Monday, 28 January 2013

How Writers Can Cultivate Flow

Flow is that state where you get "into the zone" or "lose track of everything else". It's tricky to describe - which is surprising since I bet everybody has experienced Flow many times throughout their lives. A wonderful man called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (he likes to be called Mike, apparently, and the surname is pronounced cheeks-sent-me-high) is an expert in the field of Positive Psychology, which looks at happiness, fulfilment and, um, the positive side of life. His book Flow: The Psychology of Happiness is amazing and accessible; which is why I'm borrowing the criteria that define Flow from it...

Being in a state of Flow usually involves:
1. A challenging activity that requires skill
2. The merging of action and awareness
3. Clear goals and feedback
4. Concentration on the task at hand
5. The paradox of control: a sense of being in control, while simultaneously no longer worrying about being in or losing control
6. The loss of self-consciousness
7. The transformation of time: minutes can seem like hours, and vice versa, as time loses proportion

Thinking about Flow, I realised that some of my best writing has been done it that state. I was also aware that I don't very often achieve a state of Flow when writing. So I thought of some ways writers (including myself) could cultivate Flow and, hopefully, improve productivity.

Strategies/exercises that encourage a sense of Flow:

Freewriting - I've mentioned freewriting a lot in various blog posts, but I love it! All you do is write whatver's in your head. Even if it's "I don't know what to write about" or "everything I write is crap". Don't pause. Keep writing, spewing out all those thoughts and ideas you tend never to notice.

Focused Freewriting - this is a variation of freewriting where you consider a specific topic and write everything you think of in relation to that topic. The topic could be a theme (like jealousy or love), a character, a situation, a problem you're having with a particular story (how can I write about a coincidence without it seeming too contrived?), a setting or location... Anything. Again, just keep writing and let your mind bring forth ideas you might otherwise cast aside.

Micro Goal-Setting - ask yourself what you want to achieve during a writing session and keep writing until you get there. You will have to experiment to find out what types of goals work best for you; which induce Flow most effectively and which leave you dissatisfied. Your might be to write continuously for X minutes, to write X number of words, or to generate X number of ideas.

The important thing is that the goal should be quantifiable: it should tap into the "clear goals and feedback" aspect of Flow. Focus on your goal and doing something towards it - even if your writing or ideas seem rubbish, keep at it. Besides, if you're criticising your work, you're not focusing on the goal!

Planning a Writing Route - decide a chain of goals you want to achieve during a writing session, preferably ones which require you to complete them in order, and approach them as a puzzle you need to solve.  This works best if the goals are plot points - such as how you get a character to a certain location and then to tell a person at that location a piece of vital information - but could also work for other story elements. Focus on each part of the problem in turn and write your solutions. Again, don't judge or criticise your writing: focus on problem-solving. 

Writing Meditation - being in a state of Flow reminds me of mindfulness meditations, where you observe the processes of your mind and bring your concentration back to a focus point (often your breathing) each time your mind wanders. So why not turn your writing session into a mindful meditation? Each time your mind wanders or something distracts you, bring your attention back to your writing.

As Csikszentmihalyi says on page 211 of Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, "concentration leads to involvement, which can only be maintained by constant inputs of attention." It doesn't matter if you get distracted - just bring your attention back to the page/screen. This takes patience and practice, but becomes an effective way of increasing your attention span and actually writing when you intend to write!

Go Forth and Flow!
I hope you find these exercises useful and enjoy trying them out. Their nature means that a lot of what you write may well be rubbish, but you'll be surprised at the number of diamonds you find among the dross. I'm also sure that if you repeat the exercises, over time you will find they produce an increasingly better quality of writing - a bonus!



  1. These exercises sound like a good idea for me. Flow is what I need in what is turning our to be a stop-start sort of week! I shall definitely try them out. Many thanks, Hayley. x

    1. Thanks, Joanna, and you're welcome. I certainly had fun road-testing the exercises! :-)

  2. So that's why I experience the Flow. I do all of these things. :D

    1. I tend to do them unconsciously when the writing's going well and forget about such strategies when the writing's going badly! :-)

  3. Anything with psychology has me intrigued! I love it! And I love the ideas you've come up with to help with "flow." I'll have to try some out. I do like those moments when I really AM in a state of flow :)

    1. Me too - I love seeing the pages fill as if by magic when I'm in flow! Glad you like the exercises :-)