Do you know that wonderful feeling of getting completely immersed in a project or activity?

You're "in the zone". All other problems melt away, you look up at the clock and suddenly 2 hours have passed - it feels like during those hours not a single thought has entered your mind... Maybe you've even not realised that you're hungry, or have missed lunch (or an appointment!); or you reach for that cup of tea you "just" made, and it is now stone cold.

What I'm describing here is called 'flow', and it's one of the reasons I love getting stuck into a creative project. Most of what I know about 'flow' I've learnt from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, an eminent psychologist, who has contributed pioneering work to our understanding of happiness, creativity & human fulfilment. He has given a brilliant TED talk, which you can find here. He describes flow as "a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work".

I certainly have experienced this feeling when I'm working on a painting, but not all the time. It's something I treasure when it happens.

Flow... a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work

Csíkszentmihályi explains that flow is likely to occur when faced with a task that has clear goals that require specific responses - I can give a perfect example here relating to botanical illustration: if I am painting a flower with numerous petals (peonies come to mind!), I plan my process, practice it, and then get into a rhythm... I know I need to lay wash no. 1 with brush no.1 , followed by wash no. 2 with brush no. 2, followed by adding detail with brush no. 3. I can tell you... after petal 20, the mind-brush connection is so strong, I barely have to think of what I am doing;  every thought, action, and brush stroke follows inevitably from the previous one. 

So, why do we experience flow?

Our nervous system can only process a limited amount of information per second - for example, imagine more than two people talking to you at once, it's impossible to understand what each are saying! So, when experiencing 'flow'  the nervous system is saturated with the information necessary to perform. It cannot process information from any other stimuli, and that's why you may not realise you are hungry, thirsty (or late!); as Csíkszentmihályi says 'existence is temporarily suspended'. 

So, how do you achieve flow? These are my top tips:

  1. Love what you do; it's difficult to achieve flow if you're bored, or not enjoying the task at hand. 
  2. Know your process. This one is direct from Csíkszentmihályi: set yourself clear goals that require specific responses or actions. Find your rhythm.
  3. Give yourself time. I'm less likely to experience flow with a shorter window of time to paint, or if I have an upcoming meeting or place to be. 
  4. Limit distractions. Phone notifications are the absolute worst for this - turn your phone on silent, or better yet, turn off notifications on your phone all together!
  5. Practice meditation. Regular meditation has been proven to improve attention and creativity. 
  6. Don't force it, or expect it. You can lay these foundations, but it will manifest itself on it's own terms. It's worth the wait. 

So, this wonderful thing called 'flow' is certainly achievable, and hopefully myself and Mr Csíkszentmihályi have helped you learn a bit more about it. But remember,  you can still enjoy your project without 'flow'! Carve out time in your day specifically for your project, limit distractions, and enjoy the process! 

Have you experienced 'flow'? I'd love it if you shared your experiences (and tips!) below.