How to Lose Yourself in Your Writing

“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.

Cover of Finding FlowPsychologist 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:Flow Diagram

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.Book Cover of A Parent's Guide to Gifted Teens

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).

16 thoughts on “How to Lose Yourself in Your Writing

  1. “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…”

    This is so true! Thanks for the post, Lisa.
    ~Solveig~

    http://zolh2011.wordpress.com/

    • Solveig, that’s one of my favorite parts, too! The biggest barrier to creativity is so often an unwillingness to be peculiar. 😉

  2. This is excellent, Lisa. Flow is something that can be especially difficult to get to when working on a project in small increments, say, during children’s nap times. Sometimes I feel I’m just getting in the swing of a piece when up they come all energized and enthusiasm. I’ve found outside stimuli, such as music and scent, can help create the environment I need to put me in the writing frame of mind faster.

    Thanks for this!

    • It’s fascinating to me how different strategies work for different people, Victoria! Like you, carefully planned stimuli (such as being in a coffee shop or having sound in the background) is often helpful, whereas they make it impossible for my husband to focus.

      Your little ones are so lucky to have you for a mom. 🙂

  3. Lisa,

    I love the flow chart 🙂 Like Victoria, I have trouble finding my flow during daytime hours. But, sometimes even at night – when all is quiet – I struggle. That chart, and your ideas right after it, will stick with me the next time and will help me decipher if I’m struggling because something’s too challenging or too simple.

    I do find, too, that joining a reputable writers group helps with confidence and skill.

  4. Thank you for sharing this on your blog. The flow chart, while simple, makes all of the feelings which I have sometimes held make sense, diagnosing the reason behind the feeling. I have only been writing for about a year, but have kept a journal for about 13 years. I have had the same issues when journalling. You have also provided the perfect excuse for me to legitimately shut out the world when writing.
    K

    • Katie, how terrific that you’ve kept a journal for 13 years! I’m very glad that the chart is useful. The Flow theory also works for me in many different areas of my life.

  5. I first discovered the flow theory when I was learning to knit. Once I got the hang of it, I easily lost myself in the process because I had to really focus on what I was doing (I’m not a great knitter). I felt great afterward. Then I realised I felt the same whether I’d been focussing on knitting, cooking or writing. Writing being my creative activity of choice. Being in the “flow” can be a little addictive, but is not always easy to obtain. Distraction and interruption shoot it to pieces! Nowadays, I don’t get to write as often as I’d like, and I really miss that sense of creative energy flowing out of me.

    • Trish, thank you for this thoughtful comment! I’m sorry I didn’t see it until now. I love your point about flow being the same, regardless of the activity. May more creative writing time come your way soon… (so hard to come by, I know!).

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