Advice, Writing

Finding your Flow

Have you ever been so engrossed in something that you completely miss the other person in the room, someone who’s been calling your name for a minute with no reply? How about getting sucked into a book and wondering where the afternoon went when you put it down? If you have, then you’re familiar with flow. For those of you who may not have had the experience or know the term, this post is going to examine flow: what it is, how you get it, and how it can improve your writing.

I don’t remember the first time I heard the technical term “flow”, though I do remember having experienced it multiple times in my life before learning it was a “thing.” My parents love to tell stories of when I was a kid, and they’d catch me reading. They’d call for me over and over again, sometimes from just a few feet away, and I wouldn’t budge. And when I finally responded, it would be with puzzled incredulity. What did they mean, they’d been calling for me for awhile? I only just heard them. Couldn’t they see I was reading?

This is what my brain feels like when I'm in flow. It just goes.
This is what my brain feels like when I’m in flow. It just goes.

Flow is a psychological experience of hyper-focus. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was one of the first people to study the experience in depth, and also one of the first people to clearly define the experience. According to Csikszentmihalyi, there are six factors that define a flow experience:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience (your sense of time is altered)
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

All of these factors can happen independently over each other, but a combination is what makes the experience “flow”.

Csikszentmihalyi also said there were three factors to achieving flow: the activity must have clear goals and progress, feedback must be immediate, and the person doing the activity has to have confidence that they can complete it. However, another psychologist by the name of Schaffer suggested seven conditions that I think better describe how to reach flow:

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing
  4. Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)*
  5. High perceived challenges
  6. High perceived skills
  7. Freedom from distractions

*I think knowing where to go while writing helps significantly with achieving flow, even though you’re not actually going anywhere.

Csikszentmihalyi did a TED talk on the experience that I would recommend checking out (you can watch it here).

So, how do you take what I’ve just told you about flow and make use of it to help your writing?

First off, I’m only able to speak from my own, personal experiences. I know what works for me, and I know how I go about reaching a state of flow. Those things may work for you, they may not. Try them out, see what fits, and then adjust your approach as needed.

For me, getting into flow can take some work. Generally, I need to be in a comfortable place. I suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (I’ll talk about that and how it impacts my writing at some point in time), which means that finding a “comfortable” place is highly dependent on my anxiety level. Generally, this means being at home in my rocking chair, with no shoes or socks and comfy pants.

Socks are just prisons for our toes.
Socks are just prisons for our toes.

Once I’m comfortable, I have to block out all distractions. This is probably the hardest thing for me when it comes to flow. Distractions seem to dominate my life some days. I have a toddler and a husband, and they demand my attention regularly. There’s also the internet, in all of its amazing, distracting glory. Honestly, it’s kind of a shock I get any writing done at all. One of the easiest ways for me to block out distractions is to put my headphones on and blast some quiet, indie music and literally drown out everything. I also close out of chat programs, and the only tabs I have open in my browser are related to my writing.

So, I’m comfortable and I’m not distracted. I also have to know what I’m going to work on. This is a lot easier when I’m editing, as I have something written already. When I’m writing new scenes, I have to figure out what I’m doing next, and that can ruin my focus. It’s one of the reasons that I generally start editing before I start writing. I’m able to get partially into a flow state while editing, and then I take that and expand it when I start creating new stuff.

I get distracted by research. I fully blame my history background for this.
I get distracted by research. I fully blame my history background for this.

Now that I’m comfortable, focused, and have an idea of what I’m working on, I start writing. This is where getting into flow happens. Flow isn’t a switch that you can turn on or off. You have to get yourself to a place where you might be able to reach flow, and then you have to start working on whatever it is you’re doing. Over time, as you get more engrossed in what you’re doing, flow happens. If my writing doesn’t go well, or if I don’t like what I’m writing, or if something (like my daughter) comes along and interrupts my focus, I will probably not reach it. It’s honestly a very frustrating thing to be just getting into flow, only to have it broken by something else. It also happens more often than not.

But if I’m working on a scene that I’m really passionate about, or I have a sudden epiphany about what I’m working on or a rewrite, and I get into it… There’s literally no better feeling. You completely lose track of what’s happening around you. You’re laser focused on your work, and the words just seem to go directly from your mind to the page. It feels effortless, weightless. It’s as simple as breathing and as rewarding. Coming out of flow feels like pulling your head up from underwater and wondering how long you’ve been holding your breath. And then you look down at what you’ve done, and it’s amazing. How did it happen? Where’d the time go? When can you start working on it again?

Another great thing about flow is that you can recognize it after you’ve reached it. And once you start to recognize it, you can start training your brain to go into flow more readily. I find that my writing is better when I’m in flow than when I’m out of it. Scenes flow better, characters are more real, settings are described in more detail. Rereading Burner as I get it ready for publication, I can see where the flow scenes are and where they aren’t. And getting started on Reader, I can feel when I start to tip into it.

So, to summarize what I do to achieve flow:

  1. Find a comfortable place
  2. Block out any and all distractions
  3. Make sure you know what you want to work on
  4. Start writing and stay focused

If I’m able to do all of those things, I reach flow. And just like it’s extremely rewarding to finish a really good book, only to realize that the afternoon has drifted away around you, coming out of flow to see a giant wall of text feels amazing. It’s almost addictive, and it’s a state I strive to reach while writing. It’s also something that can’t be forced, and like any skill, you have to learn how to reach and then use it.

I hope some of this was useful. I’ll be posting again on Sunday, and then I may be a little spotty in my entries. I’ve got to travel to Hannibal, Missouri next week for my day job, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able or have the energy to make posts. I hope you have a lovely weekend, and I’ll see you all on Sunday!

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