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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67 thoughts on “Finding Flow

  1. Wonderful text Otto. I plan to read the book Writing in Flow. I am aware of how time slips away when one is trying to create something, though sometimes it is an uncomfortable feeling, a sense of being pressured, perhaps I am not in the flow. Emotional response contributes greatly to the ability to create something worthwhile, hence the Muse. Have a beautiful week end Otto! Thank for sharing your amazing narrative and the reference book.

    1. Maybe being in flow can create some uncomfortable feelings. But my experience is the opposite. I feel completely free. In fact there is no pressure or any outside influences. Pressure would rather distract from flow. Is what I think. 🙂 Have a lovely weekend, you too Holly.

  2. Sounds like an excellent book. As I was reading this post, my mind drifted back (oops, I wasn’t in flow) to high school years when I had to perform violin recitals. Part of overcoming stage fright involved knowing the piece so well that I could begin anywhere and move forward. It was as if the page of the score were written on the insides of my eyes. Once I got past the scary intro phrase, the audience, the stage, the lights all receded and I was one with the music. It took enormous work to get to that point, to that ability of having the music so ingrained, so a part of me. But after the performance was over, I felt euphoria. I believe I was in flow in those moments.

  3. This actually sounds very exciting. Maybe the sort of flow that was underway, until interrupted, when Coleridge was writing “Kubla Khan,” or when Mozart and Beethoven were in the groove, writing complex music in amazing little time, or even Paul McCartney, waking up and jotting down “Yesterday” in something less than a minute.

  4. The six ‘requirements’ she lists are familiar. I recognized each of them, and I certainly have experienced all of them — sometimes, even in the midst of the same project! What’s most satisfying is recognizing that I came to some of the same insights on my own; it’s always fun to find our conclusions and convictions in a book written by someone else. It’s an affirmation that the best guidelines aren’t ‘secret knowledge’ — they’ll eventually become obvious to anyone who devotes themselves to their craft.

  5. Great recommendation , Otto, thank you so much for sharing, I will look for this book. When I am in tune with my passion of capturing images at this situation right now, I total can feel the flow from my soul and I follow that, what it tells me. Stay in the flow and be safe and healthy, Otto.

  6. “Losing myself in my work”, that’s it. Until my editor calls me for a lunch. Hey man, all restaurants are closed. Well, i feel a bit lost 😎

  7. I often refer to this as wondering what is the secret whistle that summons my muse back. Sometimes it seems to just disappear. What worked last time to call it back, doesn’t work the next. I will definitely give this book a look. Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. Great opening photo Otto. I love silhouettes and this one is wild and fun! I like the six requirements and feel I can identify with what you are saying here. I have been finding it a little harder to get in the flow with the pandemic looming over us but it still happens and is a great diversion!

  9. We may not be able to exercise the control we would like over our creative flow but we do have the capability to provide an environment supportive of the creative process eg., time, place, removal of distractions etc., as you have discussed previously.
    In times of creative blockage I often try to break the task down into smaller elements eg., exploring lines, spaces, shapes, colours etc. The use of a mask frame helps me to experiment with cropping and the exclusion of distractive features.

  10. This sounds like a great book, Otto. I agree with the four suggestions that initiate a sense of flow. I know that for me, I need to create large chunks of uninterrupted time for focus, settle into my chair with all creature comforts in place, and have an outline to work from so I know where I need to go. Every word written is a word written – that’s the reward. 😀

  11. When it happens it is a wonderful experience and something that can be unpredictable. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to turn it on when desired? There are times when I struggle with a composition or while processing. Walking away sometimes helps and the experience of flow can happen upon return…or not.

  12. It’s a joy when it happens and a misery when it doesn’t. All of what you said is true, but I think at least a part of it may be silencing that critical inner voice that complains and criticizes?

  13. I think flow is a natural byproduct of focus and concentration, and being experienced and comfortable enough with the context for it to come naturally. I’ve had it with photography and I used to have it when writing software, but I don’t know if it’s limited to creative endeavors. For example, you often hear of professional athletes being in the zone – I think that’s the same as flow.

  14. Hey! I loved the blog 🙂 Can relate to it! Trying my hands on painting this lockdown. Always believe in those 6 requirements that you need to get into the flow! Love from India 🙂

  15. Would love it if you could share some basic painting beginner tips. Have experienced that feeling of “getting lost” in your work that time stands still when i made a potrait. It was relaxing,meditating.

  16. the flow…yes it’s a great moment. To have it happening I need to feel involved in what I’m doing, much involved, totally immersed. Possibly I must be sure to control the technical aspects of what I’m doing in a natural way, without thinking about.

  17. What a timely post for me Otto. And a great reading recommendation. I’ve had a creative idea this month which really excited me and then couldn’t seem to follow it up. I need to delve a bit deeper into these creative juices and allow that flow to return. Thanks for this post.

  18. I tend to refer to it as being in “the zone” or I might say I have a good “flow” going. When it happens it is an amazing feeling. Being able to create that at will would be very powerful. I will look for the book.

  19. Först och främst så måste jag kommentera bilden, något jag som du vet sällan gör. Men känslan här med Amishfolket och den extraordinära himlen, ja, den går att ta på!
    Sen så har vi det här med Flow, en förutsättning och en gåva som man måste ha om man är en kreativ person, en skrivande, fotograferande och allmänt skapande person. Och vad händer då när flowet försvinner? Jo, man hamnar i ett vacuum, man ser inte ljuset i tunneln först, men om man fokuserar och försöker vara positiv, ja då finns det där, förstås. Då gäller det att ta tag och vända livet, vända till det positiva som alltid finns där, om än långt inne.
    Tack för ett tänkvärt inlägg…än en gång!

    1. Du har så rett, uten flow så er alt som et vakuum. Men, som du også påpeker, kan vi jobber oss tilbake ut av vakuumet. Ved å være positive. Takk for kommentaren, Gertie.

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