[TIPS OF THE TRADE:] Finding Flow
Contributor
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
April 2015
Contributor
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
April 2015

Garry Trudeau, the originator of the Doonesbury cartoon, is a brilliant creative force.  But when I read what he had to say about “flow,” I was surprised. 

“I had more flow as a designer,” Trudeau told an interviewer. “I could just drop down into the zone and stay there for hours.  With cartooning, I’m constantly coming up for air, procrastinating, looking for reasons not to be doing it.” 

I have those words taped up on the wall above my desk.  Why?  Because they help me when I find it hard to get into the zone.  Let me explain.

It was the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi who popularized the concept of flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is the experience of feeling total immersed in what you’re doing.  It’s a sense of deep focus, and it leads to rapture.    

“When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration,” Csikszentmihalyi says, “whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.”

It doesn’t always happen for me, though, and certainly not right away.  That’s where the Trudeau quote comes in.  Reading Trudeau’s words on the wall above my desk, I note that he seems undeterred by the fact that he needs to come up for air again and again.  He could be doing something else that comes more easily, but that’s okay with him.  It’s okay – and a gift to us all – that he chose the less “flow-ful” path. 

Along with the Trudeau quote is a little trick I invented that helps me make my way into “the zone.” 

When I come to the desk, I set a little piece of scrap paper at my elbow, and there I record my start time – say, 10:01 a.m.  I keep that record at my elbow, and as soon as I feel the urge to come up for air, in Trudeau’s words, to procrastinate, to do something else, I record the time again.  Maybe it’s 10:03, or 10:05.  As I make my way into my work, feeling antsy and unfocussed, the little column of recorded times grows.  It’s a log – a neutral log – of my lack of flow. It says – non-judgmentally, compassionately – that I’m coming up for air.  I’m antsy.  I’m distracted.  I’m not in the zone.    

Glancing at that little column, I note that I’m repeatedly coming up for air.  But I also note that I’m still there, still on the job.  Flow or no flow, the work is going forward.  And that’s okay. More than okay.

Most of the time, little by little, the time between jottings increases.  Often, I’ll glance at my time log and find to my amazement that I haven’t added to it in quite a while.  Having used the little log to “push off” into the task at hand, I let go.  I don’t need it anymore, not for that work session. 

Why?  Because I’ve become caught up in the task at hand.

What’s that called?  Flow.

In Csikszentmihalyi’s words:  Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person's skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”

Aahh.

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Share your thoughts about flow.

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Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2012), which won four national awards, including the Grub Street National Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize.  It’s now available in audiobook format as well as paperback and e-book.  Ellen’s first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly.  See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.

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Comments
  • Ellen Cassedy

    Sometimes minutes tick by like hours and sometimes time flies.  Share how you experience flow and what you do when it's not happening.

  • Marianne C. Bohr

    Ah, the flow...so painful when you're not in it. Minutes tick by like hours. But when you're in its throes, it's 9 am, then 11 and now its 4 pm and I'm starving!

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Great comment, Mayra Calvani.  Yes, get into the chair, and tolerate the times when getting into the flow isn't easy.  Can people share their "tricks" for getting into the zone?

  • Mayra Calvani

    Thanks for the great post, Ellen. I'm always trying to be in the flow when writing, but it takes time and effort before I can actually submerge. As you point out, what matters is having our butts in the chair, whether or not there's flow or inspiration. But it sure feels like heaven when there is!

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Nicely spelled, Cate!  You make an interesting point about FLOW, the topic of my post -- that we will benefit by paying attention to what causes us to lose our immersion in our work.