Flo: A Journey To Peak Performance In Life Part 2

Flo is about empowering people to be more productive in all aspects of their lives. This is the second entry in a series documenting our journey towards building this product.

Picking up from where we left Off

The last time we talked about Flo, it was us singing praises at our epiphany: every challenge one faces can be solved by a simple balancing act between two variables—the level difficulty of the task at hand, and the level of skill one has in tackling said challenge. With Albert’s insights and business mindset, paired with my design skills, we had a great opportunity in our sights to address this “problem” of solving problems. However, detecting a problem to solve is one thing. Actually solving it was another. Our next objective was to then solve this problem. By the way, if you haven’t read our previous entry, you can do so .

What’s your Problem?

If there was only one thing I learned in the entirety of my design career, it was that you don’t simply solve a problem by jumping in with a solution. Whether you are making an app, a website, or any product in general, your first response should not be pushing pixels, writing code, or coming up with solutions. It should be acknowledging the problem for what it is. In fact, as well. Now we certainly acknowledged that we had [to solve] a problem, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. What we needed to do was to rigorously define what that problem was. Stating our problem as “people fail to achieve success in achieving their goals because they aren’t in flow” was too broad. We needed to re-state this problem in such a way that made it concrete and unambiguous.

Defining the Problem

People do indeed fail to achieve their goals because they aren’t in flow. But why do they? Our very, very, very first task was to answer this question. What we found was that this failure was due to a matter of perception, more specifically, the perception one has of the monumentality of their task. Weight loss is a perfect example to illustrate this issue.

Say our friend Bob is 50 lbs overweight. Naturally, Bob wants to get fit. However, losing 50 lbs is no easy feat, and Bob is very much aware of that fact. How monumental is this challenge? To our overweight friend, very monumental. Now at first, the significance of this challenge might galvanize Bob into diving head first into transforming his lifestyle. On day one, he might shun junk food and run 5 miles. He might be able to keep this up for a few days, maybe even longer. However, Bob will more likely than not hit a roadblock. That roadblock could be external—his job has an office party and he finds himself surrounded by pastries and chips, or a blizzard hits, preventing him from going outside for his run. That roadblock can also be internal—he cannot stop thinking about the cheeseburgers, fries, and chocolate shake he’d been having for lunch everyday, and after a week of being healthy, that sense of deprivation hits a fever pitch.
Bob caves. He gobbled up the free donuts at his office party; the blizzard clears the next day but he stays inside watching TV instead of going for his run; he caves and bolts on over to McDonald’s.

But Bob was doing so well! Why did he fail? Bob failed because of , you guessed it, his perception. He perceived losing 50 lbs as a massive challenge, and who can blame him? His perception likely instilled in him a sense of urgency. Again, who can blame him? But Bob made the fatal mistake of burning through all of his motivational energy too early; for someone who’s been eating cheeseburgers and slugging on the couch for so long, starting the next day with a 5 mile run and a junk food-free diet is a major shock to their system.

The Power of Habit

The words “a major shock to their system” contained the key to explaining why Bob failed, and why so many fail in trying to lose weight, build muscle, save money, improve their dating life, and countless other goals we all have. In other words, shocking one’s “system” will cause them to lash back against whatever attacked them. What was this “system”? We found this question easy to answer. It was habit. This realization was so profound that Albert and I both picked up The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In it, he describes how the brain “chunks” a set of actions into automatic routines. It is from this process of chunking where habits are formed. The brain does this because it is constantly searching for ways to save effort:

“Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.”

Our brains’ habit-forming mechanism explains why we know how to get from home to work and back without a map, why we order the usual at a restaurant, and why Bob failed to keep up his routine. Once a habit is formed, it is deeply entrenched within us. Duhigg goes on to describe this mechanism, known as the habit loop. The brain executes the habit loop by doing three things.

  1. Find a cue.
  2. Search for a routine.
  3. Seek a reward.

Our brains are always searching for cues, whether we know it or not. This goes back to effort-saving nature of the brain. Once a cue is detected, the brain will essentially query a list of routines ala a habit in response to this cue. The brain will then execute the habit until it has met a reward. Returning to Bob, we can see this play out as such:

  1. Bob finds a cue—a McDonald’s on the way back from work.
  2. Bob’s brain finds a routine—go to the McDonald’s and order food.
  3. Bob seeks a reward—order a double cheeseburger, fries and a shake.

Despite Bob’s valiant efforts, he didn’t kick away his old habits. Rather, they simply receded into the background, waiting for the right cue to pounce on. Once a habit takes control, it becomes extremely hard to fight it off. “Once we develop a routine”, writes Duhigg, “it always remains inside of our heads.” Old habits do die hard, as they say.

The habit loop (from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg)

This might sound rather hopeless, but all hope is not lost. While habits form an obstacle towards accomplishing our goals, they also contain the solution we need to achieve them. If Bob can create a habit of sitting around the couch and eating cheeseburgers, he can also create a habit of eating right and exercising.

Now we had defined our problem. People want to accomplish their goals, but often fail to do so. Their failure primarily stems from habit. In other words, our problem was not so much people failing to achieve their goals, rather, it was people failing to change their habits.

Our problem was not so much people failing to achieve their goals, rather, it was people failing to change their habits.

How does one achieve their goals? By fighting their old habits. How do they fight their own habits? By forming new habits to counter-act them. How do they form new habits? Enter flow.

What Is Flow?

As mentioned , flow is a psychological state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as follows:

[Flow is] the holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement.

Put another way, to be in flow is to direct every thought and action towards performing the task at hand. If Bob were in a state of flow (simply known as a flow state), then he wouldn’t be feeling deprived of a juicy cheeseburger and creamy shake. Instead, he’d be taking joy in feeling light and nourished by the fresh salad he’s eating, or in the euphoria of gliding through the air while he’s out running.

Csikszentmihalyi visualizes the flow state as the maximal region in a graph of one’s mental state:

As we said earlier, this can be viewed as a function of two variables: the skill level of the participant, and the level of difficulty, or challenge level, of the task at hand. For Bob, his sedentary, fast food-fueled lifestyle gives him a very low skill level. His decision to start off his weight loss plan with a 5 mile run gave him a challenge too big for his skill level, thereby placing him at the top left of the graph…

Bob isn’t exactly doing so well up there.

With this knowledge in hand, it’s no wonder Bob couldn’t last long on this regiment without falling off. The difficulty of running 5 miles a day and eating right is rather high for someone like Bob; he isn’t used to this new lifestyle. This in turn triggers anxiety. Bob is probably stressed from the intensity of his diet and exercise plan, so his brain will do whatever it can to relieve him. Because the brain is an effort-saving machine, it will naturally select the first viable solution. For Bob, that was cued by passing by the McDonald’s.

Albert and I applied the concept of flow to many scenarios, all of which brought us to this conclusion: an imbalance between skill level and challenge level will most likely lead to failure. A challenge too great for your abilities will scare you away, a challenge too effortless will bore you away. But a challenge easy enough to confront, yet difficult enough to keep you engaged? That challenge will put you in flow.

Now back to Bob. Bob failed his first dive into weight loss. But he learned why. He gave himself too big of a challenge. So instead of setting on running 5 miles a day and eating a drastically different diet, he decided to modulate losing 50 lbs into a series of smaller goals which he could more easily track and achieve. Say now, he instead focuses on losing at least 5 lbs in a month, or eating at least one healthy meal a day, or going for a 10 minute walk every other day. Are these goals as glorious as running 5 miles a day? No, but they are easier to stick to. Bob’s habits have tilted him towards a sedentary lifestyle. These smaller, less ambitious goals however, are easy enough to achieve without triggering the stress which would cause his old bad habits to kick in. Better yet, the more small goals he achieves, the more likely he is to want to continue. Progress begets progress. This in turn, causes him to subconsciously associate his commitment not with deprivation, but with joy. More importantly however, Bob is turning his healthier lifestyle into a habit. Bob is now in a flow state, and as long as he remains there, he will eventually shed those 50 lbs. However, Bob will have gained something much more than losing those 50 lbs. What his slow and steady approach is doing in the background is cultivating new, healthier habits which will benefit him in the long run.

Our problem. Again

We now had a rigorous definition of what our problem was:

  1. People want to achieve their goals, but often fail to do so.
  2. They fail to achieve their goals because the challenge they attempt does not match their level of skill pertaining to said challenge.
  3. This imbalance between skill level and challenge level will lead to stress which will trigger old habits that stop them from achieving their goals.
  4. The key to achieving their goals is for them to build new habits which can fight old ones.
  5. The key to building new habits is to break down their goal into smaller, more obtainable ones.
  6. These smaller goals can be calibrated in such a way as to balance peoples’ skill level with an appropriate challenge level.
  7. This balance between skill level and challenge level is known as being in a state of flow.

Our problem was no longer a vague issue, but a list of more well-defined sub-problems. Now that we knew what these problems were, we could build solutions which targeted them, effectively solving our users’ problem— helping them to achieve their goals.

Creating our MVP: Take One

Once we finished the dirty work of sorting out the problem we wanted to solve, we moved onto devising solutions for it.

What are we trying to do?

The beauty of breaking up our users problem into a list of sub-problems is that we had metrics of sorts to go by. It also kept us laser-focused on ensuring that we always remembered to ask ourselves one question every step of the way: Will this help our users get into flow?

What is a goal?

In order to help our users achieve their goals, we needed to think about how we were going to define a goal. We decided to classify goals into two types: quantifiable goals, and stage goals:

Quantifiable goal
A goal which can be represented by some numeric value. Examples of quantifiable goals include losing 50 lbs, saving $1000, running a 5k, doing 100 push-ups, and reading 20 books in a year.

Stage goal
A goal which cannot be measured numerically. Examples of stage goals include asking out your crush, improving your social skills, and boosting your confidence. We went with the adjective “stage” because these goals are often accomplished in stages. For instance, the first stage of trying to date your crush is to talk to them without getting nervous, the second stage would be establishing regular contact, the third stage: get them into you, and the final stage: asking them out.

This classification scheme worked quite well. It made things simple. In fact, it was so simple that we were quickly able to jump into making our first deliverable. That first deliverable was a low-level wireframe of how we’d onboard new users:

This didn’t have any of the bells and whistles of a beautiful UI. In fact, aesthetics were not even on our minds at this stage of development. And that was a good thing. We were (and still are) focused on the foundational stage of our product, which was making sure our process would actually yield benefits for our users. We could have easily focused on making some slick UI with cool effects and vibrant colors (believe me, I was tempted), but that would distract us from our core objectives. Getting some Dribbble likes was not worth compromising on our core product.

In Conclusion

After all this time, we finally established some footing. We now understood in detail what our problem was, what components of it we needed to address, and had a first draft of a strategy to help our users solve it. More importantly, our efforts bore fruit — the first deliverable of a solution. We certainly have a long way to go, but at this point, we were confident in the progress we made, which gave us enough motivation to keep on pushing.

Up Next

In the next installment, we talk about showing our MVP to the outside world, our first take on visual design, and about a serious shortcoming in our strategy. Can you see it? Thanks for reading!

I like design, code, politics, and America. Come say hi: Behance: akheidarian, Dribbble: Alex Heidarian