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10 ways to trigger ‘flow’: the key to creativity & a sweet life

When was the last time you were so absorbed in what you were doing that you lost all sense of time and saw the world through fresh eyes?

Most of us long for The Zone, but we reach out to touch it and, ‘Beep!’ goes a text message alert, ‘Ping!’ goes a Facebook notification, ‘Swoosh!’, goes an email and BAM! The Zone was just a mirage, nothing but a handful of sand. You click and squint in a trance, drained from the indulgent skimming and switching, trying to convince yourself this is real work. Yet your desire burns: oh to bake a cake, construct a wooden table, dig a hole. You crave something tangible, something real. You long to be a craftsman – a solid antithesis to sifting sand at the screen, bound up with backache and red eyes; an antidote to the distractions that kick you out of flow.

Your desire burns because you know that Flow is where magic happens, but it’s a fleeting, elusive state. Flow treads a fine line, a fragile balance between what we believe our capacity for action is versus our opportunity for action. In other words, if the task gets tough, at first we’re vigilant, but can easily slip into anxiety. If it’s too easy, at first we relax, but can easily slip into boredom.

Somewhere between stressy and boring lies the sweet spot. The challenge is manageable. Feedback is clear and we sense our progress. Our brainwaves switch frequencies, turning off the self-conscious, frustrated inner critic. According to Dietrich (2004), activity in our prefrontal cortex decreases when we’re in flow – the area responsible for self-reflective consciousness. Our neurons fire in fresh configurations, illuminating connections we couldn’t see before. Inspiration bolts strike out the blue. Our hands are conduits for creative energy, assembling words, pictures, numbers, or sounds with ease. We step out of our own way and art comes through us. The looping ruminations that whir with vigour on a bad day dissipate, along with petty gripes and notions of hunger, discomfort, or being a bit sleepy. The trivialities that clog our minds evaporate in the higher ground of flow.

How sweet would your life be if it was characterised by complete absorption in what you do?

That’s why flow isn’t just key to creativity, it’s key to our wellbeing and our ability to achieve success, whatever your definition.

            According to Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ‘A given individual can find flow in almost any activity – working a cash register, ironing clothes, driving a car. Similarly, under certain conditions and depending on an individual’s history with the activity, almost any pursuit – a museum visit, a round of golf, a game of chess – can bore or create anxiety. It is the subjective challenges and subjective skills, not objective ones, that influence the quality of a person’s experience.’

In other words, flow is personal. Your unique set of traits and experiences determines how and when you will experience flow. So how do you trigger flow at will?

10 techniques for triggering flow

  1. Practice. Whether you’re painting, dancing, writing, or coding, the ‘effortless absorption’ experience of flow depends on mastering complex skills. Put the time in to learn the principles and techniques involved in your subject. Accept that the repetitiveness of practice can sometimes be boring, but to reach the skill level required to experience the joy of flow, there’s no skipping practice. Park the short-termism and time-pressed panic that’s normalised today and take a longer-term view. Remember practice is a cumulative investment, like compound interest on your savings. If you start early and do a tiny bit, consistently, one day you’ll turn around and marvel at how far you’ve come. Succumb to the trendy freakery of busy fools and you’ll put it off forever.
  2. Enjoy the activity for its own sake, rather than focusing on the reward you’ll get when it’s done. The old adage that ‘it’s all about the journey, not the destination’ is an important aspect of flow. If you’re thinking about the fat bonus you’ll get when you finish a project, that may well provide you with motivation to get cracking, but when it comes to losing yourself in the work, the extrinsic reward won’t cut it. If you’re into mindfulness, it’s the same thing: concentrate on the present moment and appreciate the nuances of performing the activity well, in and of itself.
  3. Get organised. Make sure you know what action is required. To experience flow, you’ll need an organised set of challenges and a corresponding set of skills. Assuming you’ve mastered the relevant skills, be sure you understand the set of challenges. For example, if you’re writing a book, decide on your approach to the task. Will you start with a chapter outline? Will you map out the structure with post-it notes, then flesh out the details? Writing skills alone may not be enough, if you don’t have an organised approach to the challenge.
  4. Pay attention. Attention is the lifeblood of flow. It’s the reason we exclude everything else and zone in on the task at hand, losing our sense of time and self. If your attention drifts, is it because you’re becoming anxious? In which case you need to adjust the challenge so it’s more achievable. Get more organised. Or it is because you’re becoming bored? In which case you may need to increase the difficulty level. Or perhaps you’re thinking about extrinsic rewards rather than appreciating the task in its own right, in the moment? According to Csikszentmihalyi, ‘particularly in contexts of extrinsic motivation, attention shifts to the self and its shortcomings , creating a self-consciousness that impedes engagement of the challenges.’ You know the feeling, so be aware of where your attention is focused. Attention is a choice and awareness enables you to make that choice.
  5. Identify and eliminate obstacles to flow, such as distractions and task switching. If you can do your work without using a computer, all the better. If not, trying using an app like to thwart your extraneous clicking addiction. Or if you prefer, rely on will-power. Don’t beat yourself up if you keep getting distracted, it’ll take time and practice to hone your focus. Meditation is a good workout for improving focus. Try working in small chunks of 15 or 20 mins’ intense focus, using a timer, if you need to go cold turkey; then build up to longer periods as you improve. Set specific times for succumbing to distractions, e.g. only check email once in the morning and once at night; only look at Facebook or Twitter for 5 minutes between focus sessions. If a messy desk or the presence of other people distracts you, tidy up and lock yourself away in solitary confinement. Try different music for increasing your focus, or find a silent spot – keep experimenting to find what works for you. Perhaps one of the processes or tools you’re using isn’t right for the job, scuppering your flow – so take the time out to identify and eliminate these barriers. Think about it like designing your own ‘customer experience’. Consider all those times when your experience using online banking or buying stuff in a shop was less than smooth; and apply the same process-improvement mentality to your own workflow.
  6. Develop your autotelic side. An autotelic activity is rewarding in and of itself (auto = self, telos = goal). People who are motivated in high-skill, high-challenge situations are autotelic individuals. According to Adlai-Gail (1994), autotelic students have better-defined future goals, so start by getting clarity on your goals, as well as following the other steps outlined here.
  7. If you have kids, develop their autotelic side too. Think about how you can create a family environment that strikes a balance between being supportive and challenging. Kids who get all support or all challenge are less likely to develop autotelic personalities – and are therefore less likely to enjoy high-skill, high-challenge tasks and less likely to experience flow – than those who experience both.
  8. Reframe your attitude towards work vs play. There’s an interesting paradox whereby people can find activities they classify as ‘work’ completely absorbing, but not enjoyable. This is primarily down to our negative conditioning around ‘work’. Making work feel more like play and play feel more like… serious play (let’s not use the ‘W’ word) will help you experience flow.
  9. Socialise! Research shows that solitude is strenuous. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the train of thought breaks down or becomes ruminative when we spend too much time alone. Rumination kills flow, not to mention begetting depression, so interaction with others is important for flow and wellbeing overall. What’s more, if you get the right people together in a group, you can experience the joy of group flow. This happens in ‘jam sessions’ or between friends or colleagues who bounce off one-another, creating something greater than the sum of their parts.
  10. Maintain a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset. In other words, people who believe their intelligence and abilities are fixed are less likely to develop the skills necessary to enjoy high-challenge tasks, let alone have a sniff of flow. Intelligence and skill are not fixed, due to neuroplasticity, i.e. the brain’s ability to reorganise neural pathways, creating long-lasting, physical changes in the brain when we learn new things or memorise new information. Accept that you can achieve mastery and flow by investing consistent, long-term effort. This is the essence of a growth mindset. Develop it in your kids by praising effort rather than innate talent, i.e. instead of saying ‘Well done, you’re so clever and great at maths!’, say ‘Well done, that’s great you put so much effort into your maths test!’. Oh, and remember… don’t let yourself off the hook by claiming you can’t get into a flow state because you ‘have the attention span of a gnat’. There’s no alibi that justifies avoiding practice; and all the productivity hacks in the world won’t give you a shortcut.

When we experience flow, we are operating at full capacity (cf. de Charms, 1968; Deci, 1975; White ,1959). Imagine! So if you want to scratch your potential, instigating flow is the only way.

Are you a visual storyteller who loves storyboarding? We’re plotting the launch of the world’s most spanking gorgeous storyboarding notebook, THE STORYBOARD, on Kickstarter soon. If you’re interested in becoming an Insider on the project, you can get involved and help shape the design, give feedback and get sneak peaks by filling in the contact form on our home page.

Our aim is to share super useful stuff and we’re always learning from you guys, so if you have any feedback on this post please leave comments below.

[image by chris licensed under creative commons]

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