You know that positive feeling you get when unburdened by negative influences you loose track of time and are purely consumed in the act of creating something? I hope you do! People refer to this state in a number of different ways; in the moment, in the zone, on a roll, in the groove, lost in your work, on fire, singularly focused, in the pocket, centered, etc. As a creative person it is a great place to be and is probably why so many of us dedicate our lives to working in creative fields. Though this feeling has been around as long as people have been driven to create, a scientific term for this mental state was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the nineteen seventies – “Flow”.
What is flow?
Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” (source-Flow: The Physiology of Optimal Experience) Several prominent psychologists have come up with lists of component necessary to achieve this state. I have compiled a list of factors that show up in almost all of the lists as important aspects of achieving flow:
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment.
- Merging of actions and awareness.
- A loss of self-consciousness / No worry of failure
- Distractions are removed from consciousness.
- A sense of personal control / One’s skills meets the challenge.
- Sense of time is altered
- Experience of the activity is intrinsically rewarding.
- There are clear goals and immediate feedback.
In essence, flow is a completely focused motivation. It is harnessing your skill in the act of creating and learning while banning the feelings of anxiety and depression. It is that time or state were your best work gets done and you feel your greatest sense of accomplishment. It is total absorption in your art.
Getting things done is a necessity in creative work but for me enjoying the process is one of the biggest benefits! If we understand the eight points listed above that define flow, we can remove negative factors in our workday that might keep us from achieving flow. Good scheduling and deadline management, for example, can make sure there are fewer distratctions. Setting aside a specific period of time to return phone calls, do the paperwork, maintain your social networking, etc., can clear a good portion of your day to dedicate to creating. Procuring necessary assets and supplies in advance can eliminate a time killer like a supply run. Informing co-workers or collaborators that you will be unavailable for a period of time might stop unnecessary interruptions as well. Without these distractions we can dedicate time to deeper creative immersion.
“Painters must want to paint above all else. If the artist in front of the canvas begins to wonder how much he will sell it for, or what the critics will think of it, he won’t be able to pursue original avenues. Creative achievements depend on single-minded immersion.” -Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi
Another important factor is taking on jobs with defined goals that clearly meet your skill level. If you are anxious about your ability to meet clients’ need you cannot reach that state where you do your best work. Try to get a clear definition of your clients’ goals; too much information can be a distraction and too little info can cause anxiety. Fear of failure is definitely a flow killer. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be a challenge involved, just keep them realistic. Challenges are necessary in focus. If you know what you need to create and are comfortable that you can meet the challenges involved you have a much better chance of achieving flow.
Benefits of flow.
Straight from the definition we learn that achieving flow is intrinsically rewarding and provides immediate feedback. Bonus. Immediate rewards are nice but it is even more rewarding that over time you are developing an increased mastery of your art. As your level of skill increases you have to continually elevate your challenges, stretch to meet higher goals, ultimately spurring a natural growth in your creative abilities. We become better artists, better performers, and happier workers which leads to greater efficiently, increased feeling of competency, and ultimately as working professionals- more money.
“Anyone who has experienced flow knows that the deep enjoyment it provides requires an equal degree of disciplined concentration.” -Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi
Flow and your health.
So we know that we can help create circumstances that allow us to achieve flow, and that the experience is rewarding, but we should also make sure be awed of to our personal well-being. When our grasp of time and self-awareness become altered we can forget about pesky things like eating, drinking, stretching and sleeping. For example, when I am composing I have learned to set two or three bottles of water and a granola bar or other snack next to my mixing board. Many hours later I will see that I have consumed the food and water without even realizing it. If I am on a roll I don’t want to stop for a sit down meal. So if you are someone who isn’t going to stop for thirst, hunger, or sleep then take necessary precautions. If you are prone to work all night make sure you have time to sleep the next day. Get out of your chair once in a while; you can work standing up for a minute or two. I know it seems intuitive to take care of your health but flow can make you forget. So be prepared, your back will thank me.
I hope that you achieve flow often and continue to make great creative work, and when people ask you what did you do today you can say, “I achieved some serious flow!”
To read more about flow theory form Csikszentmihalyiyou can purchase his books here: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience & Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention