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How Psychological Flow Resets a Creative Rut

Start small.

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

There’s an abundance of ways to get out of a creative rut. Some of these methods include, but are limited to, changing your scenery, physically getting up and moving around, and focusing on creating new work.

However, these all tend to be strategies that help us out of a rut. It doesn’t guarantee we might never struggle with creative blocks again. Getting out, and staying out, of a rut requires a full reset.

Is there an ideal method for hitting reset? Consider getting into Psychological Flow.

What is flow?

In 2004, Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gave a TED Talk on “Flow, the secret to happiness.” Csikszentmihalyi is considered to be one of the co-founders of positive psychology and coined the term psychological flow.

In this seminar, Csikszentmihalyi speaks about his research in trying to understand where we feel really happy in our everyday lives. His studies allowed him to examine creative people, like artists, to learn why they felt like their creative pursuits were meaningful in their lives — even if they never resulted in fame or fortune.

One example Csikszentmihalyi gives is an interview with an American music composer. The composer mentions that he feels ecstatic when he makes music. In the moment that the composer begins to create music and experience ecstasy, he enters a different reality. It’s such an intense experience that in many ways he almost ceases to exist as a person. Physical existence is temporarily suspended. The composer isn’t focused on feeling hungry or tired. His concentration is solely on the music composition. The music starts to flow and the composer experiences psychological flow.

Csikszentmihalyi shares how a poet would describe flow. Psychological flow is an effortless, spontaneous feeling that one experiences when they are in an ecstatic state.

Flow is like “opening a door that floats in the sky.”

The conditions of flow

What happens when a person is in that state of ecstasy?

Certain conditions are present when a person experiences flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi. A sense of clarity accompanies flow, allowing the creative person to know exactly what they want to do. While the task at hand may be difficult, the creative person knows it is possible.

Entering the reality of flow also allows you to forget yourself and essentially the world you live in. You understand that you are part of something bigger.

Upon making that realization, the conditions are present. Then, what you are doing is worth doing for its own sake.

Experiencing flow in the pandemic

In the scientific journal PLOS, a study called “Flow in the time of COVID-19: Findings from China” surveyed participants in Wuhan, China and other major cities impacted by COVID-19 in 2020. A longer quarantine period was associated with poorer well-being. Two coping resources, flow and mindfulness, could provide relief for those unable to leave their homes during this time.

The survey results reveal that flow, not mindfulness, moderated the link between quarantine length and well-being. Individuals that experienced flow, and engaged in activities that could induce flow, had higher levels of positive emotion. During lengthy periods of lockdowns and quarantines, flow may provide the most effective means of protection to our mental and physical health.

Dr. Judy Ho, Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN is a triple board certified and licensed Clinical and Forensic Neuropsychologist. Ho thinks that the research surrounding flow during the COVID-19 pandemic is incredibly exciting and firmly believes in the power of flow as a means to hit reset. The reset can get a creative person out of a rut — and perhaps any other personal or professional rut they may be trapped within.

“Flow isn’t just about you feeling good. It actually changes your brain!” Ho says. “When you’re in a flow state, that judgmental part of yourself, the inner critic turns off.”

The shutting down of the inner critic, which Ho notes is visible in brain imaging studies, means allowing more feel-good chemicals to fill up our brains. Endorphins and serotonin increase in the flow state, which Ho likens to a “flow cocktail” for creativity.

How to achieve flow

By now, you might feel rather eager to experience a flow cocktail of your own and unleash the inner creative within!

How does one go about reaching flow? Follow Ho’s advice for simple ways to get into flow and reset from a rut.

1. Use Pomodoros

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo. Work is broken down into 25-minute intervals, each separated by a short break. It has become a popular technique for many professionals working from home during the pandemic and can help ease your brain into entering a flow state.

“You can’t just enter a flow state at will,” Ho explains. “Often, the biggest mental barrier is getting started. With Pomodoros, once you’re immersed in a task you may find yourself working well past when the timer goes off.”

2. Work at your BPT

BPT stands for biological peak time. It is also sometimes known as biological prime time. This is the time of the day when you have the most energy and are likely to be at your most productive.

Ho does not advise trying to get into flow state when you are low on energy. Flow requires a great deal of focus and willpower. It’s critical not to get distracted. The best approach is to calculate your BPT. Chart your energy levels for at least three weeks. Then, schedule your most important, highest-leverage activities when you have the most energy. Mornings are recommended by Ho as a good time to get into flow state.

3. Focus on one single activity

That means no multitasking. Otherwise, you will experience what is known as cognitive switching penalty.

“Essentially, every time you switch from one task to another, it takes your brain time to get back into the previous task you were doing,” Ho explains.

Flow is dependent on pursuing a single activity with laser focus. View the task, or activity, with tunnel vision. Place your entire focus directly on it.

4. Pick the right task

In his TED Talk, Csikszentmihalyi says that the single largest contributor to boredom, and later apathy, is watching television. The task for experiencing psychological flow state cannot be a leisure activity.

The task you pick should be one where the consequences are high. Ho also recommends choosing a task that provides clear feedback and takes place in a rich and varied environment.

You cannot go for a walk around the block, the same block you walk around each day, and experience flow.

You can, however, decide to leave the neighborhood behind and go rock climbing in the great outdoors to experience flow.

5. Commit to practicing flow every day

Don’t let that sentence scare you away from experiencing flow.

Ho recommends picking an activity that has a clear goal and gives you immediate feedback on how you’re doing with it.

Consider the rock-climbing example for a moment.

The clear goal? Reach the top.

The immediate feedback? You’ll quickly pick up on techniques for climbing, such as keeping your weight on your skeleton.

If rock climbing, or any other activity, turns out to be too intense, do not push yourself to the point of potential injury to do it.

“There should be a good balance between the challenge you experience while doing this activity, and the belief that you have the skills to tackle the challenge,” Ho says.

Csikszentmihalyi says that two things are measured in the moment of flow. The first is the amount of challenge being experienced by a person. The second is their skills, which many creatives believe should be within 10 years’ experience in a particular field. 10 years is often cited as the benchmark for changing something in a manner that is better than what it was before.

You may not have an immediate 10-year head start on what you’re doing to reach flow. It’s possible you might have started as early as during the pandemic — and that’s fine! You can create a ritual as early as today.

“Start small and take advantage of every opportunity,” Ho adds. “Like anything, practice matters.”

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