Learning and Writing in the Flow State

The idea of the flow state is one of those hip psychology topics of recent years. In articles like this one from Time, or  this one from Psychology Today we hear about seemingly superhuman feats that can result from achieving a peak experience or flow state. Interesting stuff. I was thinking about this idea while watching a documentary on free climbing, when something hit me–good writing happens in the flow state, too. (Also, it’s much less dangerous than free climbing… physically, anyway.)

I realized that a quick lesson and discussion about flow states could be really useful to my student writers, who happened to be working on an intense, self-driven writing project of length at the end of the year. So, I showed them this short video, paired with the the request to think about how understanding the flow state concept can help us as writers:

 

Working together in discussion, we identified some helpful pointers we could apply to our writing…

WHAT WE LEARNED HOW WE CAN APPLY THIS LEARNING TO OUR WRITING PROCESS
Flow starts with struggle.

When we are trying but failing to think of a good idea, or we feel frustrated or stuck with our draft, that is actually a good sign! We have to move through the struggle to get to flow. Even if the process of struggling feels futile and impossible right now, it doesn’t mean we should give up. We are on our way to the flow state!

 

Letting go of the problem at peak struggle is crucial to enter the flow state.

Just as we reach frustration, we need to take a little time away from what we’re working on, doing something that will leave our mind free to think about our writing. We can play a sport, enjoy nature, cook, do a puzzle, practice art or music, or just stare at the wall for a little while to free up some space for new ideas to come.

 

Watching TV or browsing the internet will destroy flow.

While most of us use social media and entertainment to “take a break,” that’s actually the worst thing we can do to make progress with our flow… as tempting as it is, staring at the TV or our phones has to be avoided if we truly want to reach peak focus and productivity. We should try to take working breaks doing more of the things listed above.

 

Flow results in enhanced performance.

 Once we reach flow, it is awesome! Time just falls away, the words come to us easily, and we make massive progress. When we reach that “zone,” we are able to be productive and creative!

 

Processing the recovery phase is necessary to re-enter flow.

 Flow can’t last forever, so once we’ve achieved a good burst of inspiration and the surge of productivity is worn out, we shouldn’t assume that it’s gone forever–we just need to recharge.

 

Grit, resisting stress, and refusing to give in to negative emotions can help us struggle better and recover better.  We should try not to let self-doubt get to us. Once we understand that feeling stuck doesn’t mean we’re bad at this, it gives us the confidence that we’ll find our focus and inspiration along the way. When we view the feeling of challenge as an opportunity to grow, the flow state will be easier to find.

 

Even though the field of positive psychology wasn’t where I expected to find my next great writing warm-up, this exercise significantly changed the way my students were able to talk about their writing process. I guess it boils down to “Know thyself.” It was a reminder to me that talking about writing is also talking about thinking, which (at least according to Descartes) is kind of the same as talking about being. We need to touch on all three to help students find the magic that comes from flow.

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