How always-on work is killing your flow and what designer managers can do about it

What if we got better at actively guiding our teams into flow, rather than just hoping it happens?

Long exposure photograph with a dancer in motion on a black background
Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Designers need to be able to jump into a creative flow state at a moment’s notice. And yet, design managers rarely measure their success in terms of how well their teams are able to get into flow. This needs to change. Here are three simple prompts design managers can bring to their teams to optimize flow.

When was the last time you truly felt like your design teams were in flow? That I forgot everything aside from this one task and lost track of time kind of flow. I’d take a guess that it’s not as often as you (or your team) would like. You’re not alone. According to the UX Collective’s 2022 State of UX, designers are reporting finding it harder than ever to find time to effectively create, collaborate and innovate. We’ve got the seat at the table, the frameworks, the tools, the habit/productivity/creativity resources, and the past decades of design expertise to build on top of.

So what gives?

Let’s take a small step back and talk about why this whole flow thing is such a big deal, maybe even a bigger deal than that latest TikTok choreo and one-pot pasta recipe (though it could be open for debate). Research tells us that people in flow are 500% more productive than those who aren’t. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who named the concept and wrote about it in his book Flow, went so far as to say that people are happiest when they’re in flow. So not only is flow critical for creative pursuits, it’s critical to our team’s happiness as well.

As managers, we applaud our teams on their ability to balance multiple contexts, to jump seamlessly between meetings and focus time. But I’m not sure we’re doing enough to actually help them take advantage of that elusive focus time in the first place.

What if we got better at actively guiding our teams into flow, rather than just hoping it happens amidst the many things competing for their attention?

There are two critical moments to be aware of as a manager trying to get your team into flow with less friction: 1) the moment designers decide to get started and 2) the moment they decide to get unstuck and get back into flow once they’ve slipped out of it.

The 2022 State of UX concludes with a call to action for designers to reset and rebuild their craft. So here’s my call to action for design managers: start talking to your team about how they get into flow.

We’ve started having these conversations on the Trello design team and it’s already opening up a healthy debate about how we maintain our seat at the table while taking the space to cultivate our creativity. These questions can be quite personal so I spoke with leaders across a number of different industries — from product design to fashion design and accounting to the arts — to find inspiration for prompts that anyone can use to nudge their teams into flow.

Here are three simple prompts you can try out with your team today:

1. What trigger helps you get into flow state? 🎶

There are a lot of great thought pieces and research studies out there on how to prepare our minds for flow state. Music plays a big role in many of them. Sam Jones, co-founder and co-designer of POL Clothing, turns to music that relates to the flow state she’s trying to prepare for, like turning on classical music to get motivated to take a ballet class. When she was growing her business and designing from home, she used a different trigger — dressing up and putting on a dash of lipstick—to overcome the hesitation of getting started and facing the fear of failure. POL Clothing is now stocked in over 150 boutiques across Australia and New Zealand.

On the Trello design team, we have a fun practice of sharing what we’re listening to every “Wednesjamsday”. In our design review sessions, the facilitator will play music as people review a design file and leave comments. It’s now a common practice for our managers and designers alike to play from our team’s shared playlists during workshops and shared design sessions.

Spotify advertisement with the tagline “Listening is everything” on a green background on the left and an example of a collaborative playlist titled “Feel Good Vibes” on the right.
Spotify and other streaming services offer collaborative playlists to collect your team’s favorite flow music

Find what works for your team, whether that’s playing the same song on a given week to signal that it’s “flow time” or simply sharing a calendar reminder for everyone to turn on their favorite jams at the same time. If tunes aren’t your team’s thing, encourage people to share a physical object (hello, red lipstick) or action (getting up to stretch) that they can use as their prompt to get into flow.

2. What type of inspiration do you need? 💡

One of the hardest parts about helping our design teams create more effectively is helping them feel creative within a set of constraints. Now, constraints are actually a core part of creativity; however, when your design team is dealing with a huge number of constraints combined with mental and physical clutter, their minds can go from feeling focused to feeling like they’re in an episode of Kitchen Nightmares.

One way that world-famous design teams deal with this is by curating their physical and mental spaces to ensure that inspiration is close at hand. Apple did this with its impressively designed studio at Apple Park, which curates spaces for its team to both collaborate and focus. Atlassian’s Head of Product Design, Charlie Sutton, similarly feels his most creative when he’s curating and organizing inspiration he gets from Substack, Twitter, and even the latest memes.

On the Trello design team, we saw an increase in our team’s motivation at work when we intentionally curated our focus for the week. (In fact, my team recently stopped doing this and our motivation dipped so we’re back to trying it again!) Having these clear intentions for the week ensures that, when we have focus time set aside, we’re not wasting time thinking about what to get started on.

Three screenshots on a purple background. On the left is the front of a Trello card titled “Weekly goal tracking” with the image of a pen and a notebook titled “Goals”. In the middle is the back of that card with a description that says “What’s your main goal for the week“ and and checklist titled “June 27” that is 93% complete. On the right is a Slack message from Stu Smith that reads “Monday Standup!: What’s your weather report for the week? and What are the main areas you’re focused on?”
Examples of our intention-setting practices in Trello, with the latest iteration from Stu Smith

Have your team find the things that inspire them, group them into themes (e.g. inspo for design strategy, for writing, for research analysis, etc) and make sure they’re easily accessible in their workspace. When your team is about to sit down for design pairing or individual focus time, ask them to define the theme or intention of that time and find one thing that inspires them related to that. If they get stuck, simply encourage them to ask their teammates to share what’s inspiring them at that moment and try again.

3. What are your strengths & growth areas related to this work? 💪

Getting into flow can feel really uncomfortable. That’s when you know you’re stretching the bounds of what you think you can do. But that doesn’t make it easy. Accountant Fionie Lau returned to her after-work hobby, ballet, after maternity leave and realized that she was holding herself to the standards of where she was before her leave, which wasn’t practical or productive. In the ballet studio, she turned this around by refocusing her efforts on steps that she could do comfortably before building up to more complex routines. Along the way, she shifted her mindset from “I’m not improving quickly enough” to “I’m just here to enjoy growing and progressing”.

A photograph of ballerinas posing on stage, backlit so their faces are hidden in the shadows against a blue backdrop.
Fionie performing with the adult ballet class in Danceworks Sydney’s annual concert

This is such an important lesson to carry back to your teams. If you notice someone struggling to sit through a productive flow session, try stripping things back to basics. Can they try focusing on something for just 2 minutes, then 5 minutes? Is there another task that they can do more easily to remember what that feeling of flow and getting sh*t done is like? Set a deadline for the comfy and the un-comfy work while doing this, so the pace of work keeps moving while your team’s confidence also gets a lift.

These prompts (what trigger helps you get into flow state?, what type of inspiration do you need? and what are your strengths and growth areas related to this work?) are just the tip of the iceberg of ideas to take back to your team. These are things that worked well for the leaders I spoke with and my design team but who knows where we’ll be in another few months or a year. Habits should evolve just as people and the design craft evolve, a note of wisdom from my friend, creative expert and former design colleague tash keuneman.

Remember that getting into flow, especially as a team, can be a tricky practice to maintain. But as with learning any practice, you will eventually find ways to trust more in your team’s process of getting into flow (and all of its bumpy moments).

What I encourage our manager community to think about as a next step is how we might evaluate “being in flow” as a measure of our success as design leaders. It’s time to stop putting flow aside as a thing that “just happens” and time to start enabling this as a practice for design teams everywhere.

What have you found that helps you or your teams get back into flow? Share in the comments below!

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