How Do You Know You’re in the Flow?

Ever have a time when you were writing or doing something else creative, and you just couldn’t stop? Words or ideas poured out of you, and you had to implement them. We call this a state of flow. (And yes, I wrote a post about this five years ago. I’m taking a different angle on it this time.)

According to Wikipedia,

[F]low, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, formerly the head of psychology at the University of Chicago and currently the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, is known for his study on flow. Flow, according to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, is also known as ecstasy. And no, I’m not talking about drugs here, though in his 2004 TED Talk, Csikszentmihalyi explained that “ecstasy is essentially a stepping into an alternative reality.” You’re so in the zone, it’s like you’re watching yourself create. You don’t notice anything else—hunger, weariness, etc. Csikszentmihalyi added, “[T]his automatic, spontaneous process . . . can only happen to someone who is very well trained and who has developed technique.”

I asked several writers how they know they’re in a state of flow.

Steve Bramucci, author of The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! (look for his next book this October) and managing editor over at Uproxx, said,

I recognize flow when I start to think, “This is brilliant! Have I accidentally stolen it from someone else? It’s too good of an idea NOT to have been written already! I must’ve stolen it! I’m such a hack!” At which point I google the idea furiously and, when I find it’s not stolen, I get this excited/thrilled buzzy feeling. Something akin to double fisting caffeine and green juice after a 6 am surf. I get tingly and overly emotional and write and write and write—only taking breaks to text my wife things like, “I really think I was destined to be a writer! I believe in my stories! I promise you this project will bring us financial security!” etc. If that all sounds insufferable, I’m sure it is. But it’s my process. It’s not what ends up on the page; insufferable processes can often lead to positive results.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of novels for young adults and adults, said,

It’s when I feel that I’m in the time and place along with my characters, hearing them speak, feeling the same things they do, following them as they move.

Laura Sibson, a young adult and middle grade author (look for her young adult novel debut in 2019), had this to say:

When drafting, I know that I’m in a state of flow when I’m not tempted to look at the clock or check email or social media. My environment drops away in the sense that I’m not super-aware of what’s happening around me. In those moments, I’m fully immersed in my story world and it feels like the real world. I can see it as clearly as I see the scenery outside my window.

S. K. Van Zandt, another middle grade and young adult author, said,

For me, it’s the unstuck feeling. It’s picturing a scene in my mind, the “what happens next,” and the words are just there, as opposed to seeing the scene and staring at the computer. I think the ability to get (and stay) “in the zone” has everything to do with knowing your characters and story well.

Jill Weatherholt, author of Second Chance Romance (look for her next book this July) and romance short stories, said this:

When I feel what’s happening to my characters so deeply that I’m moved emotionally and I become completely oblivious to my surroundings, I know I’m in a state of flow.

Charles Yallowitz, author of Warlord of the Forgotten Age and other books in the Legends of Windemere series, put it this way:

I never really thought about being in a state of flow. I’m usually just writing along until I stop. So it’s almost like a trance.

How do you know you’re going with the flow when you work?

If you want to check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk:

Kirstea, frazzled as always lately, took flow to a whole different level when she allowed her teacup to overflow.

My Little Pony Pinkie Pie and chicken figures by Hasbro. Kirstea Shoppie doll by Moose Toys. Photos by L. Marie.

32 thoughts on “How Do You Know You’re in the Flow?

  1. Poetry wise it’s when lines come to me when I’m out and about-I can be on a bus and they seemingly come from nowhere, prodding away until I write them down in the ‘Notes’ section of my mobile phone for later.

    • I wondered how you would respond, Andy. Your poetic imagery is so keen. The notes section is rather handy!

      Though I have that resource, I still find myself scribbling on the odd scrap of paper. And yes I have resorted to using a napkin. 🙃

  2. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get into the flow on demand? Great post, L. Marie. It’s interesting to read the other responses. I appreciate you asking my thoughts. So, have you gotten into the flow lately? 🙂

    • Yes, I wish we could, Jill.

      Thank you for agreeing to answer the question. In some ways, yes I have. Revising this book has been challenging in that I find myself going deeper into the emotion of the characters. Trying to make the story more authentic. Sometimes, I feel totally out of my depth. 🙂

  3. When I’m in the flow . . . the world fades away.
    Time disappears.

    Later, when I re-surface, I am amazed at time’s passage.
    And I’ve often missed dinner! 😀

  4. I do, sometimes, get into the flow when writing and just can’t stop. It doesn’t happen all that often, but, when it does I feel quite energized and purposeful. I haven’t felt it in awhile. Perhaps this post will spur me on.

  5. Hmmm…’flow on demand’ – would that that were true!
    Often I find I can easily get into the ‘flow’ IF I can just take that first step and enter into whatever project I need to focus on…that’s more the problem for me right now.
    But man, when I enter in – I have both clarity of vision as well as depth of immersion as the immediate world fades away (as nrhatch says) and the joy of creating as ideas first emerge and then coalesce into something bigger than myself…
    So glad you’re feeling good about your current edits/rewrites, Linda!

    • I know what you mean, Laura. I have a hard time focusing at first, especially if what I have to do on the project is very difficult, and I’m not sure how to tackle it. But once that hurdle is jumped, immersion is easier. I have to do something, though, to get over the hurdle. Pray, wash dishes, take a walk–something to help me return to the project with a fresh mind. Is that the case for you?

  6. Great post, Linda. Thanks for making me think about this. The ability to “get in the flow’ when creating has always seemed mysterious and ethereal and sort of magical to me. Like an undeserved bestowal. It certainly feels rewarding when it happens. I watched the TED talk, too. It was interesting to me that flow occurred most often with optimal challenge and optimal skill.

    • I know what you mean! It is mysterious. Sometimes I feel it, sometimes I don’t. I love what you said about an undeserved bestowal.

      Yes, what was said reminds me of the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I know some criticized his 10,000 hours analogy. But it shows that continually working at something hones one’s skill. Flow seems easier to achieve then.

  7. Much of my writing is … write a little bit, think, consider, write a little more, stop and think, puzzle over something. Occasionally I do get in the flow. It happens most often when I’ve done some preliminary work–pondering, jotting down ideas. Then I’m ready to go. I know I’m in the flow when I’m not thinking about finding a snack or warming my coffee and I find I’m going to be late for an appointment.

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