I’ve been staring at my laptop screen for a few minutes now, trying to write a short sentence for my first full-length book. There is so much I want to share, but can't seem to find my flow.
What is it about writing that challenges me so much?
Why can’t I simply get in the zone and write faster?
I'm staring at my laptop screen again. I typed a short sentence but the flow of words stopped at once. I want them to flow but they are silent, not responding.
If there is one big thing I want to achieve with my writing, it's exactly that: Writing from a place which words just seem to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once.
A state of Flow.
For centuries, people use different words and terms to express what they feel when they are “in the zone.” I personally like the word “flow”.
Being “in flow” or “in the zone” means that one is totally absorbed and immersed in an activity that it feels effortless. The outside world disappears and everything feels automatic. Nothing else seems to matter...
Perhaps the following passage from the book “Flow”, written by noted psychology professor, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, during his 25 years of research on happiness, best explains the concept:
"It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through his hair and what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begins to set up a magnetic tension with each other...".
Imagine yourself lying on an operating table during a surgical procedure while your surgeon's mind is wandering off. His attention is scattered all over the place, perhaps thinking about a basketball game he has just seen or thinking about a paycheck he has not received.
You wouldn't want to be the one lying on that table, now would you?
Luckily, most surgeons cut themselves off from the external world during surgery and focus all their attention and energy into the present moment.
They are in a state of Flow.
Which leads to an interesting point; Flow is not just a random event, but can be generated voluntarily and for long periods of time.
Finding Flow Consciously
Being focused in the moment, oblivious to our surroundings, becoming completely engrossed in what we do; we've all been there at some point during our lives, but what's interesting to me is how we can get there consciously.
When I look closely at some of my flow moments over the past few years, I can see certain patterns emerge:
Perhaps the most consistent pattern in the quest of reaching flow is the existence of a clear objective. In every area of our lives, flow is experienced when the heart, desire and mind are all in alignment, when objectives are defined and well formulated.
With my life goals, for example, I always felt like I was going to accomplish something meaningful, even if it wasn't obvious at first.
Almost a decade ago, I decided to dedicate a whole year to socializing. Going out every weekend and at some point 60 nights in a row, chatting with complete strangers, hopping from one party to another.
On the surface, it may seem that all I looked for in life was pleasure, however my underlying and primary motivation was different.
At the time, I was living in Australia on a student visa and I was considering taking a leap and pursuing permanent residency. My English level was fairly average, which made me feel more of a visitor than a resident. If I was going to stay and adopt Australia as a home, then I was going to have to shift from my "visitor" identity and dramatically improve my English.
Socializing catered to all of this brilliantly, and I was in a state of flow pretty much every time I was out.
Whatever we do, if it isn't done with love and utmost care, we probably won't give it our full attention. On the other hand, when we're totally passionate we don't even know we're in flow, we're just there, in the moment, 100%.
One of the surest ways for me to reach flow is also one of my biggest passions - Running.
I always have the same enticing feeling before I hit the road, no matter if it's a cold rainy night or a bright sunny day. A feeling of sheer excitement washes over me, knowing that the rest of my world is about to go away for a short while and re-appear even sharper later.
Most often than not, when I'm running, I feel everything is in sync. I feel the nirvana of being one with my surroundings. I surrender myself to the sensations of tiredness and pain and embrace whatever comes up.
If only getting into writing flow was so easy as lacing up my running shoes and hitting the road...
When we choose an activity that is too easy we usually get bored and eventually give up. In the same way, if it's too hard, we often get frustrated and eventually give up. Either way we give up on something of paramount importance to us.
The more we situate ourselves between these two extremes to ensure we set just the right amount of challenge, the more flow we'll experience in our life.
I remember putting that into practice with my surfing around the world. Early on in my journey, I was out there trying to ride big waves, exhausting myself within the first moment. The challenge was too great and I indeed gave up on my surfing crusade. Later, I learned to search for beaches with smaller waves, ones which were challenging enough for me to want to go there consistently.
Did I get to experience flow every time I tried to catch a small wave? The answer is no, of course, but occasionally it did happen, and I knew that with a bit more skill, surfing will be one of the best gifts I could have wished for.
Which brings me to the next point:
Without holding the proper skills, we are unlikely to extract the maximum enjoyment out of what we do, and may end up losing interest along the way. This is usually where willpower comes in and keeps us going after the initial "motivation" has died.
However, willpower is a scarce resource and determination alone might not be enough in our journey to acquire a certain degree of competence. It is through the practice of daily rituals and habits of behavior that we're able to consistently work towards self-mastery.
As with every big goal I've ever set before myself, immersion and instilled habits were the key. I've put myself out there, even when I was not comfortable, and my skills were soon well developed enough to be able to attain my dreams.
Beliefs are like the operating system to our brain. I believe they guide every action (and reaction) that we take (and those we don't take).
We all adopted beliefs about ourselves and the world through personal and other people's experiences. Some of these beliefs do not serve us in the long run and in fact limit us from expressing our highest potential.
Throughout my life I had to banish limiting beliefs about myself and my abilities to make things happen. What I learnt is that we can choose new beliefs about ourselves almost immediately, without even the evidence or the relevant reference experience.
Which is something I want to do with my writing.
Writing in Flow
So what is it about writing that challenges me so much?
And perhaps more interestingly, what does it mean when I say I want to find flow in writing?
I think it was my mom who first told me I should write. That was decades ago when I still wrote in Hebrew. I just got to Australia and I was lonely, so for a few months I wrote a series of emails about life in a new country. Writing was my refuge, my way to rip all the loneliness out of me. The topic was Australia, but underneath all that it was just a way to make sense of the world inside of me.
My second significant attempt with writing was in English. Same as my first attempt, I used writing as a way to share and reflect upon life's journeys. Whether it be a trip overseas, my Ironman journey, or simply a random weekend escape, I played with the words of my limited English Vocabulary like a new toy.
And that's probably why I began to write.
Writing is like a toy for me; words move like puzzle pieces in my head, pushing and jostling to find their resting place on an unbounded and limitless board. As I go along, new words join, and the number of puzzle pieces increases, making the game even more fun, and at the same time, more challenging.
Challenge is nice and necessary but unfortunately, challenge alone is not enough for experiencing flow.
Reflecting upon the reasons for not reaching flow in my writing, I now fully understand the them. They include: confusion over my purpose in writing, insufficient skills, disguised perfectionism, and a few other limiting beliefs.
The end product is quite satisfactory but it comes with sweat and great effort. This blog post for example took me great effort to complete. I had to stop and restart occasionally using thoughts of willpower and discipline to fuel my writing resolution.
Knowing the reasons for not reaching flow makes a difference though. The self reflection exhibited here is often all we need to propel us to action. I've already formed new habits around my writing skills and cleared up some limiting beliefs during the process.
More than anything, I know that flow will come - if not today, then tomorrow; if not this week, then next week; if not this month, then another time - The challenge, the desire to write, my passion to share, the and all the right reasons are there to make it happen.
Finding Flow Tips
To get a few more flow tips, I had reached out to some of my entrepreneur friends and asked if they had some new insights into this topic. I thought it'd be good to end this post with a few of their top advice.
- Tim Conley: “Flow comes from mastery -- being able to do something without needing to think about it. My writing is ultra slow, too. Why? I think about it while doing it. "What do I want to say? Does this make sense? What should I write in the next paragraph?" However, when I talk I can just flow. Same subject, different medium. I started getting interviewed on a topic and having it turned into words on a page by a writer. Nearly every blog post I've done since last December was created this way. AND they were so much better than the ones I wrote myself. So, if you are thinking about something you can't get into flow. Using a sports analogy: If you think about the best way to make the shot, you won't make the shot.”
- Michael Smith: “For me a lot of my writers block is about fear of what others will think of my work. If you can clear that spiritually it will help. Practice writing every day. Even if you write junk it helps improve your muscle. Get a good editor. Many a great book was written by a crap/semi good writer and polished up by a great editor. Use music to focus. I use brain.fm . Write first thing in morning before more distractions.”
- Connor Grooms: “Just wrote a 120 page book in 4 days, plus one day for editing. It's some of my best work. For me - lock myself away. No wifi unless necessary. Write about something I know about deeply, so it's just a brain dump and the writing is just organization of thought, not creation of thought”.
- Reinder Vries: “I'm a big fan of the eat-that-frog-principle. Do it first thing in the morning. I'd almost say: don't read my book recommendations, just quit being in self-improvement mode (it's a luxury) and start writing. I always make an outline before I write, and an outline for the outline, and more outlines. And then I fill them in. Also, I've been coding for years now, and "the zone" kinda comes with that.
You'll want to read "Deep Work" by Cal Newport. It's a fairly new title and incredibly in-depth on the benefits of working deeply, and how to get into it. Idea: buy a house solely for the purpose of working undistracted. I know several people that "exiled" themselves for days, weeks, months because they needed to work.
- Louis Lautman: When I am writing, I need complete silence and zero distractions. And usually before I start writing I visualize the content I am writing about, what I know and how I would like to see the information. Then I just start writing and let it flow. Then of course I take the best and leave the rest. I guess for me the difference is the uninterrupted visualization period. And now that I think about it, the quickest way for all of these activities for me to get in the flow is the visualization period beforehand. The more I visualize myself doing the activity the quicker I get into the flow.
- Mike Hohnen: I think getting into flow is a b product of focus. When you focus and immerse yourself completely - and stick with it eventually flow occurs - its almost automatic. Its a bit like meditating in that way. You can’t force a meditative state but but you can create the right conditions - and then suddenly the time has gone. I wrote a book a couple of years ago. It took me 4years: 3years and 11 months for the first chapter and then 1 month for the rest… It was only when i applied a strict work schedule with daily goals that i achieved the flow state. And then the ultimate writing tool to use in my view is the scrivener app it makes huge difference in the process.
- Tom Van Rheeden: For me, the flow comes when I have done my preparations. The messy thinking has been done, and your unconscious will have already started to order all the info in a way for you to more easily transmogrify it into coherent sentences and paragraphs.
You can't just 'start writing' and figure it out along the way. That's a recipe for a very time-intensive and suicidal editing process, and most importantly, a crappy book.
So, to get into the flow of actually writing I would suggest the following:
- Figure out at what time of the day you'll be able to do your best writing (for most: deep at night or early in the morning).
- Do your preparations, to the point that you already have all your resources, quotes, references, and argument structure prepared.
- Don't drink too much coffee or wine beforehand, but do have some if it helps.
- Procrastinate for an hour or two, because that's just part of the process. Shutting down your devices and taking a walk is a great tool to get mentally and creatively ready for writing.
- Of course, turn off all distractions when you actually start writing.
- Commit to 30-minutes of writing. Anything more is awesome, but 30-minutes is still ok.
- Almog: Flowstate is a writing application for Mac that's supposed to induce a flowstate. A big part of being stuck out of flow is because of trying to write an edit. When we write in flow, keystroke follows keystroke and this is what this app focuses on. So with Flowstate, if you don't type for over 2 seconds, everything you've written starts to fade away and if you wait another 5 seconds (so 7 seconds in total) it will be erased forever. It sure gets you out of the editor mode and into typing mode. So you just choose a timer time (5 minutes, 10 minutes etc) and off you go. At the end, if you didn't stop typing, your work is saved. I found that it's a lot more helpful if you actually have the message or direction in mind and just need to get started. You can use it in a variety of ways - 10 minutes to flesh out some ideas or get into some basic flow - or 25 minutes for an entire pomodoro. I found it's good to have in the arsenal and best for shorter bursts and to get into the writing mood.”
And the most detailed answer came from Luis Gil. Here it is in full:
7 quick tips to find your flow
- Find you peak "creative hour" - If you're struggling with getting in the zone, it helps to reduce as many obstacles as possible. Ideally we'd all be able to do creative work at any time of day, but I've found there's a window of 2-4 hours of the day when it's much easier for me to write. For me, that is 6-10 am, before I do anything else in the day. There are other folks that find nights to be best (if you've heard Tim Ferriss' podcast, he always says his best writing happens after midnight). Once you've found this time, it's time to...
- Sit down to write. EVERY DAY. - I have a mentor who said "if you sit in front of the blank page long enough, it'll get written". Our minds like habits and patterns. If you force yourself yo write at the same time everyday, by the 5th or 6th day your mind will go "ok, this is what we do at this time. I might as well cooperate".
- Set a daily goal you can easily accomplish - Small wins are important. Especially at the beginning, don't push for quantity - be content to just write something. Whatever goal you think you can accomplish, go for half of that, even if that means a paragraph a day. The compounding sense of accomplishment will make it easier to write as days go by, and your output may eventually increase as a result.
- Don't write and edit at the same time - I know a few creatives who advise the opposite, but I know many more who align with this so try it out at least. Editing is a rational process, whereas writing is not ("writing" meaning just laying on down on paper whatever's on your mind). I would argue that, in the grand scheme of things, being a good writer is as much about being a good editor as it is about putting down good stuff to edit in the first place. Treat them both with equal respect and importance, but don't do them at the same time.
- Use structure and creative constrains to Leverage Parkinson's Law - Or, in plain English, plan out your piece structure and aesthetics, chop it up in tiny pieces and give yourself super short deadlines. It makes it much easier for your creative mind to fill out smaller chunks of content while being guided by an overarching reference. I keep going back to these two quotes when thinking about this:
"The more constraints I impose on myself, the freer I am" (Igor Stravinsky) & "To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time" (Leonard Bernstein)
- Expect to suck at it most times - You'll probably suck more than you expect and that can be discouraging if your expectations are too high. A lot of the job is just showing up and being consistent. It's a marathon, not a sprint.
- Find out what makes you anxious about writing and take care of it - A lot of "writer's block" comes from being anxious about the outcome. If you're able to tackle the sources of your anxiety, you'll start making writing so much easier!
Thanks, Luis Gil!
For a decade I set, planned, and accomplished goals as a way of life.
Along the way, I have learned that the ultimate measure of success is not in accomplishing goals, but rather in the ways to attain them.
In fact, the end goal is largely irrelevant, as long as it immerses you fully in the process.
Perhaps a better measure of success, therefore, is the ability to focus, get into flow, and feel a deep sense of enjoyment that, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyhi said in his book, "is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like"
You've heard it before: It is the journey that counts, not reaching the destination.
Live your dreams!
* Photo by Markus Spiske.