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Getting in the Creative Zone: A Look Into Flow Theory

If you've ever scrolled to the top of this blog tab, you've likely found our Asterisk, also the name of this blog (Loud Coffee Press' The Asterisk). It's an homage to many things, among them a writerly symbol in and of itself, our slogan ("In a world of stars, be an asterisk"), and a not-so-hidden nod to one of our literary favorites, Kurt Vonnegut. Embedded in our asterisk are eight tenets that we base the blog around, and today, we've chosen to focus on leveling up. How do you know when you've truly leveled up? You've entered the zone, and experienced what psychologists have termed "flow."

Flow, or flow state, was popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist that grew up exposed to the horrors of World War II. He devoted his career to the science of happiness. In 2004, Csikszentmihalyi gave a TED talk, where he equated happiness to finding flow, and getting into flow as achieving happiness. After watching the talk, and also as a creative person who has experienced flow, I am pretty convinced he's right. Flow and happiness go hand-in-hand.

During the talk, Csikszentmihalyi described what happens during flow:

  1. There is complete involvement in the task. In flow, you maintain total focus and concentration.

  2. You'll experience a sense of being outside of reality, or it will feel like ecstasy.

  3. Greater inner clarity will occur. You'll have a strong sense of knowing what you have to do, how it should be done, and how well you are completing the task.

  4. You'll be up to the task - both in skill and knowledge.

  5. Serenity now. You'll experience movement beyond the boundaries of ego.

  6. Time becomes meaningless.

Flow, as a Concept

Flow can also be mapped conceptually, as seen in the diagram that follows.

Standard Image of Flow Channels (this version adapted from Wikipedia)

Consider the central point on the diagram as a person's baseline. From that baseline extends channels depending on the task or situation, based on two factors: challenge and skill. If a person is working in a high challenge situation with a high skill level, that person is likely to be in flow. To reach this point often takes ten or more years of purposeful practice.

But, it's not bad to be in either the arousal or control channels. Arousal is the point from which we learn. It's what pushes us out of our comfort zones. It means we are working in a high-challenge situation but we don't have quite enough skill to achieve flow; arousal is our learning zone. Conversely; control is a comfort channel. We have a high skill level, but the demands are not necessarily high enough to achieve flow. The challenge bar needs to be raised a bit to elevate our happiness. However, beware of the opposite ends: worry, boredom, and apathy.

Interestingly, Csikszentmihalyi stated that television is one of the main contributors to placing people in the apathy channel. It should be noted, however, that 7 - 8% of people reported being in flow while watching television. Csikszentmihalyi explains this by saying it's all in the choice of show: for example, if you pick a documentary that you find stimulating and idea-generating, you can actually come to a state of flow by how you interact with the information.

We are constantly exposed to information, but the human brain, as Csikszentmihalyi tells us, can only take in about 110 bits of information per second. Listening to and understanding another human speak takes about 60 bits of information per second, which is why we can't focus on more than two people speaking at once. Typically, we can choose what we want to focus our attention on in any given moment. However, when in a flow state, we lose awareness of all other things (people, time, distractions, even our own selves and needs). This occurs because our energy "flows" to the task at hand. In fact, from interviews conducted by Csikszentmihalyi over several decades, people often described this experience as music, poetry, etc. as "flowing" out of them, hence the origin of the term.

What do people who have been in flow say about flow?

Examples of such interview snippets can be found in the 2004 TED talk noted earlier. One such interview with a composer described it as:

"You are in an ecstatic state to a point that you feel as though you almost don't exist... My hand seems devoid of itself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of itself."

Another interview was with a poet. That interview went like this:

"It's like opening a door that's floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the handle and open it and let yourself sink into it. You can't particularly force yourself through it. You just have to float..."

How can you get into flow?

I personally believe that with the appropriate combination of training/practice, love, and passion, flow can be organically met. Maybe that’s naive, as I’ve been writing both professionally and as a hobby for close to 20 years. However, flow theory holds that there are a set of conditions that typically exist when someone is in flow.

First, the task is structured. The person involved is undertaking a project that has a known goal with a clear progression. This can be anything- writing a short story? Composing a song? Each has a means and an endpoint. Second, there is some mechanism by which immediate feedback occurs. This allows the person in-flow to continually adjust to changing needs and demands of the project. Maybe this isn’t beta reading, in the immediate sense, but any writer knows when the words are working. A musician knows when the notes sound like “music,” or have effectively transitioned from brain to paper. There’s an inherent reward mechanism here (despite what the flow literature says) where you know, this is right. Third, there must be a good match-up between the project's perceived challenges and the person's perceived skills. This means that confidence in one's own ability to complete the task is key. Believe in yourself.

We can't tell you what to flow about, but I bet we don’t have to. The great thing about being in the zone is that when you know, you know. Instead, we wish you happiness, creativity, and great flow.

Did this blog post flow okay? (Yeah, we went there.) Feel free to tap that heart, leave us some comment love, or...

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