Get into the flow

Oct 22, 2014

I love writing. It’s the thing that pays my bills.

Loving it, though, doesn’t mean that I always like it.

Sometimes I have perfect, miraculous days, where I open six documents and at the end of the day they’re all overflowing with beautiful, perfect words. This is maybe one or two days a month. The rest of the time, I’m just like any other ol’ human: pecking and poking over my keyboard, hoping the work will start itself.

Flow has been trendy these days -- you’re probably familiar with the term. If not, you definitely know the feeling. Flow is when you get so absorbed in an activity you make decisions without realizing you’re making them. It’s when you work on something with such intense focus and confidence that the effort itself becomes a kind of joy. After engaging in an activity that allows you to enter a flow state, you feel simultaneously satisfied and energized. It’s been proposed that having flow experiences makes us happier and betters us in intangible ways. Maybe you find your flow when you’re working and you hit a groove that lets you code for hours. Maybe it’s when you’re doing video for an event and every frame feels spot-on without your direction.

But flow doesn’t always have to come from one’s work. Sometimes, I forget that there are other activities that I can easily enter to find my flow and stay sane. When I get frustrated with my writing, I find it hard to get myself out of that rut; I dwell on what’s bothering me, picking and pondering and ruminating.

Lately, I’ve been trying to hit my flow another way: by going to another activity that gets me into that zone.

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Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the psychologist who started the research around (and the term) flow, was originally drawn to study the phenomenon because he was fascinated by artists who seemed to enter their work with such intense focus and absorption that they hardly ate or slept. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the activity that most quickly induces a flow state in me is painting.

I’m not a painter by trade; I make very little money off it. But nothing soothes me faster than drawing or painting -- having a blank slate in front of me that I can fill with shape and form, not words. When I was in school, I’d spend hours in the studio, almost in a trance, making three or four paintings over the course of an evening.

Csíkszentmihályi sets three conditions for flow:

  1. Goals are clear
  2. Feedback is immediate
  3. There is a balance between opportunity and capacity -- that is, the task is challenging, but it’s accompanied by skill.

I’d add to these my own conditions for flow, based on my experience painting:

  1. Freedom from distractions
  2. Sizable amount of time dedicated to the task
  3. Physical activity and freedom of motion -- over the course of a normal day, I don’t do enough with my hands.

Perhaps it sounds a little new-age, but I’m truly happier when I spend a few hours engaged in flow every week. It’s not my work, but it’s still crucial to my mental health -- like meditation for the fidgety. Lately, I haven’t been able to make time for painting and drawing, but I’m making an effort to go back and find my flow. It’s better for my life and it’s better for my work, and I think finding flow in drawing might help me find flow elsewhere.

What other kinds of activities help you get into flow -- sports, dance, crochet? Do you find flow when you work? And what else helps you get there?

Larissa Pham is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She works at the Freelancers Union.