If you're embarking on a big content creation project, working within a state of flow will help you reach an end goal faster. In Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines this state as:
“Concentration is so intense that no attention is left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted."
The good news is you don’t need to become a scientist to tap into this mental state. Like many, I found a state of flow while writing, editing, podcasting and even working out.
These days, I spend an hour or two in pursuit of a flow state while listening to ambient music or noise so I don’t get distracted.
I’m often happiest when I’m immersed in one single task like editing a manuscript. In this state of mind, seeing measurable progress toward an outcome I can influence feels reassuring.
I’d love to be able to extend a state of flow throughout the entire day, more than three or four hours is tiring. Still, any content creator can tap into flow state each morning or afternoon and work on their most important creative projects.
If you’re earning a living creating content, expect these three key flow state benefits.
1. You'll Experience Deep Concentration
Early one Friday morning, I was thirty minutes into writing a chapter for a book. My wife came into my home office and walked up behind me.
I was wearing noise-cancelling headphones at the time, so when she tapped me on the shoulder, I jumped out of the chair in shock.
Perhaps you're not a writer. Pick one challenging task related to content creation, then learn how to focus for short periods without a break. Coders work on challenging problems for hours without stopping. Top athletes happily train in the gym or at the track for hours improving their skills for the next big competition.
Several years ago, I worked with a well-known radio presenter who recorded a month's worth of interviews, one after the after.
If you can’t leave your house or apartment right now, focus on tasks or projects within your zone of control. On the other hand, it's hard to experience deep concentration if you're engaged in activities like watching television or reading the news.
2. You'll Pursue Meaningful Work
A typical day fills up quickly with other people's priorities, such as meetings, phone calls and last-minute tasks. Are these important? Some, perhaps.
Are they all meaningful? Probably not.
I'm not saying cultivating a state of flow requires jettisoning all of these tasks. That's a fast way to lose a client or go out of business.
Instead, consider what's most important to you. Perhaps you want to write a book, launch a podcast or create an online course.
Ideally, a state of flow helps you advance every day, so eventually, you get to the top of your creative Everest.
Plus, if your creative project is meaningful, you're far more likely to feel motivated to push forward when it becomes demanding.
3. You'll Find Creating Feels Effortless
A few years ago, I travelled from Ireland to Austin, Texas for a Mastermind. I arrived three days early to see the city.
One night, I was bored and wandered downtown and into a jazz bar. Watching a local ensemble play, I was struck by the lock of effortless joy on their faces: flow in action.
I'm not a musician, but I'm often happiest when I'm immersed in one single task like editing a manuscript or embarking on a long training run. In this state, seeing real measurable progress toward an outcome I can influence feels reassuring and affirmative.
On the other hand, when I try to keep up with email, social media and the news, I feel behind, overwhelmed and like I'm missing out.
Tapping Into a State of Flow
Anyone can tap into flow state for an hour or two each day and work on their most important content marketing tasks. It's kind of like baking a cake; you need the right ingredients. In no short order, these are:
1. Zero Interruptions
The flow state of mind demands your full attention.
If you’re writing, editing or recording and get interrupted, it takes up to 23 minutes to refocus. I’ve got three small children, including an eighteen-month-old, so cultivating zero interruptions to write is difficult and not always a good idea.
I either get up before the kids or work when they leave for school. I also rely on noise-cancelling headphones and listen to ambient music without lyrics.
If I can write without interruption for an hour, I can usually get into a state of flow whereby all sense of time, effort and the outside world fades away. This state of mind lasts between 30 and 120 minutes. After that, I either need to take a bathroom break or stretch my legs.
2. A Hard but Manageable Task
One day, a few years ago, I grew tired of looking at the walls inside our house, chipped and covered with little fingerprints from the kids. I’d more free time than money, so I decided on a whim to paint the downstairs walls.
I hate DIY, and at first, I felt overwhelmed by the variety of paints, brushes and tools to choose from, to say nothing of the preparatory work that goes into painting a house. I know some would find this DIY task easy, but on day one, I felt like I’d taken on more than I could manage.
By day two, I thought, “This isn’t so bad.” On day three, I decided to paint upstairs too.
It’s easy, if hardly rewarding, to pass a few hours checking email, clicking on social media notifications and reading the news.
3. Mental and Physical Energy
If you want to concentrate for an extended period, it helps if you slept well, ate and don’t have major worries on your mind. Peak performance is linked to your mental and physical health!
Much like with meditation, it takes a few minutes for the mind to settle and external worries to fade. It’s all but impossible to get into a state of flow if you’re tired, hungover, stressed or arguing with someone.
Believe me, I’ve tried.
Occasionally, I get mild migraines if I’ve worked for too long without a break over the course of several days. The last time this happened, I tried to push through on a work project because of a deadline.
Even though painkillers numbed the migraine, I found it difficult to concentrate, and the quality of my work dropped off. So, I gave up until the migraine passed.
4. An Ability to Focus for at Least 30-Minutes
The Pomodoro Technique works well for cultivating blocks of deep concentration within the present moment. It's also a handy technique for overcoming procrastination prior to a flow state session, even if you’re short on time. Francesco Cirillo, the creator of the Pomodoro technique, told me:
“We don't have as much time as we want. We cannot slow it down. So there's nothing we can do, in order to control time, to exert control over time. And this is the reason why I actually developed the technique.”
Deep concentration comes more easily in quiet environments where you have all the tools and information you need to get to work.
You should be able to work on a single task for twenty-five to thirty minutes before taking a short break and then repeating.
If, like me, you have a job or a large family, be creative about how you structure your day. Context-switching, like stopping to check email or attend to a minor household drama, will ruin the cake.
5. A Clear Creative Goal
Usually, I try to hit a target word count or finish an article while cultivating a state of flow. If I’m training, I aim to run five or ten miles or complete a certain number of lifts in the gym.
I track my progress using a word count tracker or a spreadsheet listing my articles, and I use a GPS watch and an app to track my miles or lifts in the gym.
What do you want to achieve during a state of flow, and how much is possible in 30, 60 or 90 minutes? Whatever your answer, consider how you can track progress toward this mini-goal so you compare today’s session against yesterday’s.
Witnessing progress, or watching the cake rise, is fun.
6. Deep, Effortless Involvement
Ideally, whatever you're creating should feel immersive. For example, if you’re enjoying recording a course, you’re probably not stopping to check the time or catch up on what’s trending on Twitter.
Shuffling the chair, looking out the window or getting up to brew more coffee are the hallmarks of distraction rather than immersion. Similarly, feeling rushed and under pressure won’t help you sink into the immediate moment.
Keep your morning, afternoon or evening free so you've time to sink into a creative project.
7. Control Over Your Actions
Consider practicing back-squats at the gym. A lifter will rack the barbell and load it with weights. Assuming their technique is good, they’ll either hit or miss the lift.
If they hit it, the lifter can load more weights onto the bar. If they miss it, they’ll ideally reduce the number of weights on the barbell, try again or end their session.
Showing up consistently trains lifters to achieve that back-squat eventually, and that’s something any lifter can control.
I like writing as a task where I’ve control over my actions. It’s me alone with the screen or notepad. I can press a button or move a pen across the page and watch the words come out. I can also pick an easy task and load the barbell or make it more challenging.
It should be something you can actually move the needle on a little each day, like a word-count or publication goal.
8. Access to Immediate Feedback
Personal growth begins with personal accountability.
When your session ends or a time sounds, review your progress. Did you work on your most important task without interruption or attempting multi-tasking while in this mental state?
For example, the online coding platform Codecademy gamifies acquiring improving your skill level. It rewards students with badges and rewards when they complete a track or a challenge.
As content creator, what do your badges and rewards look like? Consider if you rely on a digital tool for feedback — like a fitness tracker or spreadsheet totaling the day’s output — or if you need to ask a coach, editor or friend for accountability.
I don’t always hit my ideal word count, finish a run as quickly as I’d like or hit all my lifts. I use this information to adjust the following day. Perhaps I need a longer break, more sleep or a more realistic goal.
State of Flow: Takeaway
Learning how to achieve flow state during the work day is kind of like a game. It's part art and part science. Everyone from chess players to athletes to content creators can rely on flow state to build more of their best moments into the work day.
With practice and rigor, you can increase your skill level and cultivate flow state at will for several hours a day. It’ll help you become a more effective content creator and improve your peace of mind.
Flow State Tips
- Listen to ambient music like the sound of rainfall. The lack of distracting lyrics enables getting into a state of creative flow and lose track of time. (Check out Joe Baker’s collection of ambient albums or the Flow State newsletter)
- Aim to enter a state of flow at the same time every day. That way, you'll learn to associate deep concentration with a single location and time of day. It’ll become a creative habit.
How long does it take to get into the flow state?
According to neuroscience, it takes up to fifteen minutes to get into flow state. However, you can access this mental state faster with practice and by using techniques like listening to white noise and eliminating distractions.
What is the average person's experience when in a flow state?
The average person experiences deep concentration for 30-minutes or longer. While in this mental state, all sense of time, effort and place fades away. It's kind of hypnotic.