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9 Steps to Achieving a State of Flow

The love we have for our work is one of the most important qualities of creativity. This love is not for the outcome or reward, but it’s for the actual process of sitting down and dancing with ourselves and engaging the opportunity to find out what’s inside us, create connections, and become more than we were before the process began.

The pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied where, in everyday life, people are truly happy. He studied artists and scientists, trying to understand what about their work or their use of time made it worthwhile. Was it money, fame, fortune, purpose, or love?

In his timeless compendium, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, he explains why enjoyment is so essential for creativity:

Perhaps the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. Without this trait poets would give up striving for perfection and would write commercial jingles, economists would work for banks where they would earn at least twice as much as they do at the university, physicists would stop doing basic research and join industrial laboratories where the conditions are better and the expectations more predictable.

This enjoyment, which champions what he coined as “flow,” happens when you enter a state of near-unconscious ecstasy: you lose track of time, your environment, and ultimately yourself. You are enraptured in the work, where your focus is unyielding to distractions. This state of flow is a surefire sign that the work you’re doing is meaningful and engaging—that something within the process ignites your curiosity and provides a wellspring of happiness.

A state of flow for a creative is like having a hot hand as a basketball player. Not only are you in your zone, you’re operating at your peak performance, practicing the notion of “inviting the perfection desired,” as Martha Graham said.

Photo credit: TED https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow

Reaching this state of flow can be elusive if your environment isn’t right or if you’re simply having a tough day. Csikszentmihalyi describes the nine elements of enjoyable work, which he found to be present across gender, race, age, career, and cultural differences. This is a fantastic framework for getting to that state of flow:

Nine main elements were mentioned over and over again to describe how it feels when an experience is enjoyable:

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way.
  2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  4. Action and awareness are merged.
  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  6. There is no worry of failure.
  7. Self-consciousness disappears.
  8. The sense of time becomes distorted.
  9. The activity becomes autotelic.

I want to expand on three of these elements because they’re the ones that stand out to me as I seek to achieve a state of flow.

  1. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.

Feedback is what pushes learning forward. You write a draft, you get back edits, and you learn to see what you couldn’t see before. You do a squat, your trainer tells you to squeeze your core, and your next repetition is in perfect form. Without feedback, it’s difficult to discern and be aware of your own actions, and, more importantly, where you must improve to get to the next stage.

Seeking people generous enough to give honest and direct feedback is certainly a gift. If you’re a freelancer, it may be difficult to get immediate feedback, but if you’re in a workplace that champions this process, your skills will level up quickly.

Whether hiring a coach or organizing a tribe of like-minded people, seeking a generous and accountable process for feedback is perhaps one of the greatest assets to your life and career. I made the amateurish mistake of hiring an editor later in my career, and I sometimes wonder the opportunity cost of how much learning I missed out on at the beginning.

  1. There is no worry of failure.

Author Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

The keyword here is worry, not failure. Worry is the relentless self-sabotage we inflict on ourselves by constantly wondering, “What will people think of me?” This is because we’re hardwired to be social. It’s why we use big words when we write to appear smart. Once that worry disappears—once you accept that failure will always be part of the process, and by accepting that you can simply turn the volume down on your anxiety—you can get to work. At this stage, the next step (self-consciousness disappears) occurs naturally.

  1. The activity becomes autotelic.

Autotelic has Greek origins—autos meaning self, and telos meaning goal. When an activity is autotelic, it’s intrinsically fulfilling and extraneous rewards like fortune and fame are ignored. This is perhaps the lifeblood of achieving flow.

As author Jane Smiley said in Why We Write,

I’ve had some rewards. Rewards are fantasies. You can’t wish for an award. You cannot say, ‘My career will finally be worth it if I win the Nobel Prize.’ That’s false consciousness. If your career wasn’t worth it while you were writing those books, then what a sad life you’ve led. For me, it goes back to curiosity. I suppose my career will be over when I look around and say, ‘This is all boring; there’s nothing more that interests me.’ You want your interests to outrun your actual days on earth.

Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire, mentions in the book Daily Rituals that her routine and habits were always about “a search for the uninterrupted three-or-four-hour stretch.” What I think she was hinting at was that she can get her day’s work done in that time period if she finds her flow. Creative work is not about the 9-to-5; it’s about finding your flow and doing your best work at that time.

When I start a draft around 9 a.m. and lift my chin up four hours later with 2,000 words on the screen, I’ve entered a state of flow. I’ve accepted the fact that the first draft is always shitty; I’ve ignored my self-doubt and fear of failure, and I’m playing with the ideas and insights that I want to communicate. The activity is autotelic, connections are popping into my mind while I search my commonplace book, and when the draft is finished, I’m invigorated with a runner’s high.

If a state of flow is crucial for honing your skills and delivering on your ideas, how, then, do you enter a state of flow on a regular basis?

I’ve discovered that ambient sounds help me achieve this state of flow more quickly. According to Greg Ciotti,

Researchers have shown that a moderate noise level can get creative juices flowing, but the line is easily crossed; loud noises made it incredibly difficult to concentrate. Bellowing basses and screeching synths will do you more harm than good when engaging in deep work.”

Apps like Noisli are my secret sauce. Once I plug my headphones in and hear the sounds of rainfall, birds chirping, or a fireplace crackling, I can feel distractions fading. It calms the storm of thoughts in my mind and allows me to focus on the task at hand.

Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention is a book that fundamentally changed the way I view my creative career, the creative process, and everything in between. It’s a must-read for those who want to get a firm understanding of successful careers and fruitful processes.