Posted by: Liz Massey | January 20, 2011

The Creative Person’s Guide to Focus, Part 4: Go with the Flow

Photo courtesy of SXC.

Today I return to the series I started last fall relating to maintaining one’s creative focus. Our first three posts (on the positive value of distraction, how to unplug from techno-distraction, and how to accomplish more by single-tasking) have mostly addressed “outside-in” techniques – something you impose upon yourself in anticipation of a desired result.

But what if focus could be generated organically – what if you found yourself focusing without making a conscious effort to do so? What if that naturally occurring focus state felt effortless, yet typically happened when you were pushing your creative limits?

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

Well, focus can emerge from within, and one of the names it goes by is “flow.” For decades, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high-ee”), formerly a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and now professor of psychology and business at Claremont Graduate University, has been the expert on describing this state.

What flow is

In an interview with What Is Enlightenment? Magazine, Csikszentmihalyi describes how he discovered the phenomenon of flow, after talking to painters, chess players, rock climbers, musicians, and inner-city basketball players, asking them to describe their experience when what they were doing was really going well.

He says,

“The interviews seemed in many important ways to focus on the same quality of the experience. For instance, the fact that you were completely immersed in what you were doing, that the concentration was very high, that you knew what you had to do moment by moment, that you had very quick and precise feedback as to how well you were doing, and that you felt that your abilities were stretched but not overwhelmed by the opportunities for action. In other words, the challenges were in balance with the skills ….

“Everyone said that it was like being carried by a current, spontaneous, effortless like a flow. You also forget time and are not afraid of being out of control. You think you can control the situation if you need to. But it’s hard because the challenges are hard. It feels effortless and yet it’s extremely dependent on concentration and skill. So it’s a paradoxical kind of condition where you feel that you are on a nice edge, between anxiety on the one hand and boredom on the other.”

In his 1990 book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,”  Csikszentmihalyi used a chart to represent this balance of forces. He called the area where flow is most likely to occur the “flow channel.” (Here is a blog post that reprints that chart.)

Personal development expert Steve Pavalina has broken down the flow process into 7 steps:

  • Define a clear purpose or goal.
  • Identify a compelling motive.
  • Architect a worthy challenge.
  • Provide a conducive environment.
  • Allocate a committed block of time.
  • Prevent interruptions and distractions.
  • Master your tools.

A shining example of what can come from applying these steps was related by Everett Bogue, who in a guest post at Zen Habits discusses how science-fiction author Ray Bradbury wrote his early novels:

“(Ray) … headed over to UCLA’s Lawrence Clark Powell Library. In the basement of the library there was a number of typewriters that gave 30 minutes of writing time for a dime.

“Ray was very poor at the time, and needed all the money he could to support his family. Whenever he popped in the dime, he wanted to get his month’s worth. This forced him to write at a frantic pace until his time was up … In between these 30 minute typewriter banging sessions, he would wander the halls of the library studying books and contemplating what he would write for the next 30 minutes.

“The novel Ray finished was classic sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451. He created this novel in record amount of time, and recalled feeling as if the flow of time had accelerated. The novel wrote itself, effortlessly.”

How to cultivate flow

Csikszentmihalyi’s books really tease out how different people, experiencing a wide variety of activities, experience flow. However, from his work, as well as that of R. Keith Sawyer and others, we can find some common threads from which to weave our own moments of flow:

Do your homework/preparations beforehand. Flow may feel spontaneous and happen without warning, but thinking about what you hope to achieve and creating an environment in which it can happen are crucial.

Choose a potential flow activity that is challenging for you, compelling, and helps others in some way. The altruistic dimension was mentioned by Csikszentmihalyi in a discussion of potential downsides to the flow experience: “At the social level, the danger is that you end up finding flow in challenges that are zero sum, that is, that somebody has to lose for you to win,” he said in the interview quoted earlier. “For instance, war can produce flow if you are on the front line … So many people come back from war to find civilian life very boring and dull compared to their front line experience.”

Once you start your flow activity, set a time limit and keep moving. Nothing kills flow like self-analysis. Bogue, who has been a dancer, says to stay in a flow state, “You have to turn off your mind and simply dance with your instincts.”

Stay in your right(-brain) mind! As alluded to in the last point, left-brain skills like analysis and criticism simply don’t augment a moment of flow. They’re great for getting ready, or better understanding the experience afterward – but they have no appropriate place while you are IN flow.

Additional links on flow

(Characteristics of the) Mental State Called Flow

A nice compendium of quotes and research on “flow.”

The Future Belongs to Those Who are Intrinsically Motivated

Interesting post by Marelisa and her Abundance Blog about motivation, Dan Pink’s book “Drive” and what it takes to stick with a demanding (creative) task. She links Pink’s assertions about intrinsic motivation with Csikszentmihalyi’s work on the flow state – very cool!


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Marelisa, Liz Massey and EnhanceLife, Daisy Hickman. Daisy Hickman said: RT @Marelisa: The Creative Person’s Guide to Focus, Part 4: Go with the Flow: […]

  2. Great post, Liz. Thanks for the helpful tips! I would love to master “flow”!!!

  3. […] that advocate the achievement of greater creative focus by developing plans to unplug, single-task, cultivate flow, and collaborate to suggest you can increase focus by eschewing plans and improvising. But engaging […]

  4. […] segment is based upon my “focus + flow” post, as well as a very helpful set of instructions for achieving flow offered by personal development […]

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