In the Heat of Flow

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As mentioned in my post Finding Flow last week flow—or being in the zone as it is often called—is that inspired freedom of creativity when you lose yourself completely in artistic activities. Time, stress and artist’s block melt away, resulting in a unique voice and fully realizing your creative potential. Being in that state of flow in many ways resembles a trancelike state of mind. As Susan K. Perry writes in her book «Writing in Flow»; «you feel challenged, stimulated, definitely not bored. … [When] in flow, you’re often certain you’re tapping into some creative part of yourself—or of the universe—that you don’t have easy access to when you’re not in this altered state».

«Writing in Flow»—as I mentioned in the post—is based on a scientific study that Susan K. Perry conducted of more than 75 best-selling and award-winning authors. In the book she describes how the writers experience the state of flow; she dwells into five key elements of flow that most intimately affect the creative process and finally she writes about specific techniques writers use to make flow happen.

Although the book is about writing in flow, the general concepts and mechanisms behind creative flow is very much adaptable to any creative activity. I certainly found her ideas and suggestion very useful for my photography. As I am writing, too, I know the feeling of being in flow is similar when I experience it as a writer and when I experience it as a photographer.

It’s not possible to go into depth of her book in a post like this, but I will try to at least give an idea of what Susan K. Perry has found out. First, the five master keys that have an effect on the creative flow are partly a part of whoever you are, your whole self and the way of relating to the world. Partly they are concurrent to the actual creative process itself and come into play very near the time you begin the process as well as throughout the whole process. Having a reason to write—or if taken in a broader view; having a reason to do whatever creative work you do—is Perry’s first master key. On its simplest level it means you need something that motivates you to do whatever it is you are doing. It can be both external and internal reasons, although the latter often works as a stronger incentive. For instance I photograph because I want to tell stories about how people live in various layers of the world and the societies. I want to show both the beauty and the cruelty of human existence, and in so doing maybe be able to change if not the world, hopefully one or two persons along the way.

The second master key is to think like a writer—or an artist in any vocation you are working in. As for me, in all my professional life I have tried to learn and read about other photographers and how they think. The point is it’s possible for you to strengthen and bring to the forefront of your personality those aspects that will contribute to making your creative life more gratifying. It may be opening up yourself to new experiences, it may be trying to take more risks, it may be trying to get yourself fully absorbed by your work and it certainly has a positive effect if you are able to build confidence in what you are doing.

The next three master keys are more directly related to the creative process itself and in some ways more self descriptive. Of course there is more to them than that; based on the study that Susan K. Perry did she offers a lot of insights to the hows, but let me just quickly mention the last master keys here. One is loosening up, another is focusing in and the last is balancing between opposites.

Let me end by saying that «Writing in Flow» is a book that inspires and explains. If you are interested in other creatives’ take—and certainly writers’ take—on working in flow, or would like to know how to enter this state more often, this is a must-read.

Last Week’s Instagram

Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Finding Flow

For all artists the ultimate creative experience is when you lose yourself in your work, when you immerse yourself so much in some creative activity during which time cease to matter, when you forget yourself and everything else but the task at hand, when the work flows, when you are in flow. I have compared this experience with the feeling of being in a tunnel (se my post Tunnel Vision some time ago), while others call it «being in the zone» or just «in flow». As a matter of fact flow is a term used in psychological studies, of which University of Chicago psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was one of the first to examine. I briefly mentioned him in the blog post last week.

According to the science, flow happens because we make it happen when our mind or body is voluntary stretched to its limits, in an effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. The question is—especially for those who have yet to experience flow—how do we make it happen. In workshops I teach, I often talk about this feeling of flow, but I always find it hard to give concrete advice how to make it happen. My recommendation has been to work hard; that flow will eventually happen if you do the work. I think that is true, but it’s not necessarily a very satisfying answer. And just doing the work isn’t always enough for everybody who is seeking flow, neither. Last time the question came up for me was in a comment to my post Diving into Unconsciousness. I wanted to answer with more than a mere description of experience itself. I really wanted to come up with some thoughts about how to get there.

Imagine my excitement when just afterwards I came across a book investigating in depth what being in flow means. The book «Writing in Flow» by Susan K. Perry is based on a comprehensive study she did on 75 best-selling and award-winning authors for her doctoral dissertation. As indicated by the title of the book, it deals with being in flow while writing, but a lot of what Perry points to is valid for any kind of flow-experience. I certainly recognise her thoughts and recommendations for my own work as a photographer.

«Writing in Flow» is a book that gives an exciting glimpse into the creative process. Even more so it gives concrete input and ideas about how to get into flow. Her and now I just want to mention six requirements she believes is necessary to be able to be in flow.

First your activity must have clear goals and give you some sort of feedback. You need to want to do whatever you do for some reason which can be as simple as wanting to show the beauty of nature if you for instance are a nature-lover. In addition it needs to give you some satisfaction of some form, it could be nothing more than just being able to accomplish the task or being praised by the work afterwards. Secondly for flow to happen sensing that your personal skills are well suited for the challenge is necessary, giving you a sense of potential control. Thirdly you need to be intensely focused on what you are doing. Fourthly when in flow your sense of time is altered, with time seeming to slow, stop or become irrelevant. Lastly the experience needs to become self-rewarding.

I can recommend «Writing in Flow» – even if you are not a writer.

Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity

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Last Week’s Instagram

Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Get Offline—Lose Track of Time

In these days of social distancing and less work—for many of us—we ought to have more time than ever to be creative and put energy into our artistic work. However, at the same time and for the same reasons, we are more online connected than ever. We are on our phones all the time and constantly hooked up on internet. Good for keeping some kind of social life when regular social life is almost nonexistent but less so for giving our mind liberty to be creative.

I have had to have a discussion with self. Consciously step down. Despite more time than ever, it’s been hard to concentrate and getting into a good flow of creativity. My prescription has been: Put my phone away when I want to do creative work.

The beeps and boops of our electronic lives keep us unnecessary busy. We live in a world of time management apps, hacks and tips. Anywhere you go, you might hear a cacophony of alerts sounding, tweets twittering, and the frenetic tip-tap of fingers typing off one more email or text in order to check that one last thing off the to-do list. Or being social. We are so busy—our devices tell us so. Best not to let a single step or typed word go uncounted or not answer the social call.

Even in these times of more time available, we are increasingly becoming micromanagers of our days, dividing our time into increasingly tiny chunks all in the name of progress and productivity. The result is less time to be creative, less freedom to settle our mind into the flow of creative work. Flow requires time uninterrupted.

Many of you I bet have heard of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow states as most conducive to deep creative work. He describes flow as a state in which people become so absorbed in their work that “nothing else seems to matter.” It’s in such states that we are most creative, when innovative problem-solving takes place and great ideas are hatched. What we have taken less seriously as a tech-obsessed culture, however, is the degree to which the electronic productivity tools, the frantic pace of work activity, and being constantly social on social media might be eroding our ability to engage in this most productive work. Particularly now when we are more online than ever.

Business school professors Forbes and Domm noted in an article published in 2004 that it can often seem as though creative flow and task-oriented efficiency are at odds: “Curiosity is open and playful, while drive is serious, competitive, and achievement-oriented,” the authors write. The apps in our lives tend to emphasize the latter (achievement) at the expense of the former (creativity). After all, how does a phone know whether an idea is truly original? How can a step counter track whether the stroll was one during which the walker had a brilliant insight?

Now that we are more online—and paradoxically have more time than ever—it might be important to create strategies for protecting those flow states in which we lose track of those seconds and minutes that our apps are so happy to report on. Here are three such small tweaks to decrease tech disruption and recapture flow.

1. Release your inner child
Work one day or afternoon a week with some creative production and away from any time-keeping device. Even better if you can work in nature or solitude. Be childlike and sprawl out on the floor—or on the ground. Give yourself the opportunity to have your work be an immersive sensory experience, with the tactile experience of doing something physically, spreading your ideas out in physical space to look at them. Get into it.

2. Lose time
If giving a whole day over this way seems scary, set out a specific chunk of time you can “lose.” Use a timer and decide that whatever happens within the hour or two you set for your creative task will be fine. Do not look at the timekeeper while working. Stop worrying about tracking your time in the security of knowing that the ding will let you know when you’re done.

3. Box out technology
Put your phone physically away, whether in a drawer or zipped into your purse or backpack. Turn off sound notifications on your computer. Use an internet-limiting tool such as Freedom, Self-Control or Focus. As the names of these apps indicate, these products limit the user’s access to distracting and disruptive sites creative workers so often go to when ideas are hard to push through, rather than staying in the moment of creative problem-solving.

At the end of the day, being in the flow is where we do our best work and are happiest. It might not always look like productivity, but in a world where everyone else is obsessively measuring and counting, maybe losing track of time is just the right kind of different.

Last Week’s Instagram

Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Opportunities

It’s been almost two months now. Two months since the lockdown of Norway, the country I am presently staying in, my country. Since then I have tried to stay positive. I have managed—sometimes, and sometimes not so well. As such, it’s far from being a unique experience or reaction. We have all felt the impact of the virus outbreak, some certainly a lot more than I have.

These days, things are slowly starting to open up again, here in Norway and in many other places in the world. It’s with a feeling of relief and hope, that we are now able to venture out a little more, be a little more social, although still complying with the requirements of infection control and social distancing.

However, we all know we still have a long way ahead of us before the world will be back on its regular pace.

The long-term perspective is maybe the hardest part to handle, mentally and probably in many other ways, too. It’s not about the virus itself but about its impact on work, economy, heath, our social life, yes, all aspects of life. We cannot see into the crystal ball and predict how the outcome will be, how this will all end. The only thing certain is that the crisis is far from over. Maybe now is when it really begins.

Thus, more than ever, we need to stay positive. Perhaps then, a quote by John F. Kennedy can be of some inspiration: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

Kennedy’s interpretation isn’t quite accurate, but it nevertheless gives us a message to hold on to these days. And something to strive for. In dealing with the crisis, we have options. We can deal with it as a danger or we can try to see the opportunities it provides. Well, the healthiest approach is both, of course. We shan’t overlook the danger of covid-19, but if we fail to hold on to the opportunities the pandemic provides, we do ourselves a disfavour.

In a newsletter by the Canadian photographer David duChemin emailed a month and a half ago, he wrote: “Unlike the dangers in life that come to our door and barge right in, opportunities knock and wait for us to answer. They need us to take hold of them. To act. It’s not just positive thinking, and hoping it all turns out OK. It’s taking responsibility for our mental health, for our time, and doing what is positive and healthy. It’s looking forward, and being hopeful. I think that in tension with the many challenges that we’re all going through right now, we can also choose from among many opportunities.”

To act. That is indeed what we need to do. In my first blog post after my country’s lockdown, I encouraged all of us to stay positive and fill the extra time that the pandemic has imposed on us with positive actions. Learn. Read. Expand our horizon.

Have you been able to make use of whatever opportunities the crisis has cast upon you? I hope so, and I hope you have been able to stay positive, too. Please share whatever you been able to turn to your advantage in these times of difficulties.

I for one, have had much more time at home and in my office—which is in my home, so no big difference between the two, as a matter of fact. The difference, however, is that before I was out meeting people, photographing people and experience the world in all its magnitude and misery (yes, both). Now I talk with people on the phone or online. And I don’t stress around trying to get from one place to another.

The latter has been a positive experience. Less stress—who didn’t dream about that before? Suddenly I have more time. Time that always used to be in constant demand, simply not enough of it. Now I have time for all those tasks and wishes I could only dream about before. I can workout every day. I can run four or five times a week. Last week I made it four times to the top of the mountain overlooking Bergen, my city. It’s not a big mountains, about 640 metres of elevation and a little more than an hour for me to reach walking or hiking from my home—and a little less than an hour to get back. I got to experience one of the most beautiful sunsets from the top one evening last week. How about that?

Generally it’s been a time in which I have been able to focus more on health in general and eat better. When rushed for time, I don’t always manage as much as I know I should.

Now it’s also been time to prioritize my tasks, for instance the time I use on social media. I don’t spend excessive amount on social media in the first place, but I always feel I am behind and need to do more. That I have all let got of. I have been able not to be sucked in, actually spend less time and not even feeling stressed about it. At the same time, I think I use the technology in a much healthier way, staying more in touch with people I care for and with communities I cherish, such as my blogger friends.

The extra time available has provided me with an opportunity to read more books. I always try to read, but now, over the last couple of weeks, I have been able to make a dent in the huge pile of books that always wait to be read. Right now I have started reading John Williams’ Stoner, almost an old classic now, which feels appropriate for these times.

It’s also been an opportunity to not be so overwhelmed and a chance to focus on more intentional things. Originally the pandemic itself, was overwhelming, but now that I have learned to live with it, the fact that the world around me doesn’t come crushing in on me, feels liberating. Less email, less meetings, no social gatherings, no travels. It’s simply a lot quieter now and I start to feel at peace and a calmness taking hold of me—how strange that might sound with the pandemic still hanging over us as a threat.

My biggest concern is for all those who are more impacted than me, who are desperate, who lack the resources to handle the pandemic in a safe way or are sick and struggle to survive. So part of the opportunities that have arisen for us with more resources is showing more generosity and empathy and sharing with those who need it more than ever.

Have you been able to make use of the opportunities that has come out of the present crisis? And how has that been for you? Please share your experiences, as inspiration and encouragement for others.

Last Week’s Instagram

Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

A Little Magic

Photographically, the last couple of weeks have been a bit of a demise. Not being able to move close to people due to restrictions to limit spread of the corona infection, has pretty much put an end to people photography—and my work as a photographer, since I am a photo reporter and photograph people.

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t really written any new posts about photography and creativity over the last weeks. Now you know why. It’s been hard to sit down and write about something I don’t practice daily.

All the more I was inspired by a post on the blog The World According to Dina published this week. Hanne Siebers, photographer and one of two behind the blog, showed a new Photoshop technique she hard learned through The North Norfolk Photographic Society, the local camera club she is a member of. In Swirls and Twirls she shows how to make photographs exactly as the title indicates.

I won’t get into details about the technical aspects here, but, if you are interested, refer you to Hanne’s post where she describe her approach and link to a YouTube videoe that shows in practical steps how do create the swirls and twirls. I just want to say, it looked like a lot of fun—and sure enough I had more than plenty of fun when I sat down and played with the technique.

The important part was exactly to play and enjoy myself, let myself loose of any restrictions. I think too many of us—included myself—take our photography to serious. Let’s play more. Let’s have more fun. And that’s what this technique offer.

Sure enough, the result can easily turn kitschy and contrived. So what? We don’t always have to create Art with a capital A. And, yes, there is a limited amount of pure swirls and twirls images you can keep producing, but as soon as you start to mix a swirls and twirls layer with the original layer, as Hanne shows, you start to create something much more profound. The result can end up in some stunning images.

However, the technique needs to be used with care. Not every photo is suitable and certainly too many with the technique applied will quickly become dreary and mind-numbing. But used with care and consideration, every so often you can create something out of the ordinary. A little bit of magic.

Mind you, don’t hold back when you play. Play and have fun to all your heart’s delight. It’s not particularly difficult to play with the technique, but you might want to know some about layers and blending modes in Photoshop.

Last Week’s Instagram

Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.