The Importance of Flow in Software Development

(based on [GR17c])

From social and psychological theories and studies [Csi97], we know that there exists a mental state called “flow” that allows individuals to concentrate deeply on a specific task without noticing the surrounding environment or the time, while remaining fully aware of the current work that they are doing.

In a recent TV broadcast about cognitive brain function, several illustrative examples were given, such as a free climber who says that he is at peak performance when he completely forgets about the world and the danger associated with the climb, but fully concentrates on the rocks and all the next moves he is planning to make. It was also shown that the world record holders in speed tasks, such as stacking cubes or solving Rubic’s Cube, do not use their cerebrum very intensively when executing the speed task. Only a small, but obviously efficient, part of the brain is concentrating on the task to be executed. Similar examples can be found among athletes and musicians who may occasionally get into a “groove” where performance and concentration reach a peak level.

Software developers that fully concentrate on their work also report this kind of flow, where only the relevant parts of the brain are focused on the core task. We can argue that software development is more complex and probably involves more parts of the brain than speed stacking, but it also seems that software development becomes more productive when the developer has the ability to reach flow for a large part of his or her working time.

This ability to reach and sustain flow depends partially on the developer’s own circumstances; for example, whether they get enough sleep, have little to no stress at home, and lead a safe and enjoyable life. To a large extent, this ability also depends on the concrete working circumstances. Is the room quiet? Can the developers work on their own for a long time without disturbances by phones, emails, or background noise in the room? It is also important that the developer is in a constant state of focus while thinking of the important issues that enable him or her to execute their task. In the software development context, it is helpful if the tooling aids productivity and does not slow down the focus time (e.g., compilation time should not take long). Agile development methods have the potential to capitalize on the opportunity of software developers to get into the flow and provide continuous improvement to the system they are developing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also argues that the flow is very helpful to engage in creative discovery of new ideas and inventions [1]. Software development can benefit from flow because the need to identify an optimal architecture and the best structure for object interactions can be a creative activity.

Agile development methods also thrive from early and immediate feedback: The software should always be able to compile and to run the associated tests. To remain in the flow, it is helpful that compilation and test executions are quick, because otherwise developers may become distracted by the temptation to read emails, go for the next coffee, take an early lunch, or engage another co-worker in a conversation. Software development tools are vitally important for productive development and keeping developers in the flow zone.

When considering the current state of tooling for model-based software development (compared to just coding), an opportunity exists for new capabilities that help developers achieve flow. Currently, many tools are able to help with creating and editing large models, perform partial consistency checks, and generate code for multiple platforms. But in comparison with the available tooling for traditional general purpose programming languages, there is still a large gap in tool capabilities. Models are often interacted with in a monolithic form, i.e., all models are processed in batch each time a code generation request is started. The time it takes to perform code generation and model checking may cause a disruption in the flow. If a code generation process (for a large industrial model, or a set of models within the project) takes longer than drinking a cup of coffee, software developers that use model-based techniques may lose their flow of concentration. They will not get the same feeling of satisfaction that would result from a better transition across the tool usage, which may hamper productivity when delays emerge. We hope that modeling tools will improve the opportunity for developers to achieve flow through improved tool implementation, but also by better modeling languages that enhance modularity and incremental compilation.


  1. Software developers greatly benefit from automation, which keeps them in flow.
  2. Development tools must assist developers with comfort and efficiency and completely automate tedious jobs.

This essay is essentially taken from a SoSyM editorial, which is published under the Creative Commons licence and contains some updates:

  1. [GR17c]
    J. Gray, B. Rumpe:
    In: Journal Software and Systems Modeling (SoSyM), Volume 16(4), pp. 927-928, Springer Berlin / Heidelberg, 2017.
  2. [Csi97]
    M. Csikszentmihalhi:
    Basic Books, New York, 1997.