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Posted on: Saturday, February 27, 2010

During the development of Crux I was in the flow or as many would say, I was in the zone. focused and getting things done.  I was productive.

Being in the flow is an amazing feeling. You are working with one sighted focus. Without worrying about other problems of your life. You are consumed with a problem and you are in a state of mind where answers are flowing through you without a lot of conscious effort. You are learning effortlessly, you are stumbling across answers, you are productive and you are getting things done fast.

But then, there is another flow or zone that is often not discussed or talked about. Here is what that zone looks like:

You have a late night status call hangover, you struggle to reach office during mid-afternoon only to find a truckload of emails in your inbox. You browse them, give a reply to a few of them.

Very soon your phone starts ringing. It is the calls again. A couple of development teams want your time.

You promised Jack you will sit down with him, review that application he has been working on and give him ideas. A couple of developers are fighting over a stupid issue and you need to take them in a room and talk.

Time is flying again. You are busy. You are doing things which 'seem' important. You are juggling tasks, you are talking, you are supposedly giving a direction to the team and you are managing human beings. It feels like you are in the zone again.

There is only one problem however - you are getting nothing done.

You, dear reader, are in the zone of nothingness.

In fact, the zone of nothingness is not just a manager thing. It impacts programmers as much as it impacts managers. What Joel Spolsky describes in his article on fire and motion is a classic example of someone being in the zone of nothingness. Joel explains:

Sometimes I just can't get anything done.

Sure, I come into the office, putter around, check my email every ten seconds, read the web, even do a few brainless tasks like paying the American Express bill. But getting back into the flow of writing code just doesn't happen.

These bouts of unproductiveness usually last for a day or two. But there have been times in my career as a developer when I went for weeks at a time without being able to get anything done. As they say, I'm not in flow. I'm not in the zone. I'm not anywhere.

The scary thing about this zone of nothingness however, is that much like the flow of productivity, even here, time flies faster than you think it does. There have been times in my life where I have snapped out of something that looks like flow, only to realize that I have wasted weeks and have been able to get nothing done.  As of today, If there is one thing that scares the heck out of me and depresses me more than anything else, it is the zone of nothingness.

Having said that, every now and then, even today, I see countless developers get stuck in the zone of nothingness and then desperately hoping and relying on their organizations to get them out of it.

If you are a young and budding developers or a manager, relying on your organization to keep you out of the zone of nothingness, chances are, that more often than not, you will be disappointed. If you are serious about not letting those hours whine away only to leave you with a weird guilt and hangover later, might I suggest that every time you find yourself in the zone of nothingness start by making your life as difficult as you can. You can start by:

  1. Committing to speak at a local developer conference that might be getting organized in your area next week or consider announcing that you will be conducting a training at your office.
  2. Committing to an open source project or a personal project like writing a book or a specific number of blog-posts a week and announcing this commitment live publicly. 
  3. Committing to organizing a community event and publishing the event date live.

There are countless other ways to shake yourself out of the zone of nothingness but the key here is to build an environment around you where you cannot help but jerk yourself out of the zone of nothingness.  A public announcement or promise of getting something done where you ego is at stake often does wonders at shaking you out of the zone of nothingness.

Next time you find yourself doing nothing and weeks are flying by, go ahead and make a public commitment of getting something done. Go put yourself on the spot. Chances are that you might be able to shake yourself out of the zone of nothingness and experience the amazing productive flow again.

I wish you good luck.