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  • Jess Lawrence

Experiencing the 'flow' in writing

How many of you have settled in for a writing or editing session and completely lost track of time? You look up at the clock and you realise that six hours have passed, during which time you forgot to eat or move because you were so focused on the work you were doing.

This is an experience that we call ‘flow’.

What is flow?

First, let me introduce you to a man called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-Hi Chick-Sent-Me-Hi). Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist known for his research into flow and the mental state we enter into during productive sprints.

‘The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.’ – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

He describes flow as a state of optimal experience. It is when we get so invested in a particular task that we lose all sense of time. We experience such intense concentration that we don’t have any brain power left over to think about our problems, concerns, stresses, fears etc. Instead, we indulge in the pure bliss of being in the moment, working hard on a task that challenges us.

How do we enter the state of flow?

Flow graph – y axis is Challenge, x axis is skill level. Flow shown between these two.

This graph shows the varying stages between skill level and challenge. For example, watching TV is a task that requires very little skill and provides no challenge, which can lead to a sense of apathy. You aren’t pushing yourself and so the outcome won’t stimulate you.

Moving up the ‘Challenge’ axis, if we have a project that is very challenging and we don’t have the right skill level to complete it, then we are prone to experiencing anxiety. Conversely, if we have a project that we are more than qualified to complete but it offers very little challenge, we hit boredom.

Flow is the sweet spot between these two areas. We find it when we take on a project that is just challenging enough for us to handle with the skills we have. It will not be easy, but it will be exhilarating – and that is the point. Flow isn’t about drifting down a calm river in a dinghy; it’s about navigating the rapids that you’ve been training for.

Achieving flow and being 'autotelic'

In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi discusses a personality that he calls autotelic. It is derived from Greek; auto meaning 'self' and telos meaning 'goal'. To be autotelic is to find purpose from within, rather than from the world around us.

For example, a writer who isn’t driven by ambition to become published or to become famous, but instead is driven by the love of writing, can be considered autotelic. It doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be published or earn money from their work, but rather that it isn’t these ‘external rewards’ that push them to create in the first place. It is self-determination. The act of writing is reward enough – anything more is a bonus.

'Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.' – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

According to Csikszentmihalyi, you can train yourself to become autotelic. In part, it is a personality trait, but being autotelic means finding joy in the day-to-day, too, and we can all do that by committing to the following:

  1. Set goals that have clear and immediate feedback

  2. Become immersed in a particular activity

  3. Pay attention to what is happening in the moment

  4. Learn to enjoy the immediate experience

  5. Proportion one’s skills to the challenge at hand

In short, find an activity that you are good at but that can challenge you – like writing a novel. Set yourself a target, put everything else aside (mentally) and immerse yourself in the act of writing.

If you practice this enough, you can train yourself to engage in these moments of flow more often, and thus experience the euphoria of doing good work unhindered by distraction.