Hey guys! Today I thought I’d talk a bit about the concept of flow, and share the techniques that help me get into flow and keep it going.
“The Empress.” 9×12″, ink and watercolor.
“Strength.” 9×12″, ink and watercolor.
So what is flow, though? It’s hard to define, but like many things, “I can’t define it but I know when I’m there.” Flow is a state of being in which one is able to work (usually in an artistic way, such as drawing or painting, but not always) in a steady, productive, focused, and creative manner, without excessive breaks, distraction, or procrastination.
For me, being in flow is accompanied by a low-grade euphoria of “I’m doing it. I’m getting work done and creating things. Yes. YES!” I’m pretty sure it’s some kind of neurotransmitter rush, sort of like runner’s high. I also tend to lose track of time – for hours – while in flow, which is an unfortunate side effect, but is a small price to pay for the enjoyment and productivity of flow.
It’s taken literal years for me to figure out how to get into flow and how to stay there, so I wanted to share some tips-and-tricks so that maybe it won’t take 15 years of trial and error for YOU to get there. 🙂
1. Self Care and Basic Health
I know. You don’t want to hear it. But for me at least, I can tell you that if I don’t take basic care of my body, I CANNOT get into flow. I don’t mean that I’m in perfect health – HAH, far from it – but I have to be experiencing a basic level of acceptable wellness, or my sluggishness and general “blah” feeling gets in the way. Regular light exercise, scheduling adequate sleep time, and most of all eating healthy has become, for me, the baseline that allows me to build flow on top.
2. Organization and Scheduling
Another one nobody wants to hear or accept – but organization and regular work schedules have helped me form a framework in which I can really get into flow. Although I work from home (even for my day job), I have found that I really need to have scheduled “work hours” during which I work on certain projects. I usually spend a few minutes each morning just looking over what I need to do and figuring out what I’ll work on that day, and then work in one- to two-hour blocks on each project. This allows me not only to make sure that I get a good amount of work done on each project, but reinforces, in my subconscious mind, what my schedule is and when I need to be in “work mode.”
3. Preparation and Planning
This is less about planning out plots and storylines and more about being prepared to work logistically: Is the laptop charged? If not, is there a plug available for it? Do I have enough of that one paint that I was running out of? Did I clean those brushes yesterday, or are they still covered in Phthalo Blue? Do I have the paper I need in order to draw those next few comic pages? Did I order more G-pen nibs? I find it extremely helpful to keep a running shopping list of supplies and materials to replace, writing them down as I notice them running low; that way, at the end of the week (or, in my case, when a coupon comes up for the art store), I can do one shopping run on the weekend, rather than having to run out at 9:45am to replace something when I have to work at 10.
4. Environmental Management
Make your workplace a place you want to be. I realize this isn’t possible, but don’t assume I mean you have to lease a penthouse suite as your studio and have expensive aromatherapy oils and state-of-the-art ergonomic beanbag chairs. Really, I’m talking about the little things. Play music you really enjoy. Burn candles or incense that are appealing to you (but please be careful and use dishes/incense burners so that you don’t burn anything down while you’re in flow!). If you’re less a music person and prefer to have something slightly distracting, play a podcast, reruns of a TV show you’ve seen (new episodes not recommended, as you’ll focus on them more than your work), or even an ambient noise. YouTube has plenty of ambient noise mixes, and you can use them to place yourself anywhere from a trendy Pacific-Northwest Starbucks to the Gryffindor common room at Hogwarts. (I am not making this up.) My favorite is a mix by Magical Forest called “Library Study Session,” and it sounds like just that – and is extremely helpful in getting me to focus and feel like I’m ready for flow to happen.
5. Just Do It
The best way to get something done is to start doing it. Even if you start small, start. Even if you’re writing random lines instead of a novel, write. Even if you’re drawing in a sketchbook rather than painting your incredible mural, draw. Even if you are messing around with chords on guitar rather than composing a symphony…okay, you get the idea. You will never get into flow with your work if you never work. “The easiest way to guarantee you won’t succeed is to never try.” It’s tempting to wait until everything is perfect, but to be perfectly honest, it never will be – and it doesn’t need to be for you to create your work. If your goal is to be able to “flow” your work for 6 hours straight, start with 60 minutes. Or 16. Or 6. Flow, like anything, takes practice to be able to do consistently, and there is no way around that practice.
6. Mindfulness: Bring It Back To Center
One of the most devious ways our brains keep us from creating our great works is distraction. And the worst part of distraction is that, quite often, it happens not only without our approval, but without our knowledge. Have you ever found yourself surfing through social media and realized it’s been 2 hours since work started and you’ve done nothing but…you aren’t even sure what? Been there. It’s frustrating, but the best thing to do is to put down the phone or close the browser and get back to work. Don’t beat yourself up, don’t overanalyze it, don’t waste time being morose or self-pitying. Just bring your attention back to your actual work and get back to it.
In meditation, it can take years of practice to “quiet the monkey mind” and be able to just sit and not get distracted with trains of thought – and creativity and flow are, in a way, meditative practices. So do your best not to get too frustrated if, even after reading this article and even trying for a while, you can’t seem to focus or get into flow. Beating ourselves up only wastes time and energy and makes us mentally associate work with feeling guilty, which makes us avoid it even more. Don’t waste your time kicking yourself. Breathe, shift your attention, and do the next work task you can find.
7. Feed The Inspiration
We all have muses, I believe – even if that muse is an amorphous cloud of ideas we draw from, rather than a beautiful damsel for whom we would lasso the sun and the moon and the stars – and those muses need offerings if we are to expect them to provide us with ideas. For me, my inspiration, my muse, seems to like the stuff I liked when I was a teenager – when I was really “coming into my own” creatively – so when I need to get inspired, I tend to listen to goth and alt-rock albums from the mid-late 2000’s, watch horror movies from the same era, and read a lot (and I mean a LOT) of manga. Even if what I’m making is not dark, horrific, or anime-styled, this stuff inspires me.
I suspect it has something to do with my inner child (inner teenager?) and the incredible, intense, almost volatile creativity she had. Although less consistent in my work and less skilled than I am now, that teenager was incredibly creative and prolific and just loved coming up with ideas. She was in love with art, the process of making art, and the idea of being an artist, and so she is what I tap into when I really need to get myself creating.
My point is this: Try to pin down the time (or place, or mood) in your life when/where you felt most creative, and feed your creativity on things that connect you with that time/place/mood. If you’ve ever been in flow, try to recall where you were, what you were listening to, what you were watching around that time…If nothing else, it’ll be a blast of nostalgia – and with any luck, it could tip you over into flow.
That’s my top 7 tips, but I have a bonus one that is more important than any of the others: PLEASE don’t destroy your health with your work, or mistake overburdening yourself for flow. If you are unwilling to pause, even to eat or sleep, that’s not flow, that’s overwork – and it’s going to result in burnout, not prolific creativity. Ideally, anxiety, anger, and stress are NOT part of flow (at least, they’re not its main results), and long-term, these things can literally shorten your lifespan as well as your quality of life.
And, if you find yourself unable to stop working, even when you want to or know you need to, or if you are skipping consecutive days of sleep, please talk to a trusted person (doctor, therapist, friend) as soon as possible. These can be signs of mental health issues, but if addressed promptly and properly, they can definitely be treated. (I just mention this because I have a mood disorder that, on occasion, takes over my creativity and makes me work for days straight. It’s not healthy for me to do that, but these days I’m able to balance pretty well and get into flow rather than hypomania.)
Finally I’d like to personally wish you good luck in your creative journey, whatever that may look like, and offer that if you ever need advice on creativity or getting into flow, I’m here. Drop me a line! My contact form is here and you can contact me there any time.
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to support this whole operation, please head over to my Etsy shop and check out what I’ve got for sale there. And for more of my thoughts on art and more, here’s my YouTube channel. Maybe you’ll find yourself listening to me ramble about art while you get yourself into a good creative flow. 🙂
All the best,