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Productive Writer No. 8


Getting to "Flow"

Do you write with "flow?" When you start to write, do you eventually find yourself writing with more concentration, some ease, even confidence?


When you write with more focus, with less fear or anxiety, you may be getting in the "flow," as Csikszentmihalyi (1990) describes it. "The task at hand draws one in with its complexity to such an extent that one becomes completely involved in it" (2003, p. 40). 


Csikszentmihalyi reports that this flow is accompanied by up to eight conditions. And although he was not specifically describing the experience of writing, most of these eight are clearly what we strive for when we write:

  • Goals are clear
  • Feedback is immediate
  • Balance occurs between opportunity and capacity
  • Concentration deepens
  • The present is what matters
  • You feel in control
  • Sense of time is altered
  • Loss of ego 

For example, when Csikszentmihalyi describes the third one, the balance between opportunity and capacity, he writes: "It is easier to be completely involved in a task if we believe it is doable. If it appears to be out of our capacity we tend to respond to it by feeling anxious....Attention shifts from what needs to be accomplished-the anxious person is distracted by worries about the outcome.... The ideal condition can be expressed by the simple formula: Flow occurs when both challenges and skills are high and equal to each other" (2003, p. 44). The experience of flow serves as a motivation in itself to continue writing, even writing increasingly difficult material (p. 45).


Or have you ever promised yourself that, once you start writing, you can stop after 30 minutes? A little while later, you look at the clock, or count your words, and it's two hours, or a thousand words, later? You likely experienced flow.


If you've been writing every day, I hope you have experienced flow one or more times already. In this flow, you've likely been able to overcome the obstacles of fear and anxiety and been able to continue to write with greater concentration and productivity and for longer periods of time. If so, let me encourage you to shift from making yourself write for 90 minutes a day to making yourself write until you experience "flow"--that experience of being totally engaged in all the complexity of your task. You are fully involved and enjoying writing. (If it hasn't happened yet, it will. I promise.) 


And when you get to flow, keep writing!


Jan Allen, Associate Dean

Academic and Student Affairs

Cornell Graduate School