Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

Artists, especially painters, but also artisans, crafters and writers, and very often gamers and sports people too, frequently become “lost in their art.

If you ever looked at a clock and said, “Gosh, where has all the time gone?” Or you’ve missed out on meals because you’ve been so productive, or your neck is aching because you’ve been hunkered down too long, or your eyes feel blurry because you’ve been “hard at it” all day, then you’ve probably been in the zone: you’ve been in a state of flux the psychologists call a flow state.

Mostly, people can decide what they want to focus their attention on. However, when in the flow state, these same people become completely absorbed in their chosen task and do not seem to make conscious decisions ‘outside’ the effort of their current activity.

In positive psychology, a flow state is the state of mind in which a person engaging in some (usually creative) activity is wholly immersed in a feeling of energized focus. It is a type of total participation, full involvement, and they find the enjoyment they experience in the actual process of the activity rather than results. They also lose awareness of things like time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs.

Here are six things that flowsters experience:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Fusion of action and consciousness
  • A loss of reflective self-awareness
  • A sense of personal control over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience, the subjective experience of time becomes altered
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, so the product is autotelic (the satisfaction in “doing it” is its meaning and purpose)

If you’ve checked off some (or all) of these, you’re probably a flowster!

Although some of the above factors can be experienced independently of each other, when experienced together they make up what psychologists call a “flow experience.”

Once a person has these seamless “flow experiences,” they can enjoy additional feelings:

  • A feeling of immediate feedback (a sense of pride in their own work)
  • A feeling of the potential to succeed (to be even better tomorrow)
  • A feeling that one is so engrossed in the experience, all other needs become negligible

When flow takes things away from your life, it’s doing more harm than good!

If you enjoy doing your best while contributing to something beyond yourself, then, like me, you will feel resentful of something (or someone) interrupting your flow.

Here are some common barriers to flow:

  • Barrier: The goals you set (you might have set yourself) are unclear. Solution: ask about S.M.A.R.T. goals, ask (yourself, if necessary) to specify what is required in each session
  • Barrier: You don’t get enough feedback, limited feedback can reduce motivation. Solution: As you go, seek opinions and feedback from trusted friends & supporters, don’t rely on self-satisfaction
  • Barrier: You are making more mistakes and missteps than usual: Solution: get fresh air, get some exercise, use your hands to do something else… never try to “push on

For most creative people, flow is a positive thing, because:

  • You feel completely involved in what you are doing
  • You have the feeling of being “outside” of everyday reality
  • You get inner clarity; it’s good to know you’re doing well
  • You have a sense of accomplishment. It is good to know your skills are up to the task
  • You have a sense of serenity, a sense of growing beyond your worries
  • You enjoy the sense of timelessness – being focused on a project, hours pass quickly
  • You have intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward

The Negatives

However, there are also negatives! The experience of flow, like everything else, is not “good” in an absolute sense, it is only good when it has the potential to make your life richer, more intense and more meaningful. When flow takes things away from your life, it’s doing more harm than good! Flow should not be the basis of a balanced, harmonious and properly proportioned life: it should simply be part of your healthy living.

If the flow state takes over your life, other areas, especially diet, hygiene, healthy exercise, and of course relationships, will suffer.

And, as you know, enjoyable activities that enhance feelings of well-being can (and will) become addictive if a person allows them to take control. Like all dependencies, once your flow state turns into something you can’t control, a dependency, then it can be an extremely painful habit to give up.

What if you don’t flow?

If you’ve ever wondered why some people are “so dedicated” to their art, or how they manage to write “four books a year” or how they focus on a wide range of projects “better” than you ever can, it’s probably because they are flowsters and they enjoy being in the flow state. If you can’t concentrate in the same way they can, if you can’t “knuckle down” like they do, there’s no reason to regret or blame yourself… and there’s certainly no reason to feel guilty about it. Not everyone can connect to the flow state and not everyone is a fluid flowster. So don’t beat yourself up, you’re just ‘normal’ (if there is such a thing!)

So if you are “just a typical” person but you still want to write books, your best bet is to develop a writing routine, adapt it into your everyday life, and function as a creative in much the same way that you might cook dinner, clean your home, drive your car, own a pet, watch television, or read a book. In other words, be modest about your ambitions, work gradually but incrementally towards goals, enjoy the little moments, put things aside when you don’t feel the need to carry on, and never get frustrated by trying to take on more than you can handle.

You can do it! We can all do this. Let’s work together to create the best work we can!

I’d love to hear from you. Do you have more thoughts about flow? Tweet @neilmach

Words: @neilmach July 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

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