How to achieve flow when you create content

how to achieve flow

Have you ever achieved “flow?”

When I was writing my book The Content Code, it happened to me. It was something weird and wonderful:

  • The fact that I was covering an entirely new subject presented a significant intellectual challenge. I knew this book could be my best work. After months of reading and research, the path for the book suddenly became as clear to me as a lighted runway.
  • As I spent hour after hour of uninterrupted writing, the chapters seemingly wrote themselves as a cohesive stream came forth.
  • I was immersed in the process and would write for hours at a time, often forgetting to eat. Once I wrote for 18 hours in a single day.

This intense, almost euphoric feeling is called flow state, or an optimal performance experience, an idea coined by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and discussed in his bestselling book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Back in the 1970s, he performed one of the largest psychological studies ever — asking people from all over the world about the times in their life when they performed their best.

“Flow” is a documented psychological state to describe a period of unusual, peak performance. In flow state, nothing else seems to matter. We forget about our problems, burdens, and self-consciousness and focus entirely on the task at hand.

While most often used to describe athletes, it can apply to any field of endeavor and is literally available to anybody if the conditions are right. In a 10-year McKinsey study, top business executives reported being five times as productive in a flow state.

Billy Mitchell, who runs MLT Creative, told me that flow comes to him in his creative process: The pleasure of good ideas coming together and being captured is a tangible reminder of why I got into a business requiring creativity. None of this means that the work is not going to be subject to further scrutiny and possible rejection. That comes with the territory. I’ll admit to the rush sometimes being almost a manic state. This sense of euphoria isn’t part of every project but when it is, it is a wonderful thing.”

The state of flow

Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book that certain conditions need to show up to produce flow. The state exists on a spectrum, like any emotion. Whatever creative activity you choose, it must provide an achievable challenge. The activity must:

  1. Have clear goals and rules
  2. Provide consistent feedback
  3. Require intense concentration
  4. Be within your skill set
  5. Present a surmountable challenge

By structuring your environment in this way, you can make it easier to achieve flow state and control your quality of experience.

Translating this to the content process

The typical content-creating process is not ideal for flow, is it? Let’s see if this sounds familiar.

  • You don’t really have a goal in mind because you’re not even sure what impact your content is having.
  • You create content when you can. You’re busy. Immersing yourself in anything is out of the question.
  • Cranking out another video or podcast seem routine. There is not much of a challenge any more.

Csikszentmihalyi said that achieving flow “is not a battle against the self. It is really a battle for the self; it is a struggle for establishing control over attention.”

As I look back at the times in my life when I had creative flow, I can see that my life and my goals lined up in a way where my attention could be totally focused the goal. That’s hard to do in our busy world, isn’t it?

Let’s see if we can translate this in the ideal conditions for content creation flow.

1. You have to be relaxed

In these flow times my mind was not distracted with daily worries. My best writing comes over vacation periods where work is set aside and I can truly concentrate. Flow won’t come if you’re stressed.

Gretchen Knode told me flow comes through “Enjoying the process of creation. Creating to create it is a joy and every time I do it for the joy of it. I’m in the flow and hours can go by without me noticing.”

Reader Nick Harrison adds: “For me a lot of time it’s scotch or whiskey, headphones and darkness. No email or phone. It makes me use a different part of my brain if that makes sense.”

2. You must be focused

Many of our greatest writers had to leave their environment to achieve flow. They escaped to the mountains, the ocean, or a forest cabin. That’s not practical for most people, especially if you have a family. For me, I simply found a silent place and closed the door.

Reader Susan Baier uses an app to help her get focused: “I use Brain.fm and it really helps me stay focused and get a lot done. I tried it when a friend recommended it, and didn’t expect too much but I have noticed a dramatic difference when I’m needing to power through something that requires intense concentration.”

My friend Chel Wolverton says she has to be emotionally connected to the project to focus “And sometimes I use music as a drug to put me in that emotional space I want to be in.”

3. Passion

When I wrote The Content Code, I was literally obsessed with the topic. I knew most marketing content is being swallowed by Content Shock and I was determined to find the answer. I’m a marketing strategist and I love hard problems. I could not stop thinking about the “post-content strategy.”

By comparison, I actually started writing another book just a few weeks ago. I spent three solid days working on it and stopped. There was no flow because there was no passion. I was not possessed by the topic. Well … maybe I got a few good blog posts out of it!

My friend Kathy Klotz-Guest agrees that flow comes from passion: “Flow comes from being lost in the topic. Caring so much about the topic because I picked something not for SEO or clicks, or whatever. But because I gave a shit. Be passionate about something and that makes all the difference.”

4. Build in goals and feedback

Reader Ian McIntosh said that the culmination of practice toward a goal helps him achieve peak performance: “I achieved flow in music when I was studying and playing professionally. The best is when you gain that moment of synchronicity with a group that brings the musicians and audience to tears. I remember one performance when the conductor almost couldn’t finish the piece.

“I now strive to achieve it in photography, although it’s a different sensation… Knowing that I’ve captured a defining image, then working on it in my editing suite until what I see in reality and my mind’s eye are in harmony.”

When I was writing my book, I kept a spreadsheet to measure the number of words I was writing each day and the overall goal for the book. In some ways, this was like an athletic event. I had a defined time to finish the book and it was a race to the finish.

Perhaps this is one of the biggest challenges on a day-to-day basis. What stretch goals can we set for the content creation process? What can drive us out of our routine and provide an energizing challenge?

Here are some ideas for achievable content stretch goals:

  1. Thoroughly covering a topic that has never been covered before.
  2. Creating a productivity goal like a number of words or blog posts in a certain time frame.
  3. Setting a goal for a new platform like creating five videos in a month instead of blogging.
  4. Achieving a new level of recognition by creating a piece of content that earns a new level of social sharing.
  5. Writing a piece of content that is accepted by a premium publisher like Harvard Business Review, an industry journal, or your favorite blog (I guess that would be {grow} right?)

What do you think? Is there flow in your future? And here’s a big question — Can you build this environment into a corporate workplace?

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Andy Mangold

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  • Todd Lyden

    Mark, glad you are highlighting this.
    Been teaching it for years to college students when they think of what their career would be
    Now emphasize this with entrepreneurs and startups…
    interesting approach on the marketing angle!
    I especially like to highlight need for passion which you illustrated perfectly.

  • That is so extremely interesting Todd. Had no idea you could teach something like that but it definitely makes sense.

  • Todd Lyden

    at least conceptually.

    I remember reading Flow when it came out and dug into Csikszentmihalyi

    i remember it being brushed over in college psych class, but when the time came I wanted students to think this way…

  • Mia Sherwood Landau

    Just gotta say that my personal experience of flow is much more serendipitous. No rules, except “just do it,” meaning sit down, shut up and write. Or sing. It’s there waiting for me whenever I put it first. The idea of rules seems counterproductive, but that’s just me. Can’t argue with what works for you!

  • “Immersing yourself in anything is out of the question.” Online, this is scarily true. Multiple tabs, social media and email alerts, and popups can all add up to one big state of distraction. Sometimes, taking pen to paper to get in the content flow is what is needed! Thanks for writing this thoughtful piece.

  • As I recall, his ideas were not adopted early on. It took years before the flow idea caught on. It is kind of spooky when you think about it

  • Do you think you have achieved the flow state discussed here? I think there is a difference between flow and focus. I have only been in that other-worldly state a few time and every time I was in a place of deep relaxation, stillness, and concentration.

  • You’re welcome. Who are you? : )

  • I am Kait, Marketwired’s Community Manager! And a fan of your blog. 🙂

  • Todd Lyden

    you are right, it did take years

  • Thanks for coming out from behind the mask : ) And thanks so much for reading my blog!

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  • Mia Sherwood Landau

    Oh gosh, yes. Flow is an undeniable, unforgettable experience.

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