In this quick tip episode, I thought I’d look at the science, go through some practical examples, and give you some ideas on how to bring more creative flow into your life. And if you’re not looking to be more creative, let me preface this by saying that creative flow isn’t just for artists, it’s about creative thought and inspiration and feeling inspired by what you’re doing – whether it’s professional or personal.
Welcome to the XO Conversations Podcast. My name is Dr. Rishma Walji. I’m a former clinician and academic, now I spend my time taking science into the real world, trying to make my life – and yours – more extraordinary. If you’re looking to live your own XO life – check out all my resources at livingxo.com. A good place to start is my free quiz to find out your decision making style – are you likely to move towards your goals, or to get pulled into different directions along the way? Check it out at livingxo.com/quiz
What is Creative Flow?
Psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the state of flow as a state of concentration or complete absorption in an activity. It’s when you’re so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. You’re in the zone.
And you could be doing any number of activities, running, cooking, painting, gardening. The idea is that it’s a positive mental state, where you’re completely absorbed and focused and feeling your best.
Today I’ll focus on flow in the context of creativity but the idea is really widely applicable.
When you’re in flow, you’re in a state of:
- Complete concentration – you become so focussed that everything else falls away. You can lose track of time. You become one with the actions that you’re doing. There is what they call a merger between your actions and your awareness. The actions start to feel automatic. And even effortless.
- You also sort of lose your sense of self-consciousness, so your inner critic is silenced. This one is really key for me, I think sometimes we get into an activity and we’re thinking about what we can do better or what isn’t right so of course that isn’t happening when you’re in flow. And this part is important, you’re not judging. You’re just doing.
I talked a bit more about flow in a very early episode of the podcast on meditation. It’s different from meditation, they are not the same thing, but the way they are similar is that you’re really in the moment. And a lot of people have trouble really getting into the moment, so if that’s you, you can listen to the episode on meditation for people who don’t meditate.
The Benefits of Being in a State of Flow
When you’re in a flow state, your brain releases all sorts of pleasure neurochemicals – dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin.
I’m not going to get into all the science and details around flow, but just the point to say that when you’re in a state of flow, your creativity is amplified.
Now here’s the challenge, how do we get into this state more often and more predictably?
Why Slowing Down is Important for Improving Performance
So I’m going to go through a few things that will help you get into a flow state to improve your creativity. And the first thing I need to explain is that for most of us, it’s not about doing MORE. It’s also about doing LESS.
Because I think what most of us don’t do, is slow down, or rest, effectively.
If you’ve taken my quiz to figure out your decision personality, and especially if you’re a driver or even a spinner – it’s hard to slow down. Those types of people are action oriented, I am too. Now I don’t mean to slow down and do nothing, I mean to slow down to improve your performance and creativity.
A lot of people think that productivity means to work harder, work more, and never stop. And I’m guilty of that too.
I’m the person who tries to meditate better. And then I get frustrated that I didn’t do it right. And then spends hours figuring out how to understand the science of meditation 🙂
Being better at Life, not just at Work
But I’ve been really interested in how to improve performance – in life – not just at work – it could be with physical exercise or mental health or relationships, creative output – how do I do everything in life better. This is still performance.
And this is what I mean about slowing down. It’s actually necessary – to improve not only your performance but also your recovery and your brain waves. I’m not going to get into all the brain waves and which ones are present during different activities but I’ll say that how you slow down, how you relax, matters.
Watching TV is – something I love to do – is not helpful when it comes to recharging your brain. Social media – something I’m trying to get rid of – I did a few episodes on that recently – also not a good way to recharge your brain.
You need to take breaks that are recharging to your brain. A long walk, a shower, doing the dishes, dancing. I know it sounds funny but your brain needs a literal break where you can be present, and calm.
This is why you might get good ideas when you’re doing a relaxing activity where your mind can free flow, but you’re also not bored.
How to Get into a State of Creative Flow
If you’re trying to improve your performance, get more creative on a more regular basis, here are a few things that can help you get into flow:
- Work in 90-120 minute bursts. This means uninterrupted concentration. Not multitasking. And as I say this, I’ve tried it – it’s not as easy as you think. We’re such a task switching society, interrupted by messages and people and laundry or whatever. Try to focus for an actual hour-and-a-half or two hours, or work your way up to that.
- Be in a state of focusing on an external task, not your own internal dialogue. The best example I can give you here is when I’m writing this book – which for me is a really challenging project but also exciting – I’ve been trying to write a bad draft. Not that I want it to be bad, just that for a first draft, I just write without judging if it’s good or bad. Then I go back and edit. It’s the only way I can get into flow while writing, because I’m not wondering if it’s good or not, if I’m not judging myself while I do it.
- Do it. There is a natural state of what’s called ‘the struggle phase’ when you’re getting into flow. It’s where most people fall off or give up. For me, it’s forcing myself to write when I don’t know what to write and then eventually I get into it. You just have to get over the hump. Here’s another example, when I bike or run. Close to our house is a street that has a bit of a hill. A tiny inclination in the road. You’d never notice if you were driving but when you’re riding your bike, or running, you really notice this hill. It’s always hard. The first 10 minutes of any outdoor activity we do feels literally like an uphill battle and I always, always feel like oh geez, what am I doing? And then when i pass this street, I’m OK, and I could continue for a while. So just get past the first hill.
- Love it. There is something about having your own project that you enjoy. If you’re trying to get into flow for something you need to do, say you have a deadline for someone else, it’s harder to get into flow without owning some part of the project, feeling the autonomy of creating and working on it yourself. So if it’s not your own project, re-frame it so that you actually enjoy it. If you’re interested in the activity, you’ll have an easier time getting into flow.
- Create Novelty – when you’re in a new environment, it stimulates your creativity. So if you can move locations, chat with someone new, experience something differently that can help you create. Now I know some people prefer structure and routine so do what works for you. I know for me, novelty really helps to get my creative juices flowing. There’s also something to be said about exposing yourself to different environments, different ways of thinking. It really helps with creativity.
Protecting Your Creative Flow
And one tip that I’ve noticed, but haven’t yet seen in the research is emotional safety and security. And it probably relates to having autonomy that I mentioned before, but I think the stress and distraction of life is hard to get away from when you have responsibilities weighing on your mind.
If you can create a sense of safety and security – away from what is always on your mind, that will help you stimulate your creative flow. This might be why many people wake up early in the morning, or when I talked to singer, songwriter Abon in a recent episode – she likes to create with the sun and in a space that makes her feel a sense of home and stability (especially when she’s on the road or traveling). So find what feels calm and safe and secure for you, even if it’s just a compartmentalized moment or location, if it creates those feelings for you, I think it would be easier to get into a flow state.
Typically for any creative project, you’re trying to stretch yourself and make something that you haven’t done before, you haven’t seen before. It’s outside of your comfort zone. So sometimes it feels daunting.
There needs to be a balance between what you want to accomplish and what you’re able to do. If you start doubting yourself, you’ll get out of flow and knock yourself out of the creative process. So try to have the right support around you, in your mind, to move yourself towards whatever you want to accomplish.
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And let me know if there’s something you’re working on that’s your creative expression.