The flow state for creative work

There are various ways people get into the state of flow. Here is what works best for me.

Prerequisites:

  1. A clear goal and desire to see it happen; Out of all the things on your to-do list, single out the one most important task – this is what you will be focusing on the next morning. Arrange the rest of your list by importance as well.
  2. Before falling asleep, plan/think about the best way to achieve your most important task. Start tomorrow today.
  3. Well rested and fed brain; Get a great night’s sleep. Create perfect conditions for uninterrupted sleep – if necessary soundproof your bedroom, ideal temperature, to avoid toilet trips don’t drink anything 2 hours before bedtime. While working, do keep a bottle of water next to you and take sips all day long to keep yourself hydrated. Also, consider nutrients like omega 3 and multi-vitamins/minerals so that your brain gets access to everything it could possibly need.
  4. Optimal work environment; Prepare your workspace so that it will be free of interruptions in the morning. If you work from home where there are children, pets, spouses, who would interrupt you – consider working elsewhere (nature, hotel, garden shed, etc.).
  5. No distractions; Your smartphone is the enemy (the night before and the following morning). Don’t touch it even if the world comes to an end. Set it to mute. Don’t check your messages, emails, news, or anything.
  6. Assuming that you will be working on the computer in the morning, close all your browser tabs, applications, etc. There should be nothing left over from prior work. You will be starting with a clean slate.
  7. Keep your mind on a leash; In the morning remember that for you there is nothing more important in the world than the task you set out to work on. Anything competing for your attention should be avoided by any means necessary. Your mind will constantly try to sneak in some rewards (hits of dopamine/serotonin) by wanting to check social media, email, news, etc. Don’t let it. Allow only one way to get the reward – do your most important task. Don’t even talk to your friends/family/delivery guy until you have put in a few hours of uninterrupted work. On your flow day, you don’t exist for the world. Everything other than the task at hand will have to wait.

Flow day

You will be alternating between periods of intense focus and controlled mind wandering (taking breaks). Today you are an intellectual athlete. The task you are working on is equivalent to training for the olympics. During the breaks, you will be doing simple activities on auto-pilot while your creative mind continues to run in the background. If you are lucky, your brain will make valuable connections/revelations during these breaks.

Breaks consist of activities that don’t require your attention. You have done them many times so your brain is perfectly capable of doing them on auto-pilot. Here is a list:

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Preparing breakfast
  • Taking a shower
  • Doing light training
  • Going for a walk
  • Driving (not recommended unless it’s at the end of the day on your way to training)

As soon as you are ready to get out of bed jump right into the task. Work like your life depends on it. When you feel it’s time to take the first break is when you brush your teeth. Keep thinking about the task and get back to it as soon as you’re done brushing.

The state of flow kicks in somewhere around this time. Don’t think about it. Keep your mind on the task.

Whenever you need a break, go for one of the tasks from the above list (breakfast, quick/short light workout, shower, etc). Don’t touch your phone/email/social media until well in the afternoon. Once you do, your flow day is pretty much coming to an end.

Completing the most important task will give you great momentum. Use it. Launch your mind right into the next one on the list. When switching tasks, do it without a break in between so as not to risk falling out of the flow. During breaks, your subconscious mind is contemplating the active task.

Depending on how long you’ve been doing this, your flows can last from an hour to a full day. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t sustain it for long yet. Keep practicing and improving with each round. Also, you don’t have to do it every day and not necessarily for many hours. Don’t force it, otherwise, you risk turning it into a dreaded chore.

If you feel like taking a nap, go for it. As soon as you wake up, launch right back into the task.

Winding down

When you are mentally too tired to continue, call it a day and go for a physical workout. Your brain might still surprise you with some unexpected ideas. Take notes. If after the workout and shower you still can’t wind down, go for a walk, see your friends and family, meditate, watch a lecture on youtube, etc.

At the end of the day, cross the completed tasks off your list. Completion of a good flow session should feel like winning a medal. Congratulate yourself. Really do it!

When you need a boost

This is meant to help you get back on track during less productive periods. It’s not to be done during a flow session.

  • Find role models, hopefully, they have put out some motivational speeches.
  • Find cool productivity books/videos.
  • Research the related fields to better equip yourself for the upcoming tasks.
  • When the wind in your sails gets low, remind yourself why you are on your mission.
  • Take a few days off. Prevent yourself from doing any work during the off days. Get really bored and build up the hunger for a new flow day – then do what matters again, not something easier with faster reward/gratification.
  • Compose a master list of your ideas. Keep adding to it. Reading such a list can ignite a state of flow. Alternatively, compose lists of things (other people’s thoughts, ideas, etc) that could serve the same purpose.
  • Just take the first step towards your goal, even when you don’t feel ready. Often this is enough to jumpstart the flow.
  • Sometimes changing your work environment goes a long way in reigniting your flow

Troubleshooting

If the flow state failed to start or you couldn’t sustain it, chances are:

  • 80% you checked your phone or opened a distractive website/app. Don’t do it.
  • 10% you let some other distraction sneak by your guard. Be more vigilant.
  • 10% you weren’t hungry enough for progress. You have to really want the completion of the task. If the task is mundane but a necessary component of a higher goal, understand that the sooner you get it done the further on the way to achieving the goal you will be. Adopt the “Bring it on!” attitude.

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