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Developing a Sense of Flow in your Writing by Patricia McAdoo

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Patricia McAdoo

Patricia McAdoo

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Do you ever find yourself so completely immersed in what you’re doing that you lose track of time? All of a sudden you look up at the clock and realize that hours have passed. This loss of self-consciousness that happens when you are completely absorbed in an activity is described in contemporary psychology as a state of flow. The activity could be something physical like dancing or running or intellectual like coding or writing.

A growing body of research indicates that flow is highly correlated with happiness and that people who experience a lot of flow regularly also develop other positive traits, such as increased concentration, self-esteem, and performance.

One of the pioneers of the research on flow is Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who is also one of the founders of the field of positive psychology which has generated most of the research on wellbeing and happiness over the past twenty years.  He was fascinated by what he called the “flow” state, in which the person is completely immersed in an activity with intense focus and creative engagement and he has over the course of a lifetimes work, interviewed thousands of people who describe their own states of flow.

Csikszentmihalyi’s work has identified six factors of flow:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness so that you’re fully involved or engaged in the activity
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness, what is often referred to as being in the zone.
  4. A sense of personal control. This is something that you know how to do.
  5. A distortion of temporal experience (often people in flow states experience time speeding up)
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding (the activity is its own reward, it brings its own joy)

So, when we are deeply involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills, we experience a joyful state called “flow.”

Flow experiences can be hugely important at difficult times in our lives because even when everything else is falling apart, you can always play guitar or sing or cook something new or set yourself a target in terms of running a distance. Right now, there are literally thousands of such examples online of people engaging in experiences that challenge them but also give them joy: choirs and musicians coming together from their own homes to create music, people setting themselves physical challenges like running a marathon within the confines of a garden.

Interestingly Csikszentmihalyi’s factors of flow correspond well to the experience of free writing:

  • Clear goals (in free writing you write for a set number of minutes without stopping)
  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment (the aim of free writing is to just dive in and write, without lifting your pen from the page)
  • Merging of action and awareness (people who free write often describe ‘getting lost’ in the task)
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness (the aim of free writing is to lose awareness of our internal critic which comments and reflects on everything we write. The aim is simply to go with the flow of writing)
  • A sense of personal control over the activity (free writing is a very good way of achieving a sense of confidence in your own ability to write because there are no expectations of what the result will be)
  • A distortion of temporal experience (people often express surprise when the time is up in a free write)
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding (free writing has no end goal. The writing itself can be binned or never read back even by the person who wrote it. The aim of free writing is simply to write)

Free writing helps us tap into our unconscious mind by encouraging writing without thinking about writing and so we tend to disconnect from that inner critic which comments on everything we write. Its what Natalie Goldberg calls ‘writing down the bones’ and you may be very surprised by what you write. It also a great way to generate ideas if you’re stuck writing an article or essay by getting you over the ‘I’ve nothing to say’ hump.

Try setting a timer for ten minutes and for those ten minutes write without stopping. Write about anything you like and don’t try to pay attention to spelling or grammar. Just write and let your imagination go wild.

Or you could try the following exercise:

Sometimes our life is so busy that we become adrift from how we are, how we feel or alternatively what’s probably more likely now is that we feel overwhelmed by a mixture of boredom, anxiety or just feeling low. In this exercise we drop back down into ourselves and ponder how we are. This helps to heighten your awareness of how you are feeling and how to achieve a greater sense of perspective on those feelings. The sentences below encourage you to think outside the box in terms of describing how you feel and also inject a sense of fun into looking at how you are.

You might try finishing the following sentences without agonising over it. In other words, write without thinking too much, just the first thing that comes into your head is usually the best!

  • Right now, if I were a colour, I would be …
  • What time of day would I be and why?
  • If I were a flower, I would be …
  • If I were an animal, I would be …
  • If I were a car, I would be …
  • If I were a piece of furniture, I would be …

The aim of the exercise is to quickly finish each of the above sentences and then pick the one that jumps out at you as being most resonant in terms of how you feel; the sentence that most accurately reflects your current state of mind. Then you might like to pick that sentence and elaborate by writing a little more.

(c) Patricia McAdoo

About Five Ways to Better Days:

Five Ways to Better Days is a guide to using expressive writing to achieve health and happiness, bringing the reader through a programme of expressive writing and other important practical mental health and wellbeing strategies. In doing so it focuses on five key areas of positive psychology:

Gratitude: recognition and appreciation for what you already have in your life
Flow: how to immerse yourself in the present moment
Flexible thinking: how to appreciate other viewpoints and become more tolerant
Goals: how to identify what is most emotionally important and practically achievable in your life
Connections: how to value and deepen your connections with others

In an exceptionally practical way, each section of the book provides the reader with writing and non-writing suggestions, practices, ideas and activities to deepen their sense of wellbeing.

Linking the fields of expressive writing and positive psychology in a new and dynamic way, this book provides a practical guide for both the general reader and mental health professionals in counselling, health and social care settings. The practicality of the book also makes it an ideal book for workshops and expressive writing/psychology course material. The techniques provided are based on psychological principles but also on the author’s own knowledge and experience of the rich field of expressive writing.

Five Ways to Better Days is for anyone who wants to use writing to enhance their creativity and their sense of wellbeing, health, resilience and happiness.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Patricia McAdoo is a clinical psychologist and writing facilitator. She provides mental health awareness and wellbeing training in the corporate sector. Patricia is the author of Writing for Wellbeing (Currach Press, 2013) and has experience of print and broadcast media, including interviews on Nationwide and the Last Word, and she has written feature articles for the Sunday Independent and other publications.

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