Get in the Zone — A Starter’s Guide to Flow

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Help Wanted: I am looking for a middle seat companion for my many flights. I am tired of sitting beside less-than-ideal partners.

Applicant must have:

  • a hatred for arm rests
  • a way with words, but also a love for silence
  • an instinct for when to wake me if I am sleeping
  • anything else you think would make an ideal companion

Willing to pay for all flight tickets plus $78/hour.

This is my ideal job description.

I keep checking Craigslist and Monster, thinking someone must have a need for this. Surely there’s an executive with the money to burn but too humble to fly first class.

I’m 140 pounds soaking wet, know how to smile and nod in all the right places when you’re talking to me, and never bring a big bag.

And by the way, that third bullet? A trick question. You should never wake anyone up on an airplane.

So there’s that. And now this:

I wrote 1,732 words on my last flight.

Not to brag, but that’s pretty good. Like I’m sure Hemingway would laugh and call me a hack from his standing desk, but in a world where you can blog daily and still get you lost in the noise, I’ll take that effort.

Flow is a funny thing. The way we talk about it, Creative people have to be in this magical state of mind to do work. This state is likely bestowed upon the subject my some unseen Goddess, only choosing to descend from the sky when it pleases her. And you must have the right hair for that to happen.

It all seems so random.

But what if it isn’t?

1) Know the elements of flow

To boil a whole lot of research and testing and jargon down into something simple, flow is this:

The zone in which you have a task that challenges your skills, but does not overwhelm you.

Element 1: A challenge

For a budding writer, this might just mean opening your laptop and knocking out 500 words. As you progress, that amount of words would no longer hold your attention. You’d look for bigger challenges. You write more, and faster. Your skills become greater so your challenges must rise to meet that.

Element 2: Your skills

The more time you spend in flow, the better you get. But like we’ve mentioned before, flow is a moving target. Once you achieve an accepted level of mastery, your skills will plateau.

Walking the balance between boredom and panic is admittedly a tough chore. Want my advice? Always set your goals just a little higher than you think you have the resources for. Err on busy instead of bored.

9 times out of 10, you’ll figure out how to make it work.

2) Get there quickly

Did you know Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, has absolutely no idea what he’s going to draw when he sits down to make a comic strip?

“I’m not really worried about it anymore,” he said. “The ideas always come.”

This is nirvana for a creative.

Adams jumps into flow faster than most people because he’s been in the game for a while, but also because he understands the creative process to the Nth degree. I’m willing to bet he’s got specific triggers* for his work. When he sits down? It’s game time baby.

Give this a try — next time you start work, put on a specific soundtrack. (Here’s the one I use). It might be a little awkward at first, but soon, the first few notes of the track will give your brain a little poke.

“It’s time to work,” it’ll say.

And you will.

Time is one of the biggest hurdles to productivity. If you can decrease the time between setup and action to virtually nothing, you’re already going to be in the top 10 percent.

*Creative triggers are something I’m massively interested in. Whenever Steven Pressfield starts writing, he has a whole routing involving a lucky acorn and a cannon. Seems wild, but he wrote Legend of Bagger Vance, so there must be something to it. I’ve explored the topic a little in The Creative’s Curse.

3) Ride the wave

Much too often, we creatives call it quits too soon.

“I don’t want to overwork myself,” we say. “A good work life balance is important.”

But given all the mental energy it takes to get in flow on some days, once you get there, why wouldn’t you want to stay there as long as you can?

Milk that zone for all it’s worth. Feel the momentum. See how far you can go. Then go further.

If you snap to after a couple hours and realize you’ve never had to pee so badly in your life, you’ve done it right.

It would be fun to make it as a writer. I’ve got what it takes. I’m handsome but not too handsome. I’m smart but approachable. Someday my experiments in flow will result in me selling enough books to quit.

That is, until a Middle Seat Companion positions opens up.

P.S. — If combining theories with imaginary jobs is your thing, you’ll probably like me.

Written by

An optimist who writes.

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