How to Enter the Flow State While Writing

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.

Leonardo da Vinci

It’s funny to think of the flow state as something that people study in laboratories. For me, my notion of the laboratory seems such an official place with such structure and diligence it would probably scare away my own sense of flow. But then again, I’m no researcher, so that makes sense.

I am a writer and I love freewriting. I’m a freewriting evangelist. So I’ll do what I love: to express some of the gospel good news about the flow state.

Flow is a state that people universally appreciate. Everyone finds their own pathway to it, different activities that get them there. For some, it’s gardening. For others, heartfelt conversation. Meditation is certainly a flow inducer. Sports or non-stressful travel can bring flow.

Flow is this beautiful sweet spot where we feel the desire for engagement without too much pressure being put on that need to be engaged. In the state of flow, we want to be where we are. We feel challenged, yet confident.

When we are in the flow, we want to stay in the flow.

When we are in the flow, we have access to a part of ourselves that otherwise… where is that part of us? Where is that flowy functionality when bored and stuck in traffic?

When I write, I find myself doing something that feels natural and it feels good. Both doing and nondoing are engaged.

Flow is… flowy — without a stiff sense that the end result must be controlled. Flow might emerge if you are competing toward an outcome, yet not in a way that kills your drive. As you flow, you can potentially be OK with anything no matter what. You’re in touch with a complete equanimity.

So much of life is not this way. Ordinary activities don’t harmonize well with the flow state because there are simply too many variables and not the same opportunities to apply yourself at any depth. Ah, plenty of people talk about mindfulness and all that, but it is way easier to feel flow when in a more controlled setting, a safe place that is supportive where downside potential is somewhat low.

When you freewrite, the uncertainty and unease that you are confronted with is, after all, not so dramatic. Examples of the worst that could happen: not knowing what to say, saying something stupid, wearing yourself out without having anything to show for it.

That’s not really so bad.

Space

When you want to flow, make sure your environment is reasonably conducive to it. That’s not an absolute requirement, but it’s helpful. Most writers tend to be sensitive people and they benefit from a supportive environment.

Write at home or where it is peaceful and where you don’t have to worry about anything. It doesn’t have to be Goldilocks perfect. Just set the parameters in such a way that you can quickly forget about them, so that nothing gets in your way because of your environment.

Intention

Have an intention about what you want to write. Or if you don’t know, then your intention is to play and discover or to unload any and all emotions and thoughts you happen to be carrying.

Steadiness

And then do it for a length of time without stopping yourself or being interrupted. Breaks and interruptions kill flow. Freewriting gets deeper the longer you do it. If something keeps pulling your attention from your writing, you’re not going to go as deep. It’s a huge missed opportunity. It won’t be as enjoyable, and all your upside will be limited. You won’t reap the compounding interest of the attention span when it is held on a single thing for a long period of time.

Let go into it

Remain openended. It’s OK if your freewrite takes a departure. You don’t need to always know in advance where things will go, do you? If your writing seems disappointing, then try this: acknowledge that you are holding expectations and then see if you can’t just be present anyway with what is happening.

Let go even more

When your time is up, let it all go. If you have decided to write for a duration, then honor that. If you chose to write until your essay is finished, then honor that choice.

The more you follow through with your intent, the more your self-trust grows and the more quickly you can reap the benefits from ongoing discipline. Click To Tweet

It’s important to mention again: Interruptions are the killer of flow.

Take a look at this diagram for an idea of where flow can be found amidst the different emotional states.

illustration by g40 design

When you find yourself feeling a certain way, don’t try to make yourself feel a different way. That doesn’t work anyways. Our society praises people who can apparently make themselves feel one way or another on command. But if you’re going deep with yourself, then it’s time — now — to get real. When you’re feeling something, then that’s where you are. Nothing locks you there, but unless you are present with how you are actually feeling, then you aren’t actually present in your full depth and bigness.

It is possible to navigate the inner spaces of feelings and emotions by asking yourself questions and directing your attention toward where you want to go. Just don’t skip the step of acknowledging what you actually feel.

Let’s look at two elements to the chart: boredom and apathy. Yeah, if these come up, then see what you can do to get engaged. Do you care? Yeah, writing essays suck, but you want to do this, right? There’s probably something about it that can be interesting, even if it’s only how quickly you can do it or how concise you can be with such complex data. Make it a game. Make it a contest. See if you can’t hold the long term big picture. Or find an angle that you find interesting.

Another common element of flow that gets sticky: Stress. One option… cut down on the coffee. Just saying. Take a walk beforehand. Slow down your writing pace or lower your expectations of output, not in the spirit of producing junk but because unless you accept who you really are and where you happen to be right now, you aren’t likely to make it through this with something you love. Even if you’re only concerned about the outcome, It’s very likely that when you just try to muscle through it, that will show. Or it will be felt. See what happens when you invite something new to your process. See if your bigness arrives.

Who’s to say everything must mean what you judge it to mean? Cross each bridge when you come to it. One bridge at a time.

Fear can bring you good information. Do you have any boundaries that should be attended to? Are you standing up for what you believe in? Are you able to get what you want in life? Where has this feeling come up before? Fear often comes up when doing something new. So in that case, it’s something of a sign that you’re on a good path. There’s no sense traveling the same paths for too long — you wouldn’t grow.

Flow is right between control and arousal.

I would make the example here of writing erotica. It’s only going to be arousing if it stimulates the person writing it. If the writer is bored, the reader heads elsewhere. On the other hand, if the writer gets overly aroused, you aren’t going to be able to write.

Control is a tricky one. Allow the feelings, don’t let them run the show. For our purposes, I would describe control as an ability to hold the intentionality.

People very often go overboard with control. Their writing loses vitality. Yes, they are not uncertain and they don’t feel worried, but things are so tightly braced, they are not aroused.

It’s hard to really relish in your feelings of accomplishment when everything is strictly managed and controlled.

It’s like taking a paved highway rather than finding your own unique way through the dark woods.

What wildness are you really likely to confront when resting in the control of an air conditioned Cadillac cruising down the highway?

The more you’re in touch with your feelings, the better your ability to navigate the flow state.

It’s an ongoing adventure.

Keep navigating, keep refining.

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