Finding the Flow State in the Age of Distraction

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless. – Neal Stephenson

Whenever I read Neal Stephenson’s books (I’m making my way through REAMDE at the moment), I often find myself stopping and checking the dictionary, or Wikipedia, or both, to figure out what he’s talking about. Not that Stephenson is particularly difficult; he just happens to be as dense as Gibson and equally fond of charming-but-colossal infodumps: “The protagonist was playing a game of World of Warcraft. He sent his dwarf in to mine some gold. And now, an extensive historical overview of geology and the mining industry to lend this moment context.”

I appreciate Stephenson’s attention to detail. Having recently finished with a long run of indie novels, REAMDE has called attention to how much detail many other authors skip over for the sake of expediency. Not Stephenson. Before that gun on the mantlepiece gets fired, you can be damn sure you’ll know everything about its manufacture, capabilities, and mechanical quirks. (The only reason this works is because Stephenson rarely does it gratuitously. These trifling details serve the story.)

Anyway, while picking my way through REAMDE, I found myself interested in Stephenson’s mention of the “flow state,” a mental state of mind which one of the characters — a ridiculously profound fantasy author — must achieve in order to get his work done. Since being ridiculously prolific is something I’m in favor of, I decided to find out more about it… and now I feel kind of ridiculous that I’d never heard of it before.

The “flow experience” is defined by psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi by six factors:

1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
2. merging of action and awareness
3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
4. a sense of personal control over the situation or activity
5. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience (Wikipedia)

All of these add up to a state that a lot of creative types think of as being “inspired” or “struck by the muse”:

These exceptional moments are what I have called “flow” experiences. The metaphor of flow is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone,” religious mystics as being in “ecstasy,” artists and musicians as “aesthetic rapture.” (Psychology Today)

In a curious bit of coincidence, my research into flow found this article, which linked the flow state to the “10,000 Hour Rule,” which I wrote about in yesterday’s blog post:

According to pioneering research by Anders Ericsson at Florida State University in Tallahassee, it normally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert in any discipline. Over that time, your brain knits together a wealth of new circuits that eventually allow you to execute the skill automatically, without consciously considering each action. Think of the way tennis champion Roger Federer, after years of training, can gracefully combine a complicated series of actions – keeping one eye on the ball and the other on his opponent, while he lines up his shot and then despatches a crippling backhand – all in one stunningly choreographed second. (New Scientist)

The New Scientist article goes on to talk about the possibility of dramatically shortening the time required to obtain such mastery through acquiring the “flow state” — although, as I said yesterday, I’m less interested in tracking hours than I am achieving greater creative output.

Does all this sound mind-numbingly clinical yet? Boy, I sure hope so.

So in reading all this, I began thinking about my own obstacles when it comes to achieving the “flow state.” Here’s what I came up with.

1) Regular practice. The wealth on contradictory advice on how often and regularly one should write is well-heeled, so I won’t regurgitate it here. In my work, however, I find my gears rust up pretty fast. A few days without writing, and it’s a huge struggle to really find my groove. I started this blog in no small part to address that concern and compel myself to write daily no matter what. It’s turned out to be slightly wanting in terms of execution, but that’s how we learn from our mistakes, I guess.

2) Poor planning. This is basically the cause of 1). My least productive days are the ones where I get up, check my email or voice mail, and then basically react to things until all the time is gone. The days where I block out writing time and stick to the plan are far more productive. I’m sure there’s some clichéd adage about failing to plan being a plan to fail… oh, wait, that’s it.

3) Distractions. This is the big one. And now, an annoying autobiographical interlude!

Photo credit: Jordanhill School D&T Dept on Flickr.

Years ago, when I moved out on my own, my first place was a beaten-down old house in the middle of nowhere. There was no life within a quarter-mile in any direction. I lived on a blasted plain of dead grass and abandoned farm equipment. Now, of course, it’s all been developed into cracker-box condominiums, but back in the day, I was Robert E. Howard. It was just me and my little Apple II. There were long stretches of time when I didn’t even have a working phone.

I lived there for about three years, and in that time, churned out a huge body of work. All of it was garbage — I was young, stupid, and completely ignorant of proper storytelling craft — but I did nothing but write, in no small part because writing was all my little computer did. It had no games, no Internet access. It was a glorified typewriter.

Now, I’d love to say “and that’s the way it was and I liked it,” but in truth, I really love the information age. I love having oceans of data at my fingertips. I like not having to hoof it to the library to do research on some trifling factoid that’s holding up my story. I think the twenty-first century is awesome. But I have far more distractions now than I did then. Creating that kind of isolated environment doesn’t come easy anymore. It means forsaking not only the telephone and the doorbell, but email, Twitter, Facebook, G+, and the churning Sargasso of yummy information that beckons one like a siren onto the jagged shoals of farting around.

For me, finding the flow state means shutting out all distractions as much as possible. Some people can write on buses or in crowded coffee shops. Not me. I’d have to wear earphones and probably blinders. My attention is too easily diverted from the work. My best stuff comes when I slam down all the mental bulkhead doors and quarantine myself with my writing. Only then, after a lengthy struggle, does the flow state happen.

Of course, I’m not about to say that my experience is universal. I stopped writing in groups and at coffee shops because it doesn’t work for me. I think too much about what other people are writing. I worry about how much coffee I have left. I tune in on other people’s conversations. I can’t achieve that lovely fugue where the world recedes into fog and all that’s left is the page. I need to be alone, with nothing to pull me away, for the surly muse to emerge from her abattoir.

But that’s my experience. What’s yours? Can you write amidst distraction? How do you cope with it?

  • Matt S.

    My wife and I finally moved into our own apartment this last summer. I thought it was going to be great. I bought a new desk, set it up exactly where I wanted, and relished the prospect of having my own workspace in my own place in which I could work for uninterrupted hours at a time.

    The rest of the summer blew by and I barely accomplished a damn thing. I didn’t write much. Didn’t read much. Didn’t even watch much. Though I certainly felt “busy,” I can barely tell you anything I actually did this summer; I must have done *something* because I know I didn’t spend the whole time staring at my toenails.

    The problem was that I’d changed my habit. My previous habit had been to get up early, pack my stuff, and drive to a coffee shop. Once there, I’d surf the ‘Net for a bit, correspond, and then get to work. I’d work for probably two to three hours at a time. I’d go home, watch something, eat, then probably go to another coffee shop, where I’d do another one and a half to two hours of work. Sitting at home at my desk in the peace and quiet, without having a physical destination — it wrecked me, pathetic as that sounds.

    Only now am I starting to balance my new life with my old habits. But my anecdotal experience is totally consonant with the flow theory of productivity. I’m one of those who can get his groove on in a coffee shop; indeed, I found that I could barely function without that milieu as part of my workday, which is the opposite of your experience. Yet the fundamentals of setting aside blocks of time, sticking to that basic plan, and consistently honing my focus are the same. Your home corner office is my Starbucks, so to speak.

    • I find that rather fascinating, actually — that it’s not the environment as much as the habit itself that encourages the flow state. It makes me wonder what would happen if I drove to a coffee shop every day, as part of a ritual, and wrote for a specified length of time before moving on. I’m almost tempted to experiment with that.

      Being self-employed, I often find myself with large chunks of free time on my hands, and one would think that that would lead to lots of productivity, but it doesn’t — not unless I somehow account or plan for it. That’s what makes distractions so deadly; it’s easy to fritter away whole days without even trying.

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Matt.

      • As someone who goes to coffee shops regularly and has a great home office, I totally agree that the ritual is much more important than location. Getting one and sticking to it is tough, but the more I inch toward that state the more it seems to be the most productive method.

  • Joni

    Very timely blog post (for me) as I am also reading README but haven’t gotten to the part about flow yet. Now I’ll know what it is when I get there. 😀 Yay!

    As you know I’m not a “real” writer (in my opinion). I run and then I blog about it. I’m a runner with a blogging problem. But I do find that when I write my bigger posts, like the ones about the marathon, I do get into a certain flow. Perhaps it’s something to do with recalling detailed memories and writing them down. When I am in that state most distractions don’t actually penetrate my little bubble. The TV can be on, but I won’t notice until it runs to the end of the episode on the DVD and starts to repeat the same noises, and even then I won’t notice unless they’re annoying. The cats have learned to recognize that they can’t get through to me when I’m like that, so they just give up and leave me alone. I don’t find myself checking email or the internet, which is rather odd for me. The only thing that really breaks through is the awful sound that gchat makes when someone IMs me.

    I do enjoy that feeling, though. It’s one of those times when the world falls away and I’m in my happy little bubble. My impression is that people, all of us, don’t experience that as much as we should.

    Thanks for taking the time to share this. I hadn’t really put a label on that experience, but now that I know there is one, it reminds me that I should work for it more often.

    • Thanks, Joni. I know that in particular, I’m not very skilled at trying to recount my experiences in blog form. Breaking a particular element down and analyzing it, maybe, but I’m not sure I could do what you do with your running blog.

  • Joni

    Also, pardon my typos please. 🙂

  • random9q

    + + + + + + + + + … … … +

    I miss flow. Be finding it shortly, I hope.

  • My dear Mr. Swensen, you are TWO FOR TWO this week!! Sure you’re not psychic?

    I have known about flow for years and the flow state is the ONLY way I produce anything worthwhile. But for me it’s a touchy muse. In fact, that quote you began with is exactly my experience. If I don’t KNOW I can rub at least 2 hours together, I cant even start. Couple that tendency with my single-work-at-home-mom life and you get a blocked writer real fast. It’s something I fight with constantly.

    And as for distractions.. well you’ve seen me on Twitter and FB. But it is really hard to tune those things out, especially when the only folks who understand my desire to write “live” there in cyberspace. It’s the only place for me to find common inky ground, so to speak. To talk to people like you and Ruth and Anna.

    Yet, I have been very successful going to my local B&N to work. On a Saturday when the kids are at their dad’s for the weekend, I get up, walk the dog. Then gather my laptop and notebooks and head to B&N. I sit in the Starbucks section in one particular spot on the hard wooden bench near one of only 2 outlets in the whole place. And strangely enough, only there in that Starbucks, surrounded by the scent of freshly inked paper and java, do I actually lose track of everything. I’ve sat there for 6 hours at a time with 5 minute breaks for food or caffeine. And I love it. To me, it’s heaven.

    I wish I could bottle that, so I can summon the flow at home on command – when I have 45 minutes while dinner is cooking, or the 25 minutes in the car waiting to pick the kids up from school. But alas, the magic is particular and only works under special “Circumstances.”

    Still I have to believe, if I can achieve the flow one way, I have the ability to be in flow state and I can find another.

    To expand to other places/situations, I (we) need to pay more attention to things that make me (us) want to write, The presence of other books gets my motor humming which is why the book shop works for me. But other things closer to home might also work. Is it the fall breeze through an open window that send words through my head? I know hikes through the woods help. But maybe a glass of rum, a fireplace, a rainy day, going for a run, a certain piece of music, or driving aimlessly in the car. Who knows. All I know is that if I pay attention to when the urge strikes, I will find another doorway to the flow. Another way to release my shy and tempermental muse and be able to perhaps squirrel away productive time more frequently than every other weekend.

    It’s nice to find that I’m not the only one who feels like this, not the only one in search of the elusive flow state, that all artists crave. It’s like the hunt for the white hart, something mystical and hard to explain and yet ubiquitous in so many hearts. Thanks for this great post. It’s gonna be a great bookstore weekend 😉

    • I suspect there is something about sitting in a room full of coffee aromas that effects us, be it chemically, psychologically or both. Just the smell alone seems to nudge me closer to a productive state.

    • Thank YOU, Stacy, for sharing your insight and experience.

  • Although I’m not a writer this post hits dead-center for my creative endeavors, whether making comics, doing design work or programming. Getting into the flow state can be really difficult. The Stephenson quote at the beginning of your post about unbroken blocks of time couldn’t me more true. I have all sorts of time throughout the day, but micro-moments of 15 minutes here and 10 minutes there are useless for anything other than rescanning the Reddit front page or fretting over my expanding To-Do list.

    I love coffee shops and spend half, if not three-fourths of my working week in them. I leap-frog around the city spending a few hours at one before moving on to another or just heading back to my home office. I started doing this to get a change of scenery when stuck in a creative rut. It works wonders for that and has helped in getting larger blocks of work done. It’s still easy to get distracted so I bring noise canceling earbuds and playlists of music without lyrics, rainstorms, or just brown noise. That helps but doesn’t always work, at which point I pack up and move on to another location.

    My home office is another story. I can close the door and block outside noises, but the hard part is turning off things like Twitter, email, my phone, Facebook, G+, IM, chat rooms… Like you, I love the information age. I love being connected to the extent that I feel a bit out of touch when I haven’t tapped into the stream of online chatter for a few hours. Turning the chatter off, closing the office door and getting a good block of music that I can both listen to and ignore is key, and gets exponentially more effective for each consecutive hour I can keep it up. Night time seems to work best since everyone else is asleep, both in and outside of my house. I often work all night like this. I feel like a fucking train wreck the next day, but damn if I didn’t crank out a torrent of work during that all-night binge. I don’t recommend this though, and am trying to find better methods to get those long blocks of flow.

    It’s still a daily struggle. I’m keep getting better about fighting the twitch-response to social media and messages. My email is set to only notify me of new messages once an hour (this is huge). I don’t reflexively answer the phone if I’m busy. I try to check social media all at once, then PUT IT AWAY for a at least an hour. I remind myself that these things can wait, because 90% of the time they can and should.

    • Ruth Long

      I love working in coffee shops – I don’t find it distracting at all and the fun of it is that some of those folks come home with me on the page! My only self-imposed rule about coffee shops is that I do not allow myself to attend to any social media platforms while there. That time is strictly for brainstorming, creating and writing – and superbly blended caffeinated beverages! 😉

    • Great comment, Jeff, thanks. I used to keep those night-owl hours, too, and while I’d sometimes hit that creative jackpot, it wrecked me too much the next morning. 🙂

  • Mona Bliss

    I also have issues when I lack a block of time for writing. But the truth is that becomes less of a problem if I am engaging in either creative or journal writing that is deliberate and focused every single day for some small amount of time. By that I mean, not social media writing, not work writing, not emails. The kind of writing that is about noticing what is in my head and getting it out of my head. Consistency with that activity seems to bring on greater flow under all circumstances and in any environment. Having said that, I do not do well in public places for many of the same reasons you stated Daniel. I am too focused on others for that to work for me. My very favorite writing time is when I go to a weekend retreat each year in Riverside, CA. Its a women’s retreat but I ignore all the retreat stuff and just indulge in being in this sparse plain room with no TV, no phone (I turn my cell off), no easy internet access and no need to supply my own meals. I write almost non-stop for that weekend and it’s fantastic. I dream of a time when I might be able to go to a writers retreat for a whole week or maybe…a MONTH! That would be amazing. But in the end I agree that the habit of writing and the habits around it seem to be most powerful in clicking over into that flow.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mona. I would love to have a writer’s retreat whenever I needed one, but they’re not really practical in the long run.

  • Ruth Long

    Surly Says: “It’s not the environment as much as the habit itself
    that encourages the flow state.”

    Bullish Says: This is absolutely true of my experience. It’s not the WHERE but the HOW that influences my grasp on FLOW. It’s a rare moment in deed when I can write in peace, let alone complete a story or scene in one piece without being interrupted. Finding free time is like hunting snipe.

    At the office, they expect me to actually answer the phone, greet clients and
    produce paperwork. You can imagine how this conflicts with the open word
    document on which I must leave damsels in distress mere moments from being
    chomped by a dragon while I muster the motivation to do mundane and inane
    office tasks!!

    At home, the grandchildren have the Disney channel blaring, sippee cups spilled
    across my desk and have you ever tried to ignore a dirty diaper while writing a
    love scene?! It simply cannot be ­­done, I tell you!!

    So, the only way I can keep up with the vast amount of flash fiction I put out
    and the novels I’m always working on in the background, is to have a ritual,
    habit, routine for writing, and mine is shocking simplistic.

    First of all, I keep a writer’s notebook – digital (running word document) and
    paper (composition notebook). This contains all my notes on what I’m writing,
    ideas for future stories and notes on articles I read about the craft.

    Second, I put every single story idea into a super-simple format. Who. What.
    Why. I might add notes to it later or I might just write from that very basic
    concept. But nothing gets written without those bare bones laid out.

    Third, I invite variety. Sure, I have a never-ending list of
    projects that need attention but I’ve found they flourish when I stop and smell
    the roses … or flirt with a flash fiction prompt! Crazy thing is, taking a
    quick break on a project to tackle a flash piece actually enhances the original
    story. While I’m focused on the short story, my brain canoodles about with the
    target project. They picnic in the South of France, chase fireflies in a Kansas
    forest and chat up book sellers at the local B&N – and trust me, all of
    that frees up and enriches everything I write that day … and often into the
    next day too!

    Anyway, here’s where we get to the FLOW! Armed with my Super Simple Ritual,
    flow happens the moment I open my writing notebook. It’s leaps off the page,
    gives me a vigorous handshake ‘hello’ and then kicks me into hyper-drive.

    I can be productive anywhere. The McDonald’s play place. My dad’s backyard a
    state away from my home. In the drive-thru at a packed out Starbucks. In the
    living room where my youngest grandchild is throwing a tantrum and the dogs are
    playing tug-of-war and knocking over the furniture. On hold in the middle of an
    office phone call,

    I can get up from my desk, fix my grandson a pb&j sandwich and go write
    back into flow.

    I can pay for my coffee, finish my morning commute and
    generate flow.

    I can dash off a Five Sentence Fiction or Visual Dare while
    waiting for a doctor to review his file and respond to my record request.

    In Summary: I think forming and then keeping the habit
    invites a habitation of the FLOW!

    Of course, that might just be the triple mocha talking!!

    • What a tremendous comment, Ruth, thank you. Keep it up with those triple mochas, they clearly work for you. 🙂

  • Brilliant post! I absolutely recognise the flow state – that’s when I feel I’m “channelling” – I hadn’t read the definitions of it before. I find it’s not where, but being in the right mental state that helps me to get there but I didn’t have a tried and tested way of getting to that state. I’m distracted all too easily! Loved Ruth’s tips – and I love working in coffee shops too. But my best writing has been done at my kitchen table.

  • Man, it’s such a relief knowing others experience exactly the same thing I do.

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  • Facundo Diaz

    Nice ted talk about flow state. He goes against this 10,000 hour theory
    http://vimeo.com/95532552