Building feedback loops for finding flow in serious work

“Inspiration arrives at surprising times, but it prefers to find you working,” Picasso reportedly said. As someone who aspires to develop my self and my skills, and to make the world a better, more just place, I like to think about working in many different ways.

One of the ways I’m thinking about work is this: building feedback loops to optimize for the conditions conducive to entering a state of flow may be a powerful enabler for competing in competitive endeavors.

“Serious Work” seems like a category in and of itself. While reading the wonderful book Checklist Manifesto, I was struck by the difference between my aspirational checklists (20 things I try to do each morning before leaving the house) and the checklists used in building construction or surgery. My aspirational checklists are really helpful, but it’s not the end of the world if I fail to check of some or many of the items on them in a given day. The same cannot be said about the checklists used at construction sites for complex real-world structures.

This morning when reading about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to China where he used language from the Chinese government that observers say suggested a new willingness to concede to Chinese aspirations of expanded regional dominance, and he said that US media visibility into his trip wasn’t something he needed to accomplish his mission – I thought, “there’s a man I’d like to see using a different checklist for this very serious work.”

Much of our work probably falls somewhere in the middle of the continuum between construction or imperial statecraft on one hand and my morning to-dos that include filling the bird feeders and doing push-ups. Even where our work might not fall into the category of Serious Work, though, I think that inspiration can be drawn from that kind of effort.  I want to be as effective as possible, both at work work and in my work outside of work.

Serious work is competitive and competition requires that winners enter into a state of Flow, at least some of the time. I listened to a wonderful podcast recently, which I’m unfortunately unable to find a link to, about the conditions most conducive to entering a state of flow. I took note of those conditions though: attention, risk, and embodied intelligence.

I’d like to introduce a third concept to this discussion (after Serious Work and Flow) and that’s feedback loops.

“Feedback loops are important for building good systems because they allow you to keep track of many different pieces without feeling the pressure to predict what is going to happen with everything,” wrote James Clear in a recent blog post. “Forget about predicting the future and build a system that can signal when you need to make adjustments.”

I would argue that keeping track of all the factors involved in doing serious work falls outside of a flow state and more into an administrative state. Administering checklists is a great way to do this, and monitoring those and other feedback loops at designated times allows you to focus on entering into a flow state during other times.

So in order to be competitive in a serious work environment, it’s good to use feedback loops that provide infrastructure for consistently entering a flow state.

A feedback loop for how often you’re creating the supporting conditions for a flow state is an exciting idea.

For the past month, I’ve been doing daily and weekly check-ins on four tactics. I just revised the list for the coming weeks and it’s now: meditation, book reading, keeping a log of execution-oriented tasks I’ve completed in a day, and Pomodoros. Those are tactics that help create attention, risk, and embodied intelligence – especially if I can keep a steady routine of exercise going. (Which I struggle with.)

Right now I’m using one page in a BlankieBook for logging each day’s book reading, execution tasks, etc. and then reviewing each Sunday.

I would argue that managing these feedback loops becomes a light form of Serious Work itself. I don’t want to screw it up. If I stumble in recording my efforts to create conditions conducive to flow, or doing weekly check-ins on my logs from the week, then I may just fall off the wagon entirely. As such, these feedback loops require both Flow and feedback loops on feedback loops. Getting into a flow state around tracking and revising behavior based on feedback loops helps imbue that work with a sense of inherent meaning.

Finally, this ends up feeling like a nested pattern of serious work needing flow, which needs feedback loops, those feedback loops being serious work, that serious work needing flow, and that flow being supported by the aforementioned feedback loops. Feedback loops on the conditions conducive to flow can be serious work. And that’s a process I’m excited to explore. Towards no specific goals.

“Inspiration arrives at unexpected times, but it prefers to find you working.”