By Alanna Klapp
Do you know someone you can talk with for hours that pass like minutes? I do; my friend and fellow blogger, Jenn, call this phenomenon “time warp.” It wasn’t until I began the research for this article that I realized the time warp I often experience with my friend has an actual name: flow.
Flow is a heightened mental state in which you are so absorbed and engaged in what you’re doing that you lose track of time. You can even lose your sense of self.
You may not recognize when you’re in flow, and therefore may not identify it as it happens, but afterward, you feel fantastic.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, 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). Lyubomirsky states, “When in flow, people report feeling strong and efficacious, at the peak of their abilities, alert, in control, and completely unselfconscious.”
According to Lyubomirsky, “The key to creating flow is to establish a balance between skills and challenges.”
If the task surpasses your abilities, you’ll become frustrated and quit. If it’s too easy, you’re bored and will move on to something else.
Flow falls between frustration and boredom. You have the ability to find flow while you write (flow can be found in almost all activities, including conversation as I mentioned earlier, but for the purposes of this article the focus will be on flow for your writing).
Flow is not only valuable for your writing (as it enables you to produce more), it’s also wonderful for your overall sense of well-being. Flow feels marvelous; it provides fulfillment and gratification that lasts. For this reason, you’ll want to find flow again, which leads to even more writing.
As you continue to write, you’ll improve, and to avoid boredom, you’ll need to challenge yourself.
So how exactly do you find flow?
In an interview on the radio show Pen on Fire with co-host Marrie Stone Lyubomirsky said there is a lack of research on how to increase the amount of flow in one’s life. Take heart, though, there are some things you can try to boost the flow factor for your writing.
Here are five:
1. “Adopt new values.” Lyubomirsky recommends you embrace two new values as your guide:
- “Be open to new and different experiences.” Write what you want and need to write, but be open to new forms you may not have considered before. Read inside and outside of your genre.
Cross-pollinate your brain with other art forms, such as movies, plays, music, and paintings. You never know what will provide the inspirational spark for your imagination and your next writing project.
- “Learn until the day you die.” Take writing classes, read books on the craft and business of writing, listen to podcasts for writers (two excellent ones are The Writing Show and Pen on Fire), join a critique group, network, surf the Web for all the vast writing resources available, go to author readings, and attend writers conferences.
2. “Learn what flows.” Do experiments with yourself as a writer. Pay attention to when you find flow in your sessions. Notice and take notes; a journal as you develop your writing habits can be a tremendous help because it will teach and show you how you work.
Do you flow better in the morning, afternoon, evening or late at night? When is the best time of day for you to concentrate? Does it help if you eat before or after you write? Do you flow better alone or while writing with another writer?
3. “Control attention.” Lyubomirsky writes on page 184 of her book, “To enter the state of flow, attention needs to be directed fully to the task at hand.”
In order to maintain flow, you must continue to focus. The goal is to “gain control over the contents of your consciousness moment by moment,” Lyubomirsky says. When you sit down to write, try to target your attention so that it’s aimed only on the piece of the project you’ve decided to do.
Engage with your work and your words. Don’t think about your limitations (“I can’t write a novel, I don’t know what I’m doing”), or your surroundings (“What time is it?”).
4. “Develop a sense of urgency.” Taken from Chapter 20 of Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, a sense of urgency is a drive within yourself to begin your writing project right now and complete that day’s writing task fast.
Tracy writes, “It’s an impatience that motivates you to get going and keep going. A sense of urgency feels very much like racing against yourself.”
If you don’t have a deadline, decide on one. Set a timer and write as fast as you can for 10, 15, 20 minutes. Before you know it, you’ll enter the state of flow.
Focus on specific steps for your writing project you can take now.
For example, for this post I listed, “take notes, pre-write, rough draft, second draft,” and on and on. I broke these tasks into even smaller chunks (take notes from The How of Happiness and Eat That Frog, freewrite as much as I can of my rough draft in 20 minutes).
Sometimes the tiniest action can propel you into a flow state.
The key is to start, then progress at a steady rate toward completion. The hardest part is to break ground. Tracy suggests on page 108 an easy yet effective method to begin: “Repeat the words, ‘Do it now! Do it now! Do it now!’ over and over to yourself.”
You could take this further and say, “Write for five minutes now!” Tracy says, “You will be amazed at how much better you feel and how much more you get done.” Apply a sense of urgency to your writing and the flow will follow.
5. “Practice.” This is perhaps the most important technique. Sonja Lyubomirsky asked. Marrie Stone her thoughts on how to increase flow, and Stone answered, “I think it’s a lot of practice. I think the more you do it, the more you probably are inclined to get into that mode.”
Practice writing, and practice sitting down and directing your undivided attention to your words.
What is your experience with flow in your writing (or other activities you enjoy)? Which authors make you lose track of time or stay up all night to read? How do you find flow in your writing life? What has worked for you may help someone else.
If you try any of these techniques, I hope you’ll share your results with us. Flow is a terrific tool to fight procrastination, and it’s a powerful, positive way to nourish your soul.
About the Author: Alanna Klapp is a writer and guest host for The Writing Show, a podcast that provides information and inspiration for writers. She placed second in the Lea Leever Oldham essay contest in 2005. She blogs at Wandering the Mind of Alanna Klapp and contributes to the Cleveland Browns blog Bitter Orange & Brown.