Flow is something that is spoken about by aspiring zenists, Feng Shui practitioners, archers, golfers, chess players and those addicted to computer games.
In the flow state time passes without being noticed. Activity is effortless. You may not remember all the details of the state. There’s nothing interfering with your brain and the activity. Quite the opposite, you’re perfectly synced with the activity. You ARE the activity.
Creative flow is when you’re developing something or creating something and it’s a period of very high productivity. You’re in an optimal state where you are accomplishing much more than you usually do per minute, and there’s no boredom or sense of “work” being done. It may be fun, or there may be no sense of fun at all. You can be so focused that you become whatever you’re doing.
This state of optimum creative flow happens often for me as I’m writing, and I’m glad it does. Over the past year, I’ve written over a million words at my blogs and web sites, not to mention comments and questions at other blogs and through email. I’ve learned about the creative flow state just by needing to enter it on a daily basis. I’ll do my best to pull everything together that I’ve learned and share it with you here.
Last year I decided to blog full time. Before that, I’d always just been happy to have the flow state visit me when it came. I thought I was just a lucky recipient of it. I didn’t think that I could initiate or control it. I played soccer for many years and on occasion, I’d have flow occur during a game. During those amazing experiences, it was as if I was two levels beyond everyone else. My passes were crisp and my timing impossibly perfect. This state usually visited me once per game for a few seconds, a minute… or, if I was extremely fortunate it would last most of the game.
I thought the creative flow state was just like that – when it came, it came, and I had no influence on it. Now I know differently. Now I know how to OWN the creative flow state. It’s available when I want it to be. Or, more appropriately, when I need it to be. Gaining entry into the state when it is needed is an almost god-like power. Imagine being able to choose when you enter the state and for how long.
Owning the creative flow state is not as hard as you might think. Like anything, there are antecedents that, once in place help foster the development and then prolong this awesome experience.
How to OWN the creative flow state?
1. Go to your Cave and create the atmosphere conducive to flow. You, like everyone else that creates, have a preferred place to work where you can control the environmental conditions like air, noise, chair, table height, space around you, and the rest of it. Only you know what you need in your cave to make you happy and productive. If you’ll be there for hours you will want to arrange sustenance to keep the energy flowing. For me, pretzel rods, Coffee, Red Bull, cashews or pistachios (no red dye), cold fruit juice, and a big water bottle does it. My cave has a toilet, air conditioning, fan, stereo and a place on the floor with a thin mattress and pillows in case I need to get cozy with my notebook on the floor for a change of position and perspective.
Ensure you have your creative instruments in supply and close at hand, exactly where they should be. If I’ve got a project that doesn’t require the notebook (rare) I need those thin-lined markers (blue, black and red) and a ream of blank white paper so I can draw sketches, write symbols, text or whatever else – color-coded in a way that only I could figure out.
Ambiance. Depending on what you’re doing you’ll want to choose the right music. Eighty percent of the time I’m in the cave creating I like to have something on. Other times I want absolute silence as I’m working on a very detailed idea which demands silence.
Ensure everything is exactly as you like it. The purpose of this is reducing the extraneous distractions that can pull you out of the state and into mediocrity. All it takes is one stray thought to germinate in your mind about not having the ruler where you thought it was and all hell could break loose as you systematically fly through every drawer, closet, pocket, and puppet to find it. Nothing destroys creative flow faster than thoughts about why something isn’t the way it should be.
Use the restroom before you begin. Take a mental inventory. Anything else that isn’t quite right? Fix it before you sit down. Usually, this is when I crank up some Prodigy, English Beat, Beastie Boys, Pixies or Chili Peppers to rev me up. I need to be in a special state of mind to get the creative juices flowing. Nothing less than absolute euphoria works best for me. Upbeat songs rattling the walls works best, but I can be considerate and use headphones when it’s in the interest of social harmony.
2. Inform others that for x number of hours you won’t be available. That means people are in other rooms of the cave, not yours. That means turning your phone ringer off. SMS beeps off. Flash phone messages off. Browser messages off. Instant messengers off. Email notifications off. Close your blinds if you’re in an office. Kick the dog out, and feed the piranha.
3. Label a motive for starting this creative project. It might be very clear, like – if you don’t finish this fifty-page paper by five in the morning, you’ll fail Psychoanalytic Theory 6020 and need to repeat the class. Notice how you spontaneously enter the flow when you absolutely MUST get something done and you’re completely out of time and excuses?
A strong motivation is the number one factor for inviting a creative flow session. In college that student mentioned above was me. I left projects to the last minute and then completed them with amazing speed, efficiency, and quality.
I did my best work that way, so why change the equation? Now it’s a little different as every night is a mental deadline for some blog article to be written. I enter the creative flow state daily for hours, banging out articles like there was no tomorrow.
If your motivation isn’t so clear, make it crystal clear so you know exactly why you need to create a masterpiece over the next few hours. I keep defining the why until I feel very confident about the need for the project. I like to picture little things that will come later as I blog toward greatness: Dinner with Tim Ferriss, or maybe a playful wrestling match with my favorite NFL cheerleader.
4. Brainstorming. I brainstorm first – scribbling fragments of ideas all over some blank A4 sheets of paper. I am just chicken-scratching what appears to be gibberish to the rest of mankind, and honestly, I can barely read it myself – but, it’s part of the process. If I slow down to write it nicely then I lose the speed at which things pour out of my head. Sometimes i use the computer to write because I can type faster than I can write with a pen. But then again, sometimes the strict format of text on a screen is too limiting and I need to see it on paper, diagonally, curving around the edges, in different sizes, shapes, and colors.
5. Planning. Plan the chapters of your project or the general outline of what you want to create by choosing from the bits and pieces you just brainstormed. It is a masterpiece and you’ll know after looking through what you’ve written if it’s comparable to Ludwig Van’s glorious 9th, or not. You may need to brainstorm some more. Brainstorming might take ten to thirty minutes. Planning might take another ten minutes. Usually, I’m so excited by the time I have half an outline together that I need to either force myself to slow down and finish the complete plan – or, run with it immediately and finish the plan as I go. Sometimes I’m so tweaked about getting started and seeing it come to life that I don’t finish the planning. But, that’s just me.
Flow begins out of this euphoria, this sense of purpose, the confidence in my writing and the manic desire to create something amazing.
Usually, I don’t catch myself realizing that I’m in the creative flow state for hours after it begins. At some point inevitably I’ll need to use the restroom or drink a coffee and I’ll notice that a chunk of time passed. When I wrote my first book, I wrote over 10,000 words at one sitting. It was like being on auto-pilot. Time just flies when you’re focused!
For me, the first session is basically a huge right-hemisphere memory dump from my brain in “Vern-logic” digital format. I spill everything at once almost like a brainstorm, but I’m fleshing out details in the general ideas, usually corresponding to paragraphs that will form in the project later. I type like a fiend until my wrists, fingers, elbows, and neck hurt.
The first spill is never a completed masterpiece. The left hemisphere needs to make Vern-logic sync logically with a critical mass of readers that will be reading it. Word substitution, spell checks, graphics and page formatting takes place next.
I’m never in a creative flow during any editing process. It’s something that doesn’t come naturally to me. Dumping it all in the flow state is easy, it’s just like breathing. Editing it is seriously difficult work that I wish I could call on a flow process to help with.
Does anyone have a remedy? Outsourcing, yeah, I know. I know.
Owning and extending the optimal creative flow state is an amazing skill to put in your bag of productivity tricks. It’s simple really, requiring nothing more than an optimal environment, confidence in your skills, and a really strong and lucid purpose and motivation for tackling the project.
When you own the flow, you’ve got it all. Try it and let me know what you think.
Best of Life!
(Last Updated: 27 August 2019)
Flow while exercising: