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Use the flow state to make your writing and your life better

The word “flow” is overused these days. You hear it everywhere. “Go with the flow.” “Get in the flow.” “Don’t worry. Just let it flow.” (By the way, did you know when you tell someone not to worry, it’s scientifically proven that it makes them worry more?)

But being in “flow” doesn’t mean you just sit around doing nothing, waiting for life to take you wherever you think you want to go. No. That’s not flow. That’s called laziness. (And sometimes laziness is good, too, but I’m talking about flow here.)

I first discovered what the flow state was before I knew there was a name for it.

In high school, I ran track and cross country. I set the school record for the mile (5:32 min) that stayed unbroken for many years. I often won, or came in near the top, in my cross-country meets. Running was my life. I ran every day. I grew up in a highly dysfunctional family so running for me was a release, time alone, just me and the wind.

I remember that feeling of running. The beginning was always the hardest. The struggle to get going, to find my rhythm, to overcome my mind’s protests, “It’s too cold out here. You’re too tired to run today. Blah, blah, blah…” But then I’d find my rhythm, get warmed up, and relax into the run. This is where flow showed up. No mind. No distracting thoughts. Just me, the road, the wind, the sun, the rain. When the run was over, I’d walk a bit to cool down, let my body recover, calm my breathing, come back to earth, come back to reality.

Every time I ran a race, I entered this state of flow. I remember the feeling so well: struggle, release, flow, recovery.

According to recent neurobiology research, these are the exact stages of the flow state.

As Steven Kotler explains in the short video below, “Hack Your Flow: Understanding Flow Cycles,” we used to believe that flow was a binary state—either you were in flow or you were out of flow. Now, we understand that flow is a four-part cycle. You have to move through all the cycles before you can return to the flow state again.

The four stages are:

  1. Struggle phase: For a writer, it’s when you’re planning your book, outlining, reading, interviewing. For a baseball player, it’s when you’re learning how to play the game.
  2. Release phase: This is when you stop thinking about the issue or the project you’re working on. When I’m stuck on what comes next in a poem or my novel-in-progress, I go for a walk, or do the dishes, or fold laundry. The idea is to take your mind off the problem. Einstein used to row his boat on a lake. (The one thing you shouldn’t do is watch TV during this phase. TV changes your brain waves and blocks flow). This is the phase where the feel good hormones and brain chemicals get going.
  3. Flow state: This is where all the feel good chemicals are released. We know how this feels—you’re writing or participating in a sport or cooking a gourmet meal or whatever you’re focused on, and you’re no longer thinking, you’re just doing. You’re in flow.
  4. Recovery State: is when all the feel good chemicals have drained out of your system. You need time to rest and recover before you initiate another flow cycle.

We can access this flow state in any area of our life no matter who we are or what we do for a living.

Recently, I was talking to a friend who is building an indoor shooting school for law enforcement. He was telling me about all the shooting options his school would have. Police officers experience this flow state when they’re in an active situation where their training and experience take over. They don’t have to think about what to do next, they just do it. Struggle (stress of situation), Release (letting go), Flow (letting their experience take over), Recovery (so important before they are sent to another tense situation).

Kotler says that if we really want to “hack” flow or learn how to become efficient at entering the state of flow, we need to learn how to struggle better and recover better. A certain amount of stress is okay but if we begin to produce too much cortisol it inhibits the long-term learning benefits of being in flow state, and it makes it harder to get back into flow at a later date.

I’m currently working on the outline for my fantasy novel, which definitely falls under the “struggle” phase of flow. But knowing the four stages of flow now gives me hope that this stage will eventually end and I can move into the FUN part of the flow state.

Time to get back to work so I can practice getting better at the “struggle” stage!

Have you experienced the flow state? When? Where? Doing what? Please share in the comments below.

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