On Being in Flow

There is a lot of information out there about cultivating one’s creativity – what to do when you have “writer’s block” and so forth – but I think the greater challenge of being a professional creative is giving yourself opportunities to experience flow.

The best illustration of this challenge I’ve ever come across was in an story broadcast on This American Life a number of years ago.

Meet the Pros, Episode 192, 8/31/01, Act Three: “Martha My Dear”
David Rakoff visits his dream job, the crafts department at Martha Stewart Living magazine. If his hobby became his job, he wonders, would it still be fun?

I make stuff – boxes, lamps, mirrors, small folding screens, painted jackets for kids – that kind of thing. It’s what I do in my spare time. Some people need to exercise everyday, others don’t feel complete without regular vacations – my salvation lies in time spent alone with an x-acto knife and commercial grade adhesive. During the act of making something, I experience a kind of blissful absence of the self and a loss of time. I almost cannot get this feeling any other way. Certainly, it never happens in my job – in writing. When seated at the computer, I have to either check my watch, eat something, call a friend, or abuse myself every ten minutes. By contrast, I once spent sixteen hours making a hundred and fifty wedding invitations by hand and was not for one instant of that day tempted to check the time. Is it possible for one’s job to be an exercise in having that feeling? Or does the act of doing something for money automatically rob you of that feeling?”

You’ll have to listen to the episode yourself to learn what he concludes…

I have spent most of the last two days immersed in developing new marketing materials – basically the process of finding just the right combinations of words and images for my services. Completely engrossed, I’ve been stubbornly resistant to pausing to do anything else that needs doing (ignoring concerns like time or food, along with a suspension of ego/self-awareness, is typical of a state of flow).

It’s the experience of feeling such freedom, enjoyment, fulfillment and skill during flow that is so compelling and, well, fun. Flow is what makes the work fun. The experience of flow allows me look forward to my work when I get up in the morning. It also allows me to do my best work. It’s not my sole source of satisfaction, but it’s a big chunk of it. And I consider it essential.

So, if an essential, how does one cultivate flow in work on a regular basis?

  1. Minimize Interruptions: Turn off your email and your phone, close the door, keep your dog busy with a big bone – do what you need to do remove distractions for an hour or more.
  2. Group like activities on your calendar in such a way that you have extended time to devote to special projects instead of spending each day jumping around from one task to the next. Be deliberate about it – the “spare” or “free” time you’re hoping for isn’t going to show up.
  3. Communicate: Having set aside “flow” time and eliminated interruptions, let clients and colleagues know when you are available. Clearly communicating about when and how you do your work helps eliminate the guilty “should” distractions (e.g., I should really check my email now). When people know what to expect from you, you are free to focus on the work at hand.
  4. Say No: There’s no room for flow if your schedule is packed beyond capacity. Reduce and reject activities that are low priority or are of little benefit to you. Leave yourself some creative wiggle room – you never know when your muse will need your undivided attention.

* * * * * * * * * *

6/19, PS: Doh! I overlooked the most obvious and important one:

5. Love your job. It’s nearly impossible to experience flow doing something you loathe.

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