Is seeking a state of flow what work is really about?
There are days where several things align to provide the perfect environment for making—a challenge, a deadline, a passion for doing something that so obviously needs to be done, a space that is perfect for the job at hand, a set of people around you who just happen to be the perfect people to assist (or perhaps none at all), and the raw materials and tools at hand so there are no limitations as to what you can do.
You feel makeful, and suddenly, out of nowhere, you’re able to work at your absolute best. To do the thing you know you’re supposed to be doing with your life, and to be the best at the thing that distinguishes you from everyone else.
This is flow, in that you’re able to do things in a few seconds that would take you hours at other times. Tasks that once seemed challenging are easy. The movements of your body, and complex thought processes all feel natural, and each action you take seems to be like cutting through butter, where once it felt like slicing through bread. The work itself is enjoyable, the product of the work is high quality, and the feeling of doing the work is just pure joy.
You look up after what feels like a few minutes and realise that several hours have passed and you need to eat. You look down and realise you’ve achieved something amazing and you’re not quite sure how it’s happened.
After a little while the makeful moment passes and you revert back to your normal state of being. You hope that soon that feeling will come back, and you can get back to that state. But it’s so hard to magic it up, especially with all of the distractions and responsibilities of modern life.
If only you could get back into the flow…
A flow of flow?
At this point, you’re probably expecting me to give you some kind of answer as to how you too can achieve flow more often. Sorry. I’ll have to disappoint. All I have is my own story, and this thought:
Run from the person who has found the truth,
follow the person looking for it
If you’re lucky enough to have experienced the flow state, you may wonder how it’s possible for you to live a life where you can experience it more often, yet it seems to be something very personal, that methods that work for one person may or may not have the same effect on others. Obviously, it would be impossible to be in flow all of the time, but having a general ability to achieve an amazing level of productivity in your field of work, I would argue, is something that many would aspire to, and it is worth looking at the experiences of others.
There are many historical and cultural references to the flow state, yet many people seem to be unfamiliar with it. If we go back to Roman times, we have the concept of festina lente — which roughly translates as “make haste slowly”, and gave rise to the idea of “slow is smooth, smooth is fast”. The phrase has its roots in military strategy—by going slowly you make progress, whereas rushing ahead recklessly could result in casualties. It has adapted over time and many people now take it to mean that it is important to balance urgency and diligence, and that a state of flow is where that occurs on a personal level.
Looking to Japan we discover, as is often the way, that there is a concept that seems to apply which has no word in English, and yet is clearly recognisable, but also alien because of the context.
Here, there is the concept of muga—an idea to do with self-effacement, where the mind and the body dissociate, which results in an ecstasy of being perfectly lined up with one’s activity so that we aren’t aware of our actions, yet are able to achieve things at a high level of skill. Sportspeople often report this phenomenon, and I always find it fascinating to watch interviewers attempting to ask a tennis champion “so how did it feel to win?”, because they can’t answer the question in a way that we can understand.
This phenomenon has been the subject of a fair amount of research, most notably by Mihály Csíkszentmihály, who has published a great deal on the subject, yet it still remains a mystery to most of us.
I can understand that feeling of “it’s impossible to explain”, because if there’s one thing in my professional life that I could boil all of my actions down to, it’s to “seek flow”. Each day, each project, each idea, attempt to establish a way to be in a flow state.
Yet there’s flow, and then there’s a period of several days where you manage to be in the flow state. These sustained periods are vanishingly rare.
A band in a recording studio for a week writing and recording a seminal album, or a writer locking herself away for a few weeks and coming out with a literary masterpiece.
I’ve never found a satisfactory word for these longer periods of sustained flow, so I gave it my own name—Makefulness. A state of being “makeful”. It’s not just “being creative”, it’s a consistent drive to make, to finish, to complete by the end of that period.
I’ve managed hints of this a few times, where every morning for a while I’ll be up at 4am, where I can’t stop thinking about something I’m working on, and the productivity just flows. For days, not hours. I have to stop occasionally to crack my knuckles and massage my fingers, but the overall feeling is a lack of constraint, of immediate production from idea to result.
One thing that works for me is introspection. A property that many of the most interesting, creative people share is that they spend time thinking about their process, and I’ve recently started following their lead.
Over the last few months, in building my company Makeshift, I’ve been thinking about my own behaviour, about the team we’re putting together, about how we work, what our process is, and most importantly, how we make it so that we build the perfect environment for digital makers like us.
By thinking about the process, I’ve begun really considering my actions—past and future—and through that introspection I’ve become a little clearer about what it might be that could bring about those elusive periods of makefulness.
I have concluded I must be a bit of a nightmare to have on a team.
A few years back a bunch of us got quite annoyed about our city council spending a large amount of money building a very bad website, so to be naughty, we built our own (mostly broken now) using free stuff from the internet. I was passionate about it, and it must have been the first time I realised that being naughty—doing a hack project instead of doing billable-hours work—was what I should be doing.
Since then I’ve built being naughty into my method. It seems that often the way that I get into my most productive is by being naughty, doing the wrong thing, the stuff that isn’t on the to-do list: unrelated, tangental, irritatingly sideways but ultimately related pieces of work. The result is that I come back to the main task at hand re-invigorated, more excited, realigned and more productive.
I now encourage others to do simple exercises about trying to think about what they’re doing when they do get into that state. Simple questions: Where are you? Who are you with? What kind of work are you doing? What aren’t you doing? What’s making you angry? Don’t make notes—you need to be doing the thing you’re doing, but try to give yourself and your own actions a sideways look. When you’re in it, try to find a way to learn how to get into it next time. And there’s something that I’ve been trying recently that is so simple that I’m not sure why I didn’t do it sooner.
Write about your process
Oh gosh, I didn’t realise until this month what writing is for. If you’re lucky you find that people read the things that you write. But there are two sides to a piece of writing such as this—the writer and the reader.
And whilst it’s perfectly possible that the reader is someone who will be able to learn one useful thing from this page of text, there is also much more to be learnt on the other side.
Writing, however you do it, can be a method of communicating your own thoughts back to yourself. I’m learning from writing things to myself.
Here’s a strange thing I’ve noticed, having written on Medium for a couple of months. I read my own posts several times over. I would have expected that I’d write something, ask others to help improve it, and then that would be that. However, I keep coming back to my own posts, and reading them through. At first I thought it was narcissism. That I was looking at the stats, and I should hide the fact I was re-reading things looking for typos. But really, it’s not the typos. I’m considering what I’ve written and building it into the way that I’m working, being and making.
I’m sure I sound like a noob saying that, but if anyone asks me now “how could I get better at…” I suspect I will recommend writing about it, and using the writing as a way of understanding that process of potential self-improvement.
In the act of writing, I’ve learnt that my own process, as well as being about being naughty is also about sketching with code, rather than being an engineer. By working quickly, and sketchily I’m optimising for makefulness.
The big realisation from my introspection is that the making of hacks, in short one-day, two-day, one-week timeboxes, is the ideal environment to get into that makeful state. I deliberately put myself in a position where there’s constraint and a deadline, and hope that something emerges. As with all creative periods there’s one thing you have to avoid — the unnecessary, disruptive interrupt.
Samuel Coleridge, the 19th Century poet is known for publishing one of the best literary examples (other than Joyce) of the virtually unedited results of a flow state.
After reading a book and dreaming about the Mongol emperor of the same name, he famously (possibly apocryphally) awoke and wrote Kubla Khan.
He not only claimed that he woke up with much of the poem already written, he also said that the reason it was unfinished because he was interrupted.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
He reported that he had a visit from a person on business from Porlock, who distracted him for an hour, and on his return he couldn’t complete the poem. The word porlock has now entered the English language as someone who interrupts a flow state.
What can you do to avoid similar situations, in a world increasingly full of opportunities for distraction? Should you cut out distractions?
Embracing or avoiding distraction
Personally I embrace the distraction. I have fifty browser tabs open, about twenty projects open in my code editor, twitter, my phone. I’m not an advocate for “lock yourself away and just get it done”. That’s not how I work.
However, when you’re in flow, you’re focused. And I suspect that that singular focus is something to be admired in others, but that those around you, particularly your family, may not have such admiration for it when it strikes on a Sunday afternoon.
One thing I do know — avoid porlocks. I’ve started saying “sorry, no, I can’t” when people request to meet—not because I don’t want to meet, but because I want to give myself uninterrupted time to make.
As an example Ben Southworth, sent his apologies for not attending dinner on Friday with this message:
Whilst I love you all, deeply, almost spiritually, I need to get home and crack on with finding a way to make my newly found freedom. It sounds like there are enough of you that I won’t be missed.
Sorry, but we all know that the flow cannot be satiated.
Act on your conclusions
If you act on the conclusion from your own introspection and make some kind of change to your environment then you’re saying to yourself that actually, forget flow, this will do.
Sometimes, that’ll involve a difficult decision. I’ve personally quit projects, companies and environments multiple times that on the outside looked lucrative from a financial point of view, yet were sadly not about that personal makefulness. And when you bring family life—in particular children into the decision-making, the tendency is to err on the side of safety.
People ask me how I manage to get so much done all the time. It’s probably because I quit things and move on, and also because I’ve been spending time thinking about a part of the process that’s important to me — being makeful. In my new company Makeshift I’m trying to establish an environment where it’s possible for all of us to be in that state through the work that we do.
Oh hang on, hold that thought, there’s a little person who needs me to draw a monster. Back in a moment…