge spreadsheets and Word documents that I was able to make major edits, changes, and improvements because I felt like I had the whole picture in my head at once.

Remembering how great it is to get “in the zone” you might ask if there are any ways to get there more quickly and stay there longer. Here are a few that I can think of.

  • Make a conscious effort to learn your subject up front. Being “In the zone” is like becoming an expert at something. It involves training and repetition and correct performance to be able to push granular elements down to the subconscious so the conscious brain is able to process information in larger and larger chunks. Formally studying a subject through books, mentors, online research, and after-hours noodling around will get you up to speed more quickly. You can’t always predict what specific skills you’re going to need but consulting multiple sources will expose you to things to watch out for.
  • Do after-action reviews, even if you do it by yourself on your own work. Write down a few thoughts on what you’d like to know, what questions you have, and where you get stuck. Since this information is of little use if you don’t do anything with it, be sure to review it at intervals and take action based on what you find. In groups you definitely want to have formal and informal reviews and record and disseminate lessons learned.
  • If you see something you do start to become more automatic, make an effort to push the process a little bit. If you’ve memorized a bunch of he multiplications or steam table values, take some times to expand your range. Consciously try to link up your touchpoints.
  • Deal with distractions quickly. If you can, group them into a concentrated block of time and deal with them all at once. If there are things you don’t particularly like to do, get them done first so they aren’t hanging over your head. You generally aren’t as good at things you don’t like to do so addressing them quickly gives you more time to get feedback and make sure they get done right.
  • Actively promote a culture that makes these ideas visible to people. Having an internal blog, bulletin board, or regular e-mail keeps people thinking about and implementing these things. Having the occasional break from normal duties to explicitly share experiences might build trust and connections that weren’t there before.
  • Ask people if they’re thinking about these ideas. Plant the seed if they aren’t, recommend resources and offer to help if they are.

What stories can you tell and what ideas would you add for getting and staying “in the zone”?

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