Writers have a time of natural best writing – the beautiful period when we are “in the zone” or “in the flow” – when our writing is just running out of us with little effort, when we don’t notice external distractions so much, when we lose track of time.
What is Flow?
A core habit for any successful writer is recognising when they are in a writing “flow”. Once we can recognise it, we can recreate the conditions that allow us to arrive in it more easily for future writing sessions.
Flow is a heightened mental state in which we find ourselves so absorbed in what we are doing that we lose track of time. When I’ve been in flow before, I’ve managed to sit writing (or creating) for many hours and only afterwards realised I barely got up to use the amenities, and missed eating also.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who devoted his career to researching happiness and fulfillment. In his book, ‘Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention’, he describes:
“Flow – An almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness”
Csikszentmihalyi identifies the following nine characteristics of flow:
- There are clear goals every step of the way.
- There is immediate feedback to your actions.
- There is a balance between challenges and skills.
- Action and awareness are merged.
- Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
- There is no worry of failure.
- Self-consciousness disappears.
- The sense of time becomes distorted.
- The activity becomes ‘autotelic’ – meaning it is an end in itself.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, writes about flow in her book, ‘The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want’ (pages 181-190).
“When in flow, people report feeling strong and efficacious, at the peak of their abilities, alert, in control, and completely unselfconscious.” – Lyubomirsky.
According to Lyubomirsky, “The key to creating flow is to establish a balance between skills and challenges.”
Put another way, if you’re doing a task that isn’t challenging enough, you will grow bored of it. If it’s too tough for your abilities, you will grow frustrated. To maintain a flow, you will need to challenge yourself with a task that retains your interest, and feels valuable once you achieve it.
That’s the interesting thing about flow. While I may have lost twelve hours of my day in a writing flow, and forgotten to eat or take breaks (I wouldn’t recommend this all the time, obviously), I ended the day feeling absolutely fantastic. Flow does that – you will recognise when you have been in a genuine time of flow when you end with a sense of well-being.
Finding and Recreating Flow
Our best and easiest work happens “in flow”. As professional writers, not attaining such a state shouldn’t stop us from writing. Lack of feeling flow isn’t a good excuse for procrastination or not meeting deadlines. Nothing is. However, we can create core habits in our writing routines and processes that allow us to best recreate the environment and therefore mindset that will lead us more quickly into a flow of writing.
The Writer’s Core Habit Pack for Finding Flow
Attached you will find a one page PDF with techniques and tips to find writing flow. The worksheet takes you through the first process – to analyse and recognise your peak times and conditions for writing, through to some exercises for maintaining focus in writing. Download the WCHP Finding Flow sheet.
- Importantly, the key to finding writing flow is in actually writing – the more you write, the more naturally you will find writing flow, a win-win situation.
- Peak times (Sage Cohen in ‘The Productive Writer’ calls this the Prime Time)– when you feel in the flow of writing can alter over time*. Re-assess these times and places regularly.
- Be flexible*, but schedule daily writing sessions even if you happen to lack flow. If you can’t write during your peak (prime) writing time, work with what you have (another Sage Cohen point).
* My peak time for writing used to be in the late afternoon – that’s when I really got into the flow, and felt the full benefits. However, this is highly inconsiderate timing when I have a school age child with homework, after-school activities, and dinner to prepare. I occasionally scheduled a personal writing retreat day where I could use the 5pm writing time to best effect. Lately, my peak time has changed to early mornings, after the school run.
|Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention|
|How of Happiness|
|Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time|
|The Productive Writer: Tips & Tools to Help You Write More, Stress Less & Create Success|
This blog post participated in April 2013’s Blogging from A to Z Challenge, along with many other blogs on subjects as diverse as writing, foodie blogs or mummy blogs.
This blog post is part of a themed series or pack on Writer’s Core Habits. I acronym this as WCH or WCHP © . Do a search for these tags, and you will find more in the series.
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