How to get in flow to boost your creativity
To go, or not to go with the flow? That is the question…
Ever experienced the sense of time disappearing when you’re in the midst of making? Whether you’re drawing, shooting, animating, designing or comping, there are times when the world disappears and you’re so in your groove and engrossed in your creativity that you blink and suddenly hours have passed by. This is called ‘flow’. An effortless creative state where our peak performances happen. Want to know how to achieve your flow state? Read on.
What is flow?
The concept of flow was discovered in the late 80’s and 90’s by a chap named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Me – hi – cheek – sent – me – high” For reals.). Writing a series of books on the subject, Csikszentmihalyi conducted interviews with people from all walks of life and professional backgrounds, including many in creative roles. His aim was to discover what it is that pushes creativity, especially at work.
Csikszentmihalyi discovered that people find satisfaction when they are completely engrossed in an activity, especially when it involves their creative abilities.
The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
During these flow experiences they feel “alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”
But it wasn’t just creativity that peaked during these flow states. Productivity increased too.
Including athletes, musicians and artists amongst his interview subjects, Csikszentmihalyi sought to pinpoint when they experienced their best performances, how it felt and what circumstances allowed these performances to emerge. In other words, to discover how creativity impacts and drives productivity.
It all came back to flow. In his own words, flow is:
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.
So, how to do we create a Flow state?
First up, you can’t get distracted. To experience flow, you need to steer yourself away from the things that steal your attention. Not easy when most of us are glued to our phones, thinking about what to have for dinner, and the rest of it. Well let’s see…
Csikszentmihalyi identified 7 conditions key to getting into a flow state and you can use these as a checklist:
1. Knowing what to do
Have you done this before and know how to go about cracking the task at hand? This is about your related experience.
2. Knowing how to do it
Again, thinking of your experience here, have you practised or used before the skills you’ll need to crack this?
3. Knowing how well you are doing
Keep checking in with how you’re doing, what’s working and what isn’t. Create your own feedback loop so you can improve along the way.
4. Knowing where to go
Go back to the road map and your past experience. You can ask your team/co-workers for direction in advance if you’re not sure.
5. Perceiving significant challenges
Check that there are new things here to tackle that you might not have done before, but feel within your reach. This is about making sure that you’ll be stretched.
6. Perceiving significant skills
Are there additional things you need to learn and practise before you take on this creative task?
7. Being free from distractions
Close your social apps, hide your phone in a drawer and make sure you’re working where you won’t be distracted.
4 strategies to create a flow state
Choose something tricky (but not too tricky!)
According to our pal Csikszentmihalyi, flow and optimal experiences don’t just simply happen. You must prepare to achieve your flow state by setting challenges that aren’t too hard or too easy, but just right. In other words, make sure you’re stretching yourself, but not taking on Everest on your first hike.
Being in your stretch zone, means you’re out of your everyday comfort zone. Comfort zones are boring after a while and just get you more of the same. The aim of stretching yourself is to push for something new that piques your imagination, ability and skills into a new place, so that you open up creative possibilities.
Equally, at the other end of the scale, tackling something too difficult or too big can lead us to a fear state where panic kicks in and it’s tempting to give up on the whole thing. The sweet spot for flow is somewhere between your comfort zone and your panic zone.
Have a goal, mission or purpose
You need to see the wood for the trees, be able to step back and be objective as to what you’re trying to achieve. It helps to look at how this task or challenge fits into the bigger picture of your goals, whether that’s for your life or your career or even just the project you’re working on. Not too clear on your bigger goals? A coach can help you with this.
Don’t get lost in the detail. The trick here is getting used to moving from the macro to the micro on a regular basis. This will set you up for success as well as help you get in flow.
Do one thing at a time
To maintain your focus, concentrate on the now, just as you would in a mindfulness or meditation exercise. Any thought of failure, what others might think, or the future, will break your flow state.
Sportsmen and women often become totally lost in the heat of the game, intent only on making the ball go where they want it to go. ‘’Their focus is on making a good shot, not on the fear of losing the match,’’ says Csikszentmihalyi.
A painter who thinks too much about what the picture will look like in the gallery will likely lose concentration. Instead of thinking about the exhibition they’re working towards, no matter how big or important it may be, she must think about the brush strokes to create the picture in all their intimate detail.
Focusing on one thing to the denial of everything else could be the most important element in achieving flow.
Don’t flow alone
Researchers have found that people who work in collaborative and multidisciplinary groups experience flow more deeply when working on a common project with combined goals. To get more out of being in flow, try engaging, collaborating and working with a group with lots of different skills and backgrounds, all focused on a common goal.
Remember creativity in today’s modern world is as much a team activity as any sporting endeavour and should be treated as a collaborative and interdependent experience with clearly defined goals, but with the focus on the process as well as an eye for where you’re headed.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
Wanna go with the flow some mo’?
Don’t think you can maintain this zen like state on your own? Why don’t you have a little tête-à-tête with Kim at [email protected]. She can tell you more about how we might get you flowing with the best of ‘em through the help of our courses.
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Performance Coach Hannah Allen guides you through the journey of dealing with failure and how to reframe it in a positive light.