–Sondi Warner, Writer/Blogger for Wrought Iron Reads
It happened again. You got in the zone and hammered out a whole chapter! Or, did this happen? You sat staring at the computer, rethinking how you worded the last sentence, and you only managed to write a piece of a scene.
Anyone who tells you, “The book wrote itself!” knows all about the zone. They’re the people who sit at the laptop in their cluttered office with the music going and just let the words flow like a river. They finish writing books in a month or less, while the rest of us labor for weeks on our opening scene.
Tempted to say they’re not serious about the craft? Don’t be. These writers have hacked into the miracle super power known as Flow State. Even science says it’s real.
Published on Feb 27, 2015
Steven Kotler explains the neurochemical changes during flow states that strengthen motivation, creativity and learning. “The brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemistry. You get norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. All five of these are performance enhancing neurochemicals.” Kotler discusses how each amplifies intellectual and cognitive performance.
As someone who regularly struggles with flow, but has definitely been in the zone enough times to know the benefits, I break down the details of how to achieve that magical, mystical state. You can master the talent, too. It all starts here:
First, Create the Right Environment
According to an online survey conducted for Trulia by Harris Poll, 38% of Americans picture a dream home with a home office. Most writers already have a dedicated writing space, but if you don’t or if yours isn’t helping you achieve max productivity, then you need to focus on creating the right environment. Achieving flow state is hard enough without trying to do it in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This is more like it:
In his biography, Steve Jobs is quoted as having said, “If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity.”
Well, maybe you can’t afford an atrium like the one Steve Jobs plopped in the middle of his offices and meeting rooms. Not yet, anyway. (Stay hungry. Stay foolish.) You don’t need to sink major dollars into adding on an office or buying a massive writing desk. Here’s what you really need:
Isolation: Everett Bogue, author of The Art of Being Minimalist, had this to say on zenhabits.net: “The best way to achieve flow is alone. If you’re in a room full of people, your mind will constantly be drawn away from what you’re doing. Shut the door, put on headphones, or find another way to isolate yourself.”
Your home office should ideally be a spacious room away from family members, spouses/significant others, televisions and telephones. But let’s say you don’t have a dedicated office. At my place, I’ve tried having my office in my bedroom, in my living room and in a spacious hallway, and with high-traffic in each of these rooms, achieving the necessary environment for flow was impossible until I factored in one other crucial element to design: Timing.
I discovered I could keep my office in our little-used living room and write when the kids were away at school or in their bedrooms. If you have a room you can keep to yourself for a handful of hours a day, then you’ve got a writing space!
No Distractions: This means log off Twitter and Facebook and turn off your cellphone. Tell your family and friends that you’re unavailable for a while. However, this does not mean you need a blank, bland room of white walls. External stimuli can and does fuel your flow. I’ll say more on that later.
Lots of Light: “You’ll go blind, trying to read that with the light off,” mom always said. Likewise, straining your eyes looking at a computer can wreak havoc with your eye health. A well-lit room is great for bright ideas and for avoiding eyestrain. Nix fluorescent lighting and go for natural sunlight; just make sure you use drapes to diminish the light while you’re working. Then, look away from the computer for two minutes after twenty minutes of work and open the drapes to take a peek out at the world.
A Great Chair: Here’s a place you can’t afford to skimp. You need a great office chair because most Americans sit “for about 18.8 hours every day.” Sitting puts pressure and stress on your spine, and bad ergonomics have been implicated in health dangers from high blood pressure to high cholesterol. Getting up and moving around more often is the key to optimal health:
“This next suggestion will sound a bit odd, but another way to help offset the negatives of sitting is by fidgeting. Yes, fidgeting. Jiggling your legs, pacing while you’re on a call, getting up and circling your desk while thinking through a problem — all of these behaviors help over time.” –David DiSalvo, “How to Stop Your Office Chair from Killing You”
But using the right chair can help reduce back pain and bad posture. It’s hard to get into flow when you’re distracted by aches and pains.
A view: Stephanie Vozza on FastCompany.com states, “The final external flow trigger happens when you pay attention with all sensory streams, listening, looking, smelling, tasting, and touching.”
You can incorporate scented candles and oil burners into your design theme for visual appeal as well as sensory appeal, and you can listen to music while you work (if it doesn’t take away from your writing process). You should also have a really great picture to titillate the eyes, and try to face your desk or writing area towards your that awesome view so when you look up, you’re not staring at a blank wall.
Side Note: Emotions Affect Flow
Dr. Charles Limb, MD, is a jazz musician who also happens to be a physician-researcher at UC San Francisco. He’s responsible for research with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of creatives doing improv, freestyling and sketching caricatures in real-time. He noted activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in planning and monitoring behavior and a neural signature of “flow state.”
Malinda McPherson, a classical violist and first-year graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Program (Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology), led a new study to look at the way challenging artists to convey emotion changes the creative process. McPherson and her team had jazz musicians improvise a melody while attached to the fMRI scanner.
The difference this time was they were asked to convey the emotions expressed in a photograph of a woman smiling and one of the woman in a distressed state. What researchers discovered was the “positive” image improv led to greater “flow state” while the “negative” image was associated with greater activity in the reward regions of the brain.
Although improvising a jazz piece and writing a novel are dissimilar processes, the areas of the brain associated with flow deactivate in a similar way, which makes this kind of science particularly relevant to writers who want a better understanding of how to find our zen.
“The bottom line is that emotion matters,” said senior author Charles Limb, MD, an avid jazz musician and physician-researcher at UC San Francisco. “It isn’t just a binary situation in which your brain works one way when you’re being creative and another way when you’re not. Instead, there are greater and lesser degrees of creative states, and different versions of these states. And emotion plays a crucially important role in these differences.”
McPherson determined the limbic and prefrontal areas of the brain were engaged differently when asked to express emotion because “these processes are linked to one another through empathy and experience, yet it is possible that the personal experience of an emotion and behavioral changes caused by the need or desire to express that emotion (through art or otherwise) are more compelling than observation of that emotion alone.”
In layman’s terms, expressing happy emotions flows more effortlessly while expressing unhappiness requires continuous monitoring that deregulates the flow.
So if you want to achieve peak flow state, then the next time you’re writing, you might try breezing through the lighter moments of the story before tackling the heavy work of bringing sadness to life.
Now, the Writing Conditions
Once you have everything in place to sit down to write, you’re ready to go with the flow. For some of us, this happens without much prep, but for others of us, we may need help getting there. Here are some things to note:
Challenge: Flow is only achieved when the task (writing) presents enough challenge to generate friction between what you can do without much effort and what you have to work to accomplish. In other words, if you’re not challenging yourself, then you won’t reach your flow state.
Focus: This is a zone where vague isn’t in vogue. Are you trying to finish a poem? Are you working on some dialogue? Are you starting a new chapter? Knowing what you intend to accomplish allows you to focus, another key component to flow state. Giving yourself a time limit may also help. With the clock ticking, you’ll be less tempted to ruminate and more likely to get something done.
Movement: When you come to that one tricky sentence you can’t quite figure out how to word, don’t stop typing and stare at it. Keep moving. Stay calm and don’t get flustered because you’re not editing; you’re writing. One of the keys to flow is muscle memory, and the very act of continuing to type will keep the ideas pumping so you can get the words out. You can correct whatever you need to correct later.
Note: Practice writing right when you’re not working in your flow state to slowly but purposefully eradicate bad writing habits.
Consciousness: Do you constantly second-guess yourself? If you do, then this will be the hardest part for you. In order to flow, you need to give up the self-consciousness and just write. Don’t think about what you’re doing or how you’re doing it. Don’t bother with whether you used the passive voice or heaped a ton of purple prose into the story. You cannot achieve flow by doubling back.
Repetition: Practice makes perfect. Habit becomes addiction. The more you segue with your flow state, the easier it happens, and the more you do it. It’s addictive. In fact…it just might be the most addictive natural human state known to man.
Now, are you ready to get in the flow?