The Stack Overflow Podcast

How to defend your attention and find a flow state

Episode Summary

This week we chat about the forces vying for your attention and how developers can fight back against distractions and get into more productive, focused flow states.

Episode Notes

The inspiration for today's episode was a terrific article from The Guardian about the many ways in which the modern world, specifically the software we use every day, was designed to steal our attention. 

During the episode, we discuss Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor know as the "father of flow" for his  pioneering research on flow states. Sadly, Prof. Csikszentmihalyi passed away in 2021, but you can find a terrific  tribute to him and his work here.

In the second half of the episode, we discuss "The California Ideology" and the ways in which hustle culture and libertarian ideals helped to shape Silicon Valley and the world of technology more broadly.

Congrats to our lifeboat badge winner of the week, UrbanoJVR, who answered the question: What is the difference between 'mvn verify' vs 'mvn test'?

Episode Transcription

Cassidy Williams They talked to this professor, who was the first scientist to study flow states and research them for more than 40 years, and talked about how there are three key factors which you need to get into a flow state of thinking on things. And so first, you need to choose a single goal. Flow takes all of your mental energy, and it's deployed deliberately in one direction, not like saying, oh, I'll try to do a couple things at once. Secondly, the goal needs to be meaningful to you, you can't flow into a goal that you don't care about, it has to be something that you actually care to complete. And then third, it helps if you're doing something that is at the edge of your abilities. So like, if you're rock climbing, it's a slightly higher or more difficult rock to grab, if it's just slightly, slightly difficult and kind of forces you to think. And I thought that particular section of the article is interesting, because it reminds me of when you start working on a coding problem that is particularly difficult, and suddenly you're just like, ooh, I'm just gonna get in on this and you are lookup and it's three hours later, but you solved a coding problem.

[intro music]

Ben Popper Hello everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, full team edition, Home Team Edition. This is our first session back in the new year 2022. Hello, everybody. 

Ryan Donovan Woop woop!

Cassidy Williams Hello!

CF Hi!

BP I am Ben Popper. I'm the director of content here at Stack Overflow. I'm joined as I often am by Cassidy and Ceora and Ryan. And today, we have a very fun article, maybe not so fun, we have an interesting article, I think all of us feel we can relate to. Ryan, you shared this link, you want to cue it up?

RD So it is about how we've sort of created this world that has stolen our attention. It's not just a lack of discipline, where we're, you know, getting every notification checking our phones, it's the whole world around us that ruins us. And I thought that was interesting, done a little research on attention. Some friends of mine have done some research on it, too. So it's very much in the problem space that I'm thinking about.

BP So you mean not just the things that I kind of associated with attention, which is like, oh, I'm watching 75 ten second TikToks in a row. And then TikTok tells me like, you should probably take a break. But also like the Netflix's of the world, and I do, there's like a famous quote from Reed Hastings. He was like our biggest competitor is sleep. Like when people go to sleep, they can't watch Netflix. So like, we're just here for your attention, as much of your attention as you'll give us.

RD I think one of the defining moments of the article was when he's at Graceland with his nephew?

CW Godson or something.

RD Yeah. And there's somebody next to him looking at this iPad tour thing. And they're like, oh, wow, you can if you move the iPad left, you can look at the left part of the jungle room, if you move right through the jungle room, and he leans over and he's like, you're in the jungle room. You can just look up at the jungle room.

BP They're in the metaverse, man, why do they need to be in the real world?

CF Was the article saying like, there's things other than like handheld technology, and like laptops and stuff like that, that are taking our attention, because I've always been under the impression that it's technology that's totally ruined everyone's ability to really pay attention and focus, like, maybe we used to be able to?

CW We're living in a world that is designed to take our focus, and everybody is competing for our focus. And that was the main premise. And there was a point where the author spoke with this doctor and was like, okay, if you were to design some kind of worlds that was meant to like degrade the brain and take everybody's focus, what would you do?And he was just like, we're doing it now I wouldn't have to design anything, because that's what's going on right now. And so the author at one point took some sabbatical trip, like a three months trip to Providence, Rhode Island, wasn't able to use any phones, or laptops or electronics or anything, and experienced actual withdrawal at first, but then over time, felt his focus get better and was able to write more and think more and actually focus on things more. It was really, really interesting. And they talked to this professor, who was the first scientist to study flow states and research them for more than 40 years, and talked about how there are three key factors which you need to get into a flow state of thinking on things. And so first, you need to choose a single goal. Flow takes all of your mental energy and it's deployed deliberately in one direction, not like saying, oh, I'll try to do a couple things at once. Secondly, the goal needs to be meaningful to you, you can't flow into a goal that you don't care about. It has to be something that you actually care to complete. And then third, it helps if you're doing something that is at the edge of your abilities. So like If you're rock climbing, it's a slightly higher or more difficult rock to grab.  If it's just slightly, slightly difficult and kind of forces you to think. And I thought that particular section of the article is interesting, because it reminds me of when you start working on a coding problem that is particularly difficult. And suddenly, you're just like, ooh, I'm just gonna get in on this. And you look up, and it's three hours later, but you solved a coding problem.

RD The whole flow state thing, I think one of the people he talked to Google engineer, talked about it as more of a systemic issue is like, the food, the sleep, the stress, those are all things that wear down your ability to have attention. So you're not able to kind of tune out the billboards on the highway or whatever.

BP I mean, another thing that I think has really changed, our ability to focus in is that we live in a world of like continuous news and opinion that's updating every five minutes. And so 100 years ago, my grandfather was my age, like the newspaper came out twice a day, there was three TV stations, and there was radio or whatever. But now it's like, what any conceivable minute, I should probably check Twitter to see if something new happened, because it might have happened somewhere in the world. And that it's pretty difficult to square that with like, I'm going to take three hours to just focus now. But yeah, there's a lot of value, I think lost when people don't go into those flow states, where they're struggling with a problem. And this is something actually we talked about on like a really early episode with Paul and Sara, the difference between distress and use stress and use stress is like when you're like, I'm working on a problem, but I feel I can solve it. And so it's kind of anxiety provoking, but it's also kind of like, there's a positive emotion of like, when I get through this, there's going to be a payoff. Or if you do get through it, there's a big payoff. And so you know, three hours of coding, and then coming up with something that works is very rewarding.

CF I always think about as an individual, how can I offset this, because I don't really have the ability at this point to just go to the middle of nowhere, and like, I'm going to lock my phone in like a safe, and not check the internet ever. Like I don't have the ability to do that. And at this point, I think we've all kind of created a certain level of dependency on the internet, probably even social media to a certain degree as well. So I always wonder how can I offset that in a way that's healthy, but also like realistic. And then too, another thing I think about is the fact that I think this whole focus thing. Of course, there are factors out of our control, like for instance, if you do have ADHD or other neuro-divergences, that like, make it already harder for you to focus. But I wonder, as people who work in a field that requires you to solve problems that can be difficult and require a lot of mental energy, I feel like this is a problem that really affects us in tech. But one thing I think, for instance, like very early on in the tech journey, for some people, I think learning how to code can be so difficult, because it does require you to take the time to like, sometimes take an hour, two hours, three hours to like finish a project or solve a problem or whatever. And sometimes if you don't get that time in in the beginning, it can like offset your progress in learning to code or starting a career in tech altogether. Like how do you feel like this impacts us as engineers or us as people in tech? And then also how can we offset the impact to like an unhealthy and realistic way? I'm interested in hearing people's opinion for the audience and also for myself.

RD I mean, I think the way our working lives in tech are structured, is designed to steal attention, Right? Emails and chat programs, you know, you don't have the in person shoulder taps as much anymore, but it's a constant stream of red dots and applications.

BP Meanwhile, your phone is pushing through like seven notifications about the weather and the stocks and a new show that has a new episode.

RD Which is constantly context switching, which steals that from you.

CW I personally, got rid of certain social media apps on my phone, just because I found myself looking at them too much and disabled most notifications. And then also on my home screen, I have the screentime widget that comes built into iPhone. And so if I see that my screen time is getting to be like, more than three hours a day. That's when I'm just what if I opened my phone and see that I'm like, maybe I should stop. And so that is why I attempted a habit to try to look at my phone less but we'll see how that goes.

BP I wonder if we're like the generation that was around when social media quote unquote, sort of hit the scene. And now we're sort of coming to grips with like, it's like externalities, you know, like, oh, like burning coal works really well, but also it makes the air really polluted. And like, social media is super fun, and a great way to meet people but it's also kind of like addictive and can have negative emotional or you know attentional effects. And so I guess I'm really curious about like, people who come behind us and what their take on social media will be. Like a teenager now who goes in kind of knows from articles and other things like that Instagram could be bad. Like, it's good, it's fun, but it also could be bad. Like, when I first got Facebook in college, we were just like, what is this thing? You know, we don't know what this is. And then, you know, it kind of swept over us. I wonder if people are gonna, like, go into it more eyes wide open. And then yeah, like, you know, we're just saying, like, figure out ways to preserve some attention or some privacy.

CF I can speak to that a little bit, I think. I have a sister, she's 16. And I've been on certain sides of the internet, where there are like younger people, not like in a weird way. [Cassidy laughs]

CW I get down with the youths. [Ceora laughs]

BP Ceora, I mean, you're significantly younger than Ryan and I are too. So when I say like my generation--

CF Yeah, I'm technically like, I'm early Gen Z. So I feel like I'm a part of the Gen Z generation, where I still remember what it was like before social media and stuff like that. But there are, there are a lot who don't, who don't remember what it was like before social media. And so I actually think that because you grew up at this point, there are kids who were iPad kids who are now like teenagers. 

BP Alright, let's move on to another one of our topics. So I saw a tweet that I thought was pretty interesting. And it led me to an article. So again, if you have not read this essay from 1995, you're not equipped to understand the world we have built and are still building. And I guess the thing to me that was interesting about this, which ties in some of the stuff we were just talking about, is a place where exuberant optimism and techno futurism is kind of almost like a religion, and being at the forefront of like, you know, sort of prophesizing what's going to happen or talking about what technology will how it will improve the world turns you into sort of a celebrity almost, I mean, sometimes you have to back that up with real technical progress. But for a long time, thanks to Moore's law, California was a place that like was able to make good on those promises, you know? And I think like, the other side of the coin, there is something like Theranos, right, when Elizabeth Holmes was just convicted, you know, she wanted to create something great. I'm not inside of her mind, I don't know. Like, how much of it is like, she's a sociopath. And how much of it is like, she just wanted to like, sort of fake it till you make it. But you know, she got all the way to a $10 billion company and laboratories, and Walmart's around, you know, different states taking people's blood with something that didn't work at all. It didn't, it did not function in the slightest, you know, so you can be on the cover of Fortune and be worth $10 billion in California, if you just like believe in the dream enough, and wear a black turtleneck like Steve Jobs and like, go into the room and talk to the investors. Like I'm going to change the world.

CW Ben is literally dressed like Steve Jobs.

BP That's not my fault, I'm just a bald guy with glasses. Whenever I wear a black turtleneck, this happens. Yeah, Ryan, as someone who grew up there, I'd like to get your take on this. And also, I feel like, I don't want to, like take us too far in the conversation. But I also feel like maybe Silicon Valley is like becoming less the center of gravity these days, or I don't know like something about that seems to have changed to me over the last five years. 

RD So the world that grew up in San Francisco was very much counterculture world, with like early hustled culture. It was outlaws and people who were there for freedom and ex-hippies. They were like, do your thing, man. And sometimes their thing was like, trying to sell this this high chair that maybe they didn't believe in or designing little electronic thing for boats. But other times it was, you know, ex-Green Berets smuggling cocaine and a crankcase of their motorcycle, right? Like it was this free-for-all culture. And I think the tech industry being a brand new industry was free-for-all and invited these outlaws and freedom thinkers. And people who are just like, didn't fit anywhere else. They could build their own world with computers. 

CF Never thought about it like that. 

RD There is a huge amount of libertarianism and a lot of that libertarianism grows out of a lot of the counterculture stuff. Yeah, I think people were less interested in money back then. But the new libertarianism is definitely like some money involved.

BP Where this intersects was sort of the developer world is that venture capital and software developers, hustle culture and like, you know, dream big. That is kind of the stuff that defines so much of first 1990 to the .com bust, although that wasn't all necessarily in Silicon Valley, but then definitely from like, 2000 on, you know, the Google, the YouTube, the Facebook, the Twitter, like, it just felt like the center of the world was Silicon Valley and this mixture of people who wrote code and could build the stuff and people who would give money. And then those products became global in a way that even you know, in the .com days, it wasn't like, you know, we got to a scale of 3 billion people a day use Facebook, that's just like new, you know, just we never had it before. And so they kind of shaped the world in a big way. Now, it feels like we're in a backlash against that, in a way. Like, people are a bit turned off by social media by all the data harvesting and privacy invasion. Well, at least web people seem into the idea. I don't know everybody, but like moving back towards decentralization. And maybe smaller communities.

RD I think that's the rise again of the techno utopianism. Where you're like decentralization will be the thing that saves us, after all these other things did not save us. There's still a utopian ideal. And when each Utopia fails, you're like, well, we didn't have this one thing. That's the one thing we needed to make it a real utopia.

CF I think what we're seeing happening too, is kind of like what we were talking about with social media, how like, at first, it was just new, and nobody knew what it really was, or what the implications of it would be. And we're at a point now, where social media has been around long enough for us to see like, this has been bad for people and society in general, and a lot of ways, although there are some legitimate benefits. And I think we're seeing the same thing in general with like, just tech as a whole. A lot of these tech companies and the products they produce have been really helpful. But like you said, like the privacy issues, the data breaches, all that kind of stuff has like, we're seeing the implications of that now. And it's like, kind of yucky. I think a lot of people are like, this part of the whole ecosystem is not what we wanted. How do we change that? And like, I think that kind of hopefulness is admirable. And I do understand, like, why people want to grab for the decentralized web thing, and why that seems like it would work. I hope that it will. But I do think there are some things that I've seen about that whole side of things that make me kind of like, I don't know, if this is just like a, like a utopia they were just dreaming of, or if this is how it's actually going to play out, especially when you add the finance thing into into the mix as well. Because like you said before, yeah, the old decentralized web wasn't as focused on money as the new decentralized web is.

BP Yeah, I saw a very funny thing the other day that was like, I'm old enough to remember when the web was decentralized, because it was just like a bunch of universities. Like, it was like, it wasn't all, you know, one big node, you know, it wasn't so long ago. That's like, the whole reason we built the web, right was to like survive the nuclear attack, because it was all decentralized. But Cassidy, I'd like to get your thoughts on this. I guess, like, yeah, when I think back to like, the Intel days, and you know, the rise of, you know, big tech companies and stuff. It didn't feel like there was a backlash internally, maybe with Microsoft, there are people who like thought it got too big, and it becomes a monopoly. But like, the people who leave, they become whistleblowers, that, to me feels new, like the industry sort of turning around on itself. And people sort of saying, like, we don't want to build this kind of thing anymore. Like I don't feel comfortable with what I'm building that, to me, seems new. And that was what I thought was interesting about this story, it was like so much of what we have right now, I'm talking to you on an, you know, an Apple laptop and a Google browser. And, you know, like, my whole life is like, run through a couple of companies out of Silicon Valley. But you know, maybe that ideology in some way has like, reached some of its limits, sort of?

CW I think the ideologies were there. And then people were just like, Okay, well, now we have to win, and keeping people's attention and keep people around and stuff. And this ties back to the original article too, where there are companies out there probably most social media companies that track your scrolling speed. That's something that's so minor, but they tailor your feeds to how fast you scroll past certain posts. And so suddenly, you're seeing things that you were more slowly looking at. And you're just like, oh, well, that's weird. I guess this is interesting. And there you go. And everybody is trying to compete for your time. And I think it's far past these ideologies of changing the world now. It's just a, how can we win by keeping as many people in our circle in our pot, right?

BP Yeah. And I'm going to bring it all to a close because you brought it back your attention. One thing that is really funny, this is such a devious company store tactic. So my wife quit social media as like a New Year's resolution, she decided she was done and the thing that drove her off was she kept getting ads for ADHD help, sort of like, oh, like you've created the problem, now you're showing me all these ADHD products? Because it's like, well, obviously I have it like, you know, I have it. You see me scrolling here. So I thought that was a funny little thing that was like the straw that broke the camel's back. Yeah. 

CF Ugh.

BP I thought that would be funnier. But I guess it's just depressing. [Ceora laughs]

CW Thanks, Ben.

CF I also never thought of it in the way that you described Cassidy at this point, like it started out maybe it's something good, but now it's like, what's the dirtiest way we can like keep everyone's attention, ethics aside, what can we do to keep you using our app or our whatever longer than everyone else? 

BP Alright, I'm going to share a few fun links as we head out. These came from the Glitch Year in Review, I thought they're very good. This is P5, which, if you're ever interested in creating motion graphics, or animations and stuff for web, this is a series of really beautiful and well done demos you can check out we'll teach you about P5JS. And then this one is pretty brilliant. Generative Art. It is a British food name generator, and you click it and it tells you the name of a made up British food and the made up ingredients and it is very, I find it very believable. And I even ran it by a British person and they said, true.

CW I was going to say, there's no way--[Ceora laughs]

BP They seem too true, right?


BP Alright y'all, it is that time of the show? I will shout out the winner of a lifeboat badge. Thank you to urbano JVR award at 10 hours ago for coming on here and helping to answer a question. Save it from the dustbin of obscurity. 'What is the difference between MVN verify vs MVN test?' We can tell you the answer. If you like, we'll put it in the show notes. I am Ben Popper. I'm the director of content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper. Although I tend to use social media a lot less than I used to. But you can also email us podcast@StackOverflow. And I will try to respond to those. We don't get so many of these days that it can't be one on one. Maybe someday we will. But these days, if you write to that email address, I will respond to you. And if you like the show, leave us a rating and a review. It really helps.

RD I'm Ryan Donovan, I edit the blog here at Stack Overflow. I am actually on Twitter @RThorDonovan. And if you have a great idea for blog posts, email me at

CF I'm Ceora Ford. I'm a developer advocate at Apollo GraphQL. Hopefully this year I'll get to the point where I won't be on social media as much, but if you're interested in seeing me outside of the podcast, I spend way too much time on Twitter. My username there is @ceeoreo_.

BP My name is Cassidy Williams. I have a new job! Head of developer experience and education at Remote. And you can find me @cassidoo on most things.

BP Very cool. Cassidy, what is Remote?

CW Remote is a way to hire people anywhere in the world. And it handles legal stuff. It handles payroll, it handles all kinds of cool things. And I'm going to be working with them on building out education for low income communities and people who don't have access to certain tools to be able to get into the tech industry and get remote jobs. 

CF Nice! Exciting!

BP Well we'll have to talk more about that in a future episode. Sounds interesting. Alright everybody. Thanks for listening and we'll talk to you soon. 

CF Bye!

[outro music]