7 Tips for Getting to Flow – And Staying There

by Bill Henderson

Flow. It’s not a plumbing emergency. It’s not religious ecstasy. It’s not satori–although it might feel like it. So what is it?

FlowWe all know what it’s like to hit the sweet spot in writing your novel. Resistance falls away. Thoughts find words without struggle. Five minutes, 20 minutes, two hours — they all feel the same.

I’m talking about what psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “the state of flow.” The need to find self-motivation drops away: activity becomes its own motivation. All those strategies we use to flog, coax, or trick ourselves to the desk, all the paralizing fears of “is it be good enough” dissolve. We’re just…doing it. No big deal. Whatever the task, we’re one with it.

Check out this video of Csikszentmihalyi’s recent TED talk.

Csikszentmihalyi popularized the concept in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, but for centuries or more, creative artists, religious adepts, “thinkers,” have known that’s the place they must get to if they want their work to live and breathe.

Flow is just a notch away from spontaneous play. It’s where the kids have been when they come home late for dinner saying, “we lost track of the time.” But in most adults, rational processes gain prominence, largely shutting the door to the unconscious––our most powerful source of creative ideas. In flow, the door flies open again.

Flow: challenge versus skillThere’s also evidence that the state of flow represents you at your very best: if it’s a writing session, that writing will be more successfully realized than work done in the normal state of creative agony.

So how do you get yourself into a state of flow? And once you’re there, how do you make it last? Here are some tips:

1. Be Fresh
In my experience, fatigue trumps flow. When you’re tired, getting your 500 words done is like herding salamanders. Get a good night’s sleep, have a nap, take a walk around the block. Then sit down, with a clear head. The result: more natural energy > flow > better ideas, more “creative” connections.

2. Clarify a Goal
What do you want to achieve in this writing session? Take some time to define a goal––just one is sufficient for a single writing session. Be realistic: make sure it’s doable. It shouldn’t be too too much of a stretch, nor should it be too easy. Articulate your goal. Make it specific. Not: “to have an awesome writing session,” but: “to rewrite the breakup scene with more passion from Ellen.” Remember that once something is named, you begin to own it, and when you own it, you’re only a step or two way from flow.

3. Give yourself ample time.
Clock watching is a dead hand on your effort. Make sure you know, going in, that you’ve cleared ample time, and that the time is yours––all yours.

4. Quiet, Please.
You know what kinds of noises break your concentration. Set conditions so those noises won’t be there–or you won’t be where they are. But let’s be practical: there are those days when it’s impossible to avoid: it’s either “do it anyway” or you fold. For those days, see “Use Tools,” below.

5. Come Prepared
Before getting underway review characters, possible scenes, the details of place, time, and situation that create the world of your story. Some writers like to do their prep the night before. Others read over what they’ve done so far, then jump in. However you do it, getting a firmer handle on your story makes you more confident, and confidence easily turns into playfulness, that state where effort is “effortless,” child’s play. That’s flow.

6. Hide
That is, find your hiding place and disappear. Choose wisely. Could Joyce really write at the kitchen table, with family stuff going on all around him? I wonder. I certainly couldn’t. But if that’s you, go for it. If you need complete privacy, but you can’t arrange it, hide in plain sight. Find a workplace that fends off any distraction of the “look who’s here” variety. When you’re anonymous, it disengages your ego–and trust me, there’s no more perfect a state for a writer.

7. Use Tools
By tools, I mean not so much the hardware or software you write with, but “tools” for creating the right mind-space for you to work in. One thing that stops my flow cold is nearby conversation. I stop the chatter by using noise-canceling earbuds, plugged into my favorite “wallpaper” music––usually Liquid Mind. It’s non-involving, mood setting, and reduces environmental distraction to a non-factor. And, if you use the non-pay version of Pandora, it’s free.

What are your favorite tricks and tips for finding flow?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mark Welker January 12, 2011 at 3:55 am

Great post Bill. I stumbled onto Flow a few years ago and have been fascinated ever since. That sweet spot of a story, where you can barely move your pen fast enough, is why I’m so compelled to write. I definitely have found music to be a good inducer of flow, particularly movie soundtracks.

Some other suggestions:
Use a full screen editor (or write the first draft in a notebook)
Free write for 5-10 minutes to nimble up your fingers
Set rewards – like getting up to have some chocolate after half an hour

2 James Thayer January 12, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Your comments on finding the flow are spot on. I rarely find the flow, and when I do, it’s easy to fall out of. This is Yeats:
“All things can tempt me from this craft of verse:
One time it was a woman’s face, or worse—
The seeming needs of my fool-driven land.”
In 1816 Samuel Taylor Coleridge was working on his poem Kubla Khan in a farmhouse between the villages of Porlock and Linton—“In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan/ A Stately pleasure dome decree”–when “a person on business form Porlock”—as he would later note, dryly–knocked on his door, interrupting Coleridge, breaking his flow. Coleridge was never able to continue the poem, as he had lost the ending forever. He had to stop at 54 lines, rather than the 200 or 300 he had envision. He had fallen out of the flow.
Here is Picasso on the flow, which he simply called concentration: “People never concentrate enough . . . . The reason why Cezanne was Cezanne is that he did concentrate: when he was confronted with a tree he looked hard at what was there before his eyes; he looked at it as hard as a man with a gun aiming at his quarry. If he fixed his eye on a leaf, he never let it go. And since he had the leaf, he had the branch. And the tree could never get away. . . .”
Your techniques are appreciated. Getting into the flow and staying there is hard.

3 Bill Henderson January 13, 2011 at 5:48 am

@Mark: Some helpful ideas there. I especially like the chocolate one : )

@James: Re: Picasso & concentration, I’d have to think more about this, but it seems to me there’s a slight difference between intense concentration, an action, and flow, a state in which actions occur.

In flow, everything is suddenly easier, more fun, and you feel like you’ve been invested with superhuman skills. Tennis players in flow “can’t miss.” They speak of the court becoming huge. Three-point shooters on a streak say things like “I was having fun,” and again, “I couldn’t miss.”

There may be intense concentration, but it’s so effortless it isn’t perceived as being “intense” anymore. In fact it doesn’t even feel like what we call concentration. It’s really a different state. Of course the difference may be semantic more than actual. This is where ordinary language begins to bump up against its limits.

4 Essie Holton April 11, 2011 at 2:35 am

Great information on flow, what it is and how to get it. It is wonderful advice, especially for those of us starting out in this writing experience. I also really like the chocolate advice, I may go and get some now!

5 Bill Henderson April 11, 2011 at 3:58 am

Glad to help, Essie. I’m a lemon guy myself, but the principle’s the same.

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