How 2 Local Engineers Find Their Flow States

For engineers at Sendoso and Wish, late afternoon doesn’t come with a slump — it’s the perfect time to drop into deep work.
Written by Brigid Hogan
December 1, 2022Updated: December 1, 2022

When Martin Stancanelli taps into a moment of “problematic harmony,” the rest of the world fades away — even the seagulls squawking outside his office window. With notifications silenced, music on and a fresh cup of tea beside him, Stancanelli, a software engineer at Sendoso, dives deep into the challenge at hand. 

What Stancanelli calls “problematic harmony” is better known to many as “flow state.” “Problematic harmony” is an especially apt descriptor, as a key to entering the flow is aligning a high-challenge task or problem with the skills needed to solve it, which pushes people into deeper focus and taps into their creativity.

The concept of “flow state” was first developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi described the state in Wired as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

For Billy Young, a senior software engineer at Wish, that flow of thought and action is transformative to his work.

“At each step, my mind is already moving on to the next challenge and waiting for my body to finish pressing all the buttons in the physical world,” he said.

At each step, my mind is already moving on to the next challenge and waiting for my body to finish pressing all the buttons in the physical world.”


According to Csikszentmihalyi, achieving a flow state involves nine distinct components. When experiencing a flow state, a person will feel “challenge-skill balance, merging of action and awareness, clarity of goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, paradox of control, transformation of time, loss of self-consciousness and autotelic experience.”

But creating the circumstances for a flow state to flourish can be challenging. Built In San Francisco heard from Stancanelli and Young about how they find their flow and what tips they have for others seeking to work more deeply and effectively.




Billy Young
Senior Software Engineer

What does your flow state look like?

I have an open block on my calendar for a couple of hours, with no meetings. My digital surroundings are clean — I don’t have any urgent emails or Slack messages to respond to, so I can focus on whatever to-do item is in front of me. This often happens in the late afternoon when the day starts to wind down. I have a plan of attack laid out in my head, and I’m running through the process. My brain is on high alert, ready to react and adjust plans based on any new information that comes up while I’m working on a task.

How do you personally get into a flow state?

If it’s a task that requires me to grind it out without too much planning or contemplation, I have a handful of go-to high-energy rock songs that I’ll play through my headphones. Otherwise, it’s mostly finding the time and space to feel like I can make a good chunk of progress on the project at hand.


What tips or advice do you have for others who might be struggling to get in the zone? 

Sleep, hydrate and eat well! It’s said so often because it works. But regardless, always find what works for you and listen to yourself. Beware of distractions. There are always some things you can and should ignore or do later, but some things are better done right away. Procrastinating on that email will affect your concentration and ability to get into the flow, even though it will take less than 10 minutes to complete.

Reduce context switching. Even if you’re very aware of the cost of context switching, you’re probably still underestimating the impact on your efficiency.


Context switching

Context switching takes a toll on human productivity. Each notification that pulls focus away from the task at hand creates a sense of a higher workload and adds to perceived effort. According to a study from the University of California, Irvine, just 20 minutes of notifications or small interruptions contribute to a higher “disruption cost” in the workplace, reducing the ability to enter flow while raising an individual’s stress level. 




Martin Stancanelli
Software Engineer

What does your flow state look like?

My flow state is when everything is in a “problematic harmony.” I like problem solving. When I’m deep into trying to solve something, time flies by. There is no better place to get into the zone than my desk next to the window, with the afternoon sun coming in and seagulls squawking in the distance. I’m an afternoon person so that time after lunch is when productivity spikes, and I can get things done.


How do you personally get into a flow state?

Most importantly, I have a fresh mate tea by my side. There is no way an Argentinean is going to get in the zone without one.

Second, some background music at a volume that is not too low but also not high enough to interrupt my line of thought. My music choice can go from jazz house to alternative rock — because most of the time I don’t even recognize what I’m listening to. But if the music is not there, something feels off. 

Third and finally, I turn the beloved “focus time” or “do not disturb” function on. Nothing breaks me more out of the zone than the constant sound of Slack notifications.


Music and flow states

Finding the right music can set the tone for the task at hand — whether that’s a Saturday morning cleaning playlist, the perfect beats per minute for a run or entering a flow state. Beyond ambient sound and lofi beats, some people are turning to binaural music to support focus and creativity. The phenomenon is based on the theory that when sounds at two different auditory frequencies are introduced together, the brain finds a tone at synchrony between the two. According to research, including declassified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency, frequencies between 14 to 30 Hz may increase concentration, focus and problem solving.


What tips or advice do you have for others who might be struggling to get in the zone? 

Stay vigilant and try to recognize those tiny moments when you do get your flow state. Even if it is just for a brief moment, take a mental snapshot, and try to analyze the surroundings and the context. Consider any music or background noise, location and habits like having a coffee. Once you have a clear picture of the situation, try to reproduce it as much as possible. It is also nice to add things that you know you enjoy, like having plants around or a cat on your lap. Don’t be afraid to share that you are trying to concentrate by changing your status on Slack or your calendar. It is important to find those moments — most other things can wait until you are done


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