As programmers, the zone is something we are all aware of but something that we rarely explore. Yet we’ve all been there – totally focused and producing the best work we could have hoped for.
To some, the zone is seen as some kind of rare Zen state. Some think it’s a myth that doesn’t actually exist. Either way, it’s understandable that there are so many different opinions; it’s not an easy thing to objectively discuss.
But, what the hell – here’s what I think.
In actual fact, the zone is nothing to do with programming – though it is a term that’s used much more often in this context. Being in the zone is just a condensed version of:
Having a good understanding of the task
Feeling as though you have the dedication and skill to complete the task
Being able to concentrate
Feeling happy in yourself and your environment
These are not simple states; being able to concentrate might be a combination of a quiet atmosphere and a good music playlist, or perhaps a tidy desk and no interruptions. There are lots of subjective elements of each of these states, but none of them are inherently difficult to achieve.
If you understand exactly what you need to do, know how to do it, know that you actually want to do it and can remain focused, the zone comes quite naturally.
But I think we can simplify this into something more fundamental.
Back in college, I did not like mathematics at all. I enjoyed the application of concepts rooted in mathematics, but the study of abstract things on their own totally disengaged me. But don’t worry, I wasn’t a total failure – I did well in other subjects, and it’s no coincidence I enjoyed them more.
Enjoyment has wonderful side effects. It’s much easier to focus on something you enjoy. It also requires much less effort to develop skills in subjects you enjoy; they sometimes even appear to develop transparently. And fairly obviously, it’s easier to achieve happiness through doing things you enjoy.
This is nothing new:
Success in highest and noblest form calls for peace of mind and enjoyment and happiness which comes only to the man who has found the work he likes best.
– Napoleon Hill
If we are lucky enough to be working on something we enjoy, the points above all become side effects of the fact that we’re enjoying ourselves. If we’re struggling to find the zone, we should look for opportunities to make what we’re doing more interesting. This will improve the chances of being able to focus and finding the required inspiration.
If we don’t enjoy what we’re doing, it’s unlikely we’ll find the zone without a good amount of self discipline. Maintaining focus and dedication, and building understanding without the catalyst of enjoyment is the reason people tend to do worse at things they hate and better at things they love.
There isn’t just one zone, there are many zones each competing for our attention. It’s not a coincidence that those who can’t get into the zone are telling us about it on Twitter. In fact, they have found the zone. They’re in the zone of socialising, which is a pretty easy zone to get into since it’s very enjoyable, but is it the zone you want to be in?
The zone is not some unachievable state of Zen, reserved only for the enlightened ones. You don’t need to sit with your legs crossed, humming, waiting for it to bless you with the ability to do awesome things – you already have that ability.
The zone is just a fancy-ass way of describing the required focus and dedication you need to do something to the best of your ability. When you enjoy what you’re doing, these things happen much more naturally. When you don’t, you need to compensate with discipline, and your mileage certainly may vary.
The zone isn’t random and it isn’t a myth – you can create it as often as you like.