Have ever found yourself sucked so deeply into your writing that you lost sense of time and your physical surroundings? If this happened to you, it’s likely you experienced the phenomenon known as flow. The concept of flow was popularized by psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (me-HI CHICK-sent-me-HI).
Flow is a state of concentration so strong that an individual becomes completely absorbed in an activity and loses sense of anything other than that activity. Often, the brain’s chemical byproducts during flow are similar to a drug-induced experience. As a result, flow becomes addictive for many people, such as professional athletes. (The athletic aspect of flow serves as the basis for the book The Rise of Superman, which relates the careers of certain extreme sport enthusiasts.)
What Flow Is and What It Means for Writers
In Csikszentmihalyi’s book entitled Flow, he describes people who engage in a range of activities. Many of these activities are simple, even mundane by many people’s standards, but they can still confer an intense satisfaction. For example, he talks about a European milkmaid who for decades performs the same simple activity of walking a great distance between her house and a dairy farm, but who still finds this activity engrossing and rewarding. Csikszentmihalyi also describes people in less ordinary circumstances, but who still find deep satisfaction in an activity that many would think was rather dull. For example, he shares the story of political prisoners who entertained themselves and found fulfillment by secretly translating well-known poems into different languages as a team.
The upshot of Csikszentmihalyi’s book is that happiness in the everyday usually doesn’t come from stereotypical sources such as wealth, fame, or influence. Instead, what Csiksgentmihalyi found was that most people experience the greatest fulfillment from consistently doing an activity that draws that them in fully, engaging and satisfying their impulse to accomplish a task. Reaching this state of flow in a preoccupation that we find rewarding can result in consistent happiness over a long span of time.
How to Use Flow in Writing
I believe this concept of flow is deeply important for anyone who wants to engage in a consistent writing ritual. If a writer can experience flow as a part of their writing process, they will be more productive and more fulfilled. What’s crucial is for the writer to develop a routine—a set of triggers—that will put them into that state of writing flow quickly and consistently.
In both Flow and The Rise of Superman, the authors describe how individuals use certain rituals to get quickly into the flow state. This is one of the reasons why I so regularly write about the importance of a writing routine. When we built key components into our writing routine, those components put us more quickly into an ideal mental status. Part of what I’m trying to help people do when I prescribe those routine components is to get them into consistent flow states.
I’m going to share five areas that can trigger a writing flow state. If you don’t have one or more of these aspects in your routine, please consider how you can incorporate them. I’m confident that they will help you to be more consistent and more fulfilled in your writing.
The Keys to Writing Flow
1. Session prep
Do you have a plan of action leading into your writing sessions? If you’re not consistently front-loading your writing time with similar activities, you're missing out on one of the factors that can put you into a flow state. For example, I'm a morning writer. One of the key activities leading up to my writing is breakfast. I’ve found that if I prepare my breakfast ahead of time, keep it simple, and eat it immediately before I begin writing, it puts me very quickly into a flow state.
Here's another example: I do my best to journal the night before my morning writing session. By journaling, I’m preparing my mind for the writing that I’ll be doing. It’s a trigger that puts me in the proper state of mind to experience flow. Many people journal immediately before doing a writing session. I recommend that you experiment depending on when you're writing, but try to incorporate journaling as another part of the routine to get you into flow.
Breakfast and journaling are just two examples. Meditation or exercise are two more. It's a process of experimentation to find the elements that should go before your writing session. Work to find those elements and do them consistently to jumpstart the routine and get into flow.
2. Time of the day
If you haven't found your ideal time of day for writing, find it. Every successful writer that I’ve read about or talked to has determined when they are most effective. Having found that block of time, they jealously guard and stick to it. This becomes crucial to their achieving flow states as often as possible. I happen to be best at writing in the morning, preferably quite early. Mornings are preferred by many writers, but certainly not all.
You may need to experiment to find your ideal time. Try writing at different times during the day, experiment with one block for several days, and then try a different time. You want to get really, truly good at that part of day. If you switch around the time, you will not be as effective, and it will be much more difficult to get into that state of flow. Once you found your ideal time, stick with it.
The stimuli that surround you have great potential for triggering flow states. Whatever influences our senses has enormous impact on our behavior. The entire school of psychology known as behaviorism is based on this concept. The classic story of Pavlov's dog serves as a great example. When thinking about environment, consider how you can spark a consistent response in yourself for optimal writing. Two key stimuli worth considering are location and sound.
With regard to location, be aware that writers react differently depending on their personality. Some writers prefer a quiet, isolated office. Others write well when surrounded by busyness and hubbub. So if you're the kind of writer who performs best with silence and solitude, don't go to a busy coffee shop or a crowded library.
You should also think about what sounds best inspire your writing. Don’t consider music alone. It could be the sound of water. Some people like the sound of an electric fan in the background. If you do settle on music, experiment with different types. Many people find music with lyrics distracting. Others find that it inspires. As with the other considerations, experiment to figure out which sounds work best for you.
Once you’ve found your ideal environment, stick with it. Just being in your ideal location and your sound of choice will launch you into your writing and increase the potential for a flow state.
Be sure that the position of your body supports your writing. I’m constantly amazed by the unhealthy quality of many people’s workstations, as well as how they work at them.
Much has been written on the importance of an ergonomic desk. If you're sitting, be certain that your seat supports your back and doesn't make you sore. Many people swear by a standing desk. If you’re unsure, look into the characteristics of optimal keyboard and monitor height. Wrist and neck strain can be prevented. You don't want to be reaching too high for the keyboard and cause strain on your wrist. Make sure that your screen is also at a good height. It's amazing how many people work at a desk while bending over a display that is too low, causing strain in their neck, back, and shoulders. Elevate your screen to eye level. It's also possible to have a screen too high. Any bodily tension, regardless of the source, causes fatigue and decreases your chance of a flow state.
How you employ technology can strengthen a strong routine or destroy it. Be realistic.
If you’re using a computer, be sure that it’s reliable. Using a crummy computer can be a huge distraction. I had an old computer that I used for years, and I was so frustrated by the experience that I’d avoid writing. Eventually, I upgraded, and I now have a computer that I love. So if your technology is holding you back, please find a way to upgrade. It’s worth it.
Second, be sure that your technology isn’t distracting you. Turn off anything that might break your concentration. Don't leave social media running in the background. If you’re going to get a lot of messages or emails, turn those things off. Look into a service like freedom.to, which allows you to block particular websites and apps so you can focus on your writing.
Also, if you're using some kind of program for typing, try to find one that will maximize your focus. I love using Scrivener, partly because it has an excellent distraction-free composition mode. This composition mode blacks out the screen with the exception of a simple white page. I love this feature, and it always gets me focused on my writing.
If you have a phone, tablet, or some other device that could distract, you must either force yourself to ignore it or take whatever measures necessary to prevent it from distracting you. Silence the phone, turn off the signal, put it in a drawer, or remove it completely from the room. Do whatever necessary to remain focused.
May the Flow Be with You
Now if you investigate each of these five areas and do your best to incorporate your best version of each of them, I believe you stand a good chance of achieving writing flow on a regular basis. These are the factors that have the greatest potential of giving you the experience of flow in writing.
I can't stress enough how vital it is to practice. Be open to experimentation. Your writing routine should be thought of as an iterative process. Solidify certain components of your routine and then insert something new. Make a variation on it and then solidify that variation. Constantly test the various elements of your routine until you arrive at your ideal.
Watching a page fill up with words is a magical thing. Add to that the utter absorption and rush of ideas that come with flow, and you have one of the best creative experiences. I’ve enjoyed a deep writing flow on multiple occasions. I emerged hours later having been oblivious to the passage of time. The best part may have been the euphoria that followed. Even hours after a strong flow experience, you will still be on a high of excitement over what you did with your writing. That is one of the best experiences a writer can have. If you haven't had it yet, I trust you will soon.