Achieving Flow – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

Have you ever found yourself so invested in an activity that you forgot to eat? Hours passed in what seemed like minutes and during that time you find that you’ve completed a whole lot of whatever it was you were working on? According to my university choral conductor where I first learned about it, and to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who has done the research on the topic, you’ve experienced a bout of flow.  And I’m convinced it’s a trainable mindset that can be invoked when needed.

For a bit more clarity Wikipedia defines it thus:

In positive psychologyflow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.

History (a new section I’m adding for this article)

At Brigham Young University, I had the chance to join the BYU Men’s Chorus, an auditioned choir that – during my first year – was being newly directed by Rosalind Hall; a 200+ male voice choir with a wispy, effervescent Welsh woman as conductor whose accent took me completely off guard the first time I heard it. She quickly became one of my favorite people in the world.

That was the first of 6 years in the various choirs at BYU, many of them directed by Sister Hall. But it was during that first year that she started talking to us about flow. The way she described it, she wanted us to focus on the music, on our production of it, on her direction, on blending with our neighbor, on finding the right emotional connection, on anticipating tempo changes, and on and on.

And all that was too much she would say – too much to try to be actively focusing on if you were constantly hoping from thing to thing in your mind – am I blending? did I stick out too much on that note? did I cut off on time?

Instead, she encouraged us to work towards getting into flow, where the business of life and the business of creation both fell away and left you in a state of deep, satisfying engagement. You weren’t worried about what the final song was going to sound like or or if you were going to have it memorized. Rather you just rehearsed, in the moment, fixing what needed fixed right there.

She’d have us take a moment at the beginning of rehearsal and clear our minds, setting aside anything that was distracting – an upcoming test, anxiety about a date, homework problems still undone – and for that hour let ourselves be subsumed by the music.

After 6 years of practice, it’s a state I can drop into at will, especially for performing music, but anywhere else I want as well.

How to Use

The Wikipedia entry states that Csikszentmihályi’s Flow theory has three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand.

The first item to me seems self explanatory.

As a solo writer, #2 is an interesting one because that immediate feedback seems to indicate that another party must be involved. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. For me, this means that whatever I am working on has visible results that I can critique or modify – words actually appearing on page. That’s part of why I prefer to type my fiction instead of hand write – the length of time required to write by hand means that my brain is already off to the next sentence while I’m working on the current one, or visa versa in that I have to spend so long on the current sentence I don’t remember where I’m going next.

I’ve heard that some poets prefer type writers or hand writing their work for specifically this reason – it slows them down so that they can choose the right word.

The last condition is also an interesting idea – being able to do something and being able to be confident to do it. I have found this to be true as well in order to be able to get into flow.

I I believe learning some meditation techniques could be useful in training your brain to mitigate distractions which can help you get into flow. But this one is harder to give a lot of counsel on without actually knowing you and your situation.

My Usage in Writing Fiction

I find I can get into flow do most things related to writing unless I’m just really tired or distracted. Drafting is where I use it the most as it can be very easy to sit down and draft without breaking concentration. Fiction writing or blog posts are places where I find myself really falling into flow.

And revision – especially polish edits. I get caught up in the flow of my own story and find myself tweaking words here and there while I read along. I really like using it here because I can definitely tell when something in my writing pulls me out of the narrative. I suspect that readers are most annoyed with a story when it pushes them out of the flow they get when reading a good book.

Applications and Apps

Applications can be just about anywhere as I stated before. Any activity that could benefit from deep focus could benefit from achieving flow. But for me, I would say the best application is learning to make it a habitual mindset. The more often I can drop into flow, the more I can get done while also enjoying the process. And this is a lot of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about – that flow promote happiness.

I don’t necessarily agree with some of his assertions about how to achieve happiness in life, but I will confirm that I find myself happier when I finish a flow session. And I do think artists and creators who are able to be more productive and more creative by getting in flow will have more to be excited about in their work.

For apps or programs, I think it’s the opposite. Turn off notifications on your phone, close the email tab, and let people know not to disturb you. Flow can be hard to maintain if you constantly have things clamoring for your attention.

Who It Might Not Work For

If you deal with anxiety or if timed anythings set your teeth on edge, then the Pomodoro Technique® likely won’t make creating easier. I know a lot of people can’t stand the idea of creating to a clock; since that’s the whole point of this technique, it will likely not work for you.

Further, some types of creation just don’t fit well into 25 minute chunks, nor with the idea of deep focus. Some people can create just fine flitting from flower to flower in their garden of ideas. If you work 10 minutes on one scene, then 15 more on a character bio, then 5 minutes searching for a good inspirational background image, and then back to writing a scene, you might get annoyed when the timer goes “bing” right in the middle of your flow.

If you work in those kind of chunks, you could try it, but I really think 25 minutes is a nice sweet spot for getting deeply focused and then letting yourself have a break. If that isn’t how you work, you could modifying, but I’m not sure this style of technique would work.


If you’d like to learn more about the technique, and there is more to it than just what I’ve talked about, you can visit Check it out there along.

So, what questions do you have? Have any of you had good success with it? Please share in the comments below.

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