Have you ever had a creative evening when time suddenly flew by? A day when you executed a difficult project at work flawlessly? A brief moment in time when your challenging exercise routine felt effortless?
All of these times you were in a state of flow.
Flow is a concept developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the University of Chicago, who has studied the phenomena his whole career. Daniel Pink reintroduces the concept in his new book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
Many people flow through their lives in an effortless fashion, while countless others have a difficult time achieving a flow state.
Why flow is hard to achieve
Flow is a moment in time when you’re both challenged at the activity that you’re doing, and when you also have complete autonomy in the task you’re conducting.
We engage in flow under your own volition, with a skill which we’ve had some amount of experience.
If you’re not flowing, it’s probably because you aren’t allowing yourself to be challenged, you’re completely overwhelmed, or someone else is holding you back.
The majority of my experience with flow has been with dance and writing. I’ve studied dance for many years, and one of the technical skills that dancers work on is called improvisation. Improv is very tricky in dance. You have to turn off your mind and simply dance with your instincts.
When you’ve mastered improv dance, you’ve reached the sweet spot between your brain transferring commands to your nervous system. There is no longer any thinking involved, as thinking in improv dance will make everything stop. There just isn’t any time for brainwork when you are constantly moving.
Csikszentmihalyi hypothesizes that these moments of flow occur because we’re simply activating too many neurological functions. Because of this we no longer have capacity to be aware of what functions we’re engaging in. So the ‘conscious of me’ part of the mind switches off, your awareness of yourself slips away, and you just do.
You’re simply flowing in the the present moment
I have also experienced flow in writing. I think it’s very important for writers to engage in flow. A lot of writers stop and meticulously edit their work after every sentence, but writing this way (for most people) is counterproductive.
Why? I believe it’s because of the same reason that dancers can’t stop dancing in improvisation. If you just keep writing for 30 minutes without stopping, you give your mind a chance to turn off the ‘conscious of me’ brain functions. This in turn grants more brain power to challenging the boundaries of your writing ability.
You cannot edit while you’re producing work. If you do, you’ll be constantly switching between your right brain and your left brain. Your creative center will be switching off and on and it will be harder to produce anything meaningful.
A classic example of real world flow
Ray Bradbury was a freelance writer who was trying to support his family. However, he was working at home with his cute little children. This proved to be incredibly distracting, so he had to find somewhere else to write. So, he headed over to UCLA’s Lawrence Clark Powell Library.
In the basement of the library there was a number of typewriters that gave 30 minutes of writing time for a dime.
Ray was very poor at the time, and needed all the money he could to support his family. Whenever he popped in the dime, he wanted to get his month’s worth. This forced him to write at a frantic pace until his time was up. The most frustrating element of writing the novel was when the typewriter keys tangled, because it meant that he was wasting valuable time.
In between these 30 minute typewriter banging sessions, he would wander the halls of the library studying books and contemplating what he would write for the next 30 minutes.
The novel Ray finished was classic sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451. He created this novel in record amount of time, and recalled feeling as if the flow of time had accelerated. The novel wrote itself, effortlessly.
Think about how important it is to flow
I really believe many people miss this aspect of engaging in their work. If you aren’t flowing, you’re not reaching the peak of your ability. There is so much untapped hidden potential in flow, just waiting to be retrieved.
People who have learned flow are challenging themselves and creating work at their best.
We no longer have dime typewriters at the library, but there are a number of ways to practice flow without them.
9 simple ways you can bring yourself into flow
1. Pick a enjoyable, challenging activity. The easiest way to enter flow is by doing something you love. The activity also needs to challenge you, one you are extremely passionate about, that you enjoy doing, and that causes you to grow. If the activity is boring to tedious you won’t enjoy it, and so there is no way you can engage in flow.
2. Eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone, log out of twitter, switch off gmail. If you’re constantly flipping back and forth between different tasks you’ll never be able to achieve flow. A foreign distraction will quickly bring you out of the flow mindset.
3. Think before you do. Do any research or preparation before you engage in the activity you wish to flow in. If you stop and do research while writing, or have to grab a bite to eat in the middle of a run, you’ll throw yourself out of the grove. Preparation is the only way to avoid that.
4. Isolate yourself. The best way to achieve flow is alone. If you’re in a room full of people, your mind will constantly be drawn away from what you’re doing. Shut the door, put on headphones, or find another way to isolate yourself.
5. Let go. Give up any expectations that you have for yourself. If you enter a flow situation with preconceptions about the results that you’ll get from the practice, you’ll inevitably disappoint yourself. You also run the risk of narrowing your focus to a point where you can’t change coarse naturally if your flow takes you down a road less traveled.
6. Give yourself a time limit. Like Bradbury, set a timer on your activity. Give yourself 30 minutes of uninterrupted flow time and just go at it with everything you’ve got. Forget about how much time you’ve been doing the activity, and how much time you have left, just flow. You may just find that you lose track of time completely.
7. Keep moving. Continuous motion is key to flow, don’t give your mind a chance to start second guessing what you’re doing. Keep moving with the activity you’re flowing in. Go at a pace that’s challenging for you, but not overwhelming. You want to be calm and collected, but also have forward momentum.
8. Don’t think. Switch off the part of your brain that observes what you’re doing. This is your self-consciousness, your ego, your sabotage. Why flow is so important is that it circumvents the necessity to constantly critique yourself. This can be hard, if you’re used to constantly second-guessing everything you do, but it is so important to successfully entering flow.
9. Practice. Like any useful skill, flow takes time to master. Don’t stress if you can’t do it right away. If you’re interested in achieving a state of flow, you need to practice regularly. Set a time every day that will be dedicated flow time. Eventually you’ll start to recognize when you’re flowing, and when you’re not. After many hours of practice, you’ll eventually become a flow master.