“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Think of the last time you were fully engaged with your writing. You were working to meet the challenge at hand, but you didn’t feel as though you were working. Rather, you were playing intensely. Your skills were perfectly matched to what was expected from you. Perhaps most important, you were completely engaged with the activity of writing so that you were free from the usual weight of self-consciousness.
Psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced MEE-hy CHEEK-sent-meh-HY-ee) calls this experience one of flow, a state of “optimal experience.” One of the most important aspects of Csikszentmihalyi’s theory is that flow occurs only when we give what we are doing our undivided attention:
“Many of the peculiarities attributed to creative persons are really ways to protect the focus of concentration so that they may lose themselves in the creative process. Distractions interrupt flow, and it may take hours to recover the peace of mind one needs to get on with the work. The more ambitious the task, the longer it takes to lose oneself in it, and the easier it is to get distracted.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention)
Where & When Flow Happens
Flow can happen in a wide variety of areas and activities. Runners experience flow when they are pushing the limits of their endurance and training and suddenly lose track of time and space, aware only of their muscles working together and moving in concert. Chess players experience flow when their skills and study allow them to see the upcoming moves play out in their head, when they are guided by their own internal grandmaster. We can even experience flow in friendship, when our work and time invested in knowing and relating to another person pay off in an ever growing, mutually satisfying relationship in which we lose ourselves temporarily by sharing who we are with another.
Flow doesn’t just happen because we want it to. Flow occurs when we are involved in some endeavor outside of ourselves that we have some skills for. A child learning to play the piano, for example, has little chance of experiencing flow while learning to read notes or how to place his hands on the keyboard. However, with enough practice, his skills increase to the point at which he can play a song; then he has the chance to lose himself in the music that he has learned to make. When that music becomes too easy to produce flow, he continues to learn and practice so that more difficult challenges are met with ever-improving skills. That’s how flow works. As we get better, we enjoy ourselves more.
Why Flow Matters
Csikszentmihalyi argues that adding more moments of flow to our lives not only helps us to be more creative and successful, but, more important, it makes us happier and improves the quality of our lives. The happiness of flow is not the fleeting pleasure of a favorite meal or hot shower. It’s the accumulation of moments of “optimal experience” that help us feel at one with the world. We have both greater self-knowledge and less self-consciousness. We also gain the long-term joy of personal accomplishment.
How To Be Happy at Work:
Writing with More Flow
Use the following flow chart (I’m a sucker for puns) to think about the role of flow in your writing:
Are you bored by your writing? You might need to increase the challenge you set for yourself, perhaps by giving yourself firmer deadlines or taking a greater risk or tackling a more difficult project. Does your writing make you anxious? You might consider either reducing the challenge or, even better, improving your skills by taking a class or joining a writing group or doing sustained exercises in a good writing handbook. Do you want to use your writing to relax, or to become energized? Tailor the level of challenge of your activity accordingly.
What helps you to lose yourself in your writing? How do you adjust levels of challenge and skill?
Note: Parts of this post are excerpted and adapted from A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Teens: Living with Intense and Creative Adolescents (Great Potential Press, 2010).
- 7 Tips for Getting to Flow – And Staying There (writeabetternovel.net)