Cultivating Flow (or, How to Let Your Art Out)

Flow is that state you sometimes find yourself in, when hard work seems easy and time passes effortlessly. You put brush to canvas, camera to scene, or fingers to keyboard and some of the best work you’ve ever done comes gushing out of you like water from a garden hose.

The creative among you know exactly what I’m talking about.

But flow is somewhat elusive. The garden hose analogy only goes so far. You can stop and start the flow of water by turning the tap, but there’s no easy way to stop and start creative flow. That said, I believe I’ve gotten much better at cultivating flow, and I’d like to share with you how I do it.

First, some background

When I started this blog almost a year ago, my goal was to write and publish just one blog post per week. That doesn’t sound like much, and I figured it would be easy, but truthfully it was a real struggle at times. My self-imposed deadline was Thursday before midnight. I had to publish something by that time every week.

Fast forward to today, and I’ve been publishing two blog posts per week for a couple of months now. I find it easy to meet my deadlines. In fact, I have an excess of finished articles sitting there unpublished, and I feel I’m providing more value with each new article than I did a year ago. I’ve accomplished this without devoting significantly more time each week to writing.

Making the leap

How did I go from struggling to publish once per week, to publishing twice per week without breaking a sweat? I believe I’ve just gotten much better at cultivating flow. Whereas before I would sit down and spend agonizing hours trying to write a single ho-hum post, I can now sit down and crank out something I feel proud of in less than an hour.

How do I cultivate that flow? Well, this may sound counter-intuitive, but something that’s made a big difference for me has been creating a writing schedule (and sticking to it, of course). I used to just write whenever I felt like it, or whenever a deadline was looming, but now I get up and write for 30 minutes every weekday morning. Sometimes I find myself in a state of flow, and sometimes I don’t, but I make myself sit there and write for those 30 minutes regardless.

This discipline seems to have paid off. I believe the consistent practice helps me stay prepared, so when I do feel a wave of inspiration coming on, I can jump on it and ride it to the shore. My writing skills have sharpened and I’m able to articulate myself better. I’m not as likely to agonize over punctuation and other nit-picky things that can stop flow dead in its tracks.

A new norm

It seems whatever muse I have has come to realize that I’m better prepared these days, and she rewards me by coming to visit more often. I get struck by inspiration regularly now, and not just in the mornings when I’m scheduled to receive it. I do my best to be receptive to inspiration at all times (like now, when I pushed back doing my weekly planning session to get these words out of me). I may skip a nap or a meal or an hour of work (sorry, boss) to make the most of it, to get it down on paper before it’s lost forever.

This is definitely paying off for me. An hour I spend writing now produces a hell of a lot more value than an hour I spent writing last October.

What helped

Three things stick out in my mind that have helped me in this regard:

1. Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED speech on creativity
She talks about having a genius rather than being one. With that approach, she’s not fully to blame if her work sucks. Her job is simply to show up and put in the time, punch that clock every day. If genius decides to punch in too and flow through her, great. If not, she can still sleep well at night knowing that she did her part.

2. Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art
He’s smelling what Liz Gilbert is stepping in. The book has much the same message: Creativity is an energy that flows through us; we just need to show up regularly and be good conductors. It takes practice and hard work and discipline to become a good conductor, but it’s worth it.

3. This blog post: How to Become an 800% Faster Writer in 12 Weeks
That’s a guest post on Think Traffic, written by J.D. Bentley of Wage Slave Rebel. The important advice there for me was “challenge yourself.” In Bentley’s words, “You’re going to be afraid, but it won’t be because you can’t do it. It will be because you aren’t giving yourself enough credit.” It may sound ridiculous that I was afraid to step my posting up to twice per week, but I was. I struggled to publish one good post per week, what made me think I could double that? Well, J.D.’s post did, and he was right.

That’s all. Go let it flow.

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    1. Exactly what I needed. What great synchronicity!

      I’ve been feeling a lack of inspiration to write lately, and I do believe I’ve just been putting it off more than anything. Definitely going to put the write for 30 minutes a day as my next 30 day challenge.

    2. Do it! I’ve heard great things about The Artist’s Way course as well, Travis. I’m planning on doing that at the end of the year.

    3. A common theme I’ve found among those who’ve reached a certain level of mastery is that it took time and effort to get there. There are very few shortcuts to doing great work. One of my favorite quotes (attributed to whom I know not) is “It takes a lot of effort to make something look effortless”. You put in the time and effort to cultivate flow and now it is paying dividends and clearly shows in your blog. Outstanding!

      Not sure if you came across this book, but it is a quite fascinating deep dive into Flow within various aspects of our lives:

      Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience
      by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

    4. Thanks, Ilya. I hadn’t heard of that book, but I’ll definitely check it out. Just added it to my Amazon wish list so I won’t forget.

      Your quote reminds me of another one I’ve been thinking of a lot lately: “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” – Blaise Pascal.

    5. Thanks for sharing this post with my Niall.

      I was able to cultivate a strong flow in my photography while working in my daily portraits last year. That work has helped me greatly with my blogging. For many years I struggled to blog consistently, and while I’m only doing one post per week right now I feel a stronger capability to do this than I’ve ever had.

      The one thing I need to do is set up a set schedule for writing. It has been difficult to do with a variable work schedule, but I’m hoping that’s something I can change soon.

      • Thanks, Spyros.

        I started off blogging once per week. I did that for almost a year, then bumped up to two posts back in June or July. That soon became easy for me, and now I’ve bumped up to three posts per week. It’s not easy starting off, but after a while it becomes your norm and it’s no big deal.

    6. I’m still in search of what makes my flow go. Yes, Elizabeth Gilbert’s speech is great 🙂

      For the ladies among us!
      READ “Woman who runs with wild wolves”
      Clarissa Pinkola Estes

      It’s a bible for creative and conscious women.

      Thanks Niall, great post!