We often think of “flow” as something we don’t have complete control over. When we get into a state of flow we know it means certain factors must have come together – but we’re often only conscious of a small number of them.
Because of this, working in any creative capacity—especially writing—can sometimes feel like a crap shoot. You sit down for the day and you might as well be rolling the dice on your level of productivity and output.
So while I don’t think we can ever completely eliminate this element of chance, we can certainly take measures to improve the likelihood of getting into flow.
How to Get Into Flow (Fundamentals)
Much of getting into flow is about setting yourself up properly ahead of time. This requires experience, self-knowledge and really just discovering what works best for you.
It helps to answer questions like:
- Is it a certain type of music you like listening to?
- A particular environment you work best in?
- Does consumption of stimulants like caffeine or modafinil help?
- Are there certain foods that put you into that state?
- Do you work best at a certain time of day?
- Do you work best alone or with other people around?
The first step is knowing yourself well enough to answer these questions, and the second step is making sure as many of these things as possible are in order.
Furthermore, the work you’re doing needs to line up with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s original chart:
Finding the balance between challenge vs. skill might seem difficult, but it really isn’t. Especially if you’re doing any kind of self directed work, the challenge should match up with your skill level anyway. And personally I don’t buy that you need to be an expert to get into flow – you just need to be competent and actually enjoy what you’re doing.
How to Get Into Flow (When you feel hopelessly blocked)
Sometimes, even with all the right pieces in place, you still can’t get into flow. Everyone has those days where things just aren’t happening and the creative apparatus (whatever that is) seems stifled or blocked.
One school of thought would tell you to stop and pack it in for the day—to give yourself a break and come back tomorrow. Most of the time, unless you are clearly overworked, I don’t think this is the right answer.
Another suggestion might be to try and “allow” the flow—sometimes this works. If you just let go and allow it, the creativity might come on its own.
But people often say not to try and “force it”—I would disagree. If you’ve tried everything else and you are still stuck, you should definitely try to force it. With effort you can push past the resistance—a little persistence goes a long way. Keep cracking away at the mental block and it will give way eventually.
After the work starts flowing on its own, even just a little, then you can let go and “allow” it. But this requires getting past the resistance first with your own effort.
Here are some practical ideas:
Consume what you want to produce
Take a break from trying to work, and instead feed your mind with the type of content you want to produce. Read writing similar to what you want to write, look at paintings similar to what you want to paint, etc. Don’t plagiarize it – obviously – just let it sit there for a minute, and then start creating. This can get the gears moving and prime your mind for the type of work you want to do yourself.
Keep going even if you know it sucks
Let’s say you start working, but everything you create is horrible and you know it. This isn’t a very good feeling but.. ignore it and just keep going. If everything you create that day is going to suck, so be it—it’s better than doing nothing at all. Something good, however small, will likely come of it, and even if not then accept the simple fact of life that you need to have shitty days in order to have good days.
Move your body around
Go for a short walk or just stand up for a minute. Try working standing up. Shake around a lot and get the nervous energy out of you… switch things up physically and it can trigger that mental flow. The mind and body are one, after all.
Start writing nonsense
Sometimes when nothing is coming out and I feel stuck, I just start typing whatever gibberish is going on in my head. Starting to write, even the most meaningless mental chatter, can get you into a rhythm and once you’re a little warmed up it’s much easier to write something of substance.
Literally just wait
This is a weird one that I can’t fully explain, but sometimes if you wait and give it a bit of time, the flow will hit you eventually. I’ve had times where after two hours of sitting and staring out the window, suddenly something hits me and I write 1000 words in ten minutes. Again I can’t explain it but as a last resort—just sit there, keep trying, and wait. You can also try meditating.
I hope this has been helpful – next time you feel stuck in your work, give some of these a try. More often than not, I find it works.
What do you do to put yourself into flow? How much control do you think we really have over a state like it? Post a comment below to let us know what you think.