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 In fact, I have an excess of finished articles sitting there unpublished, and I feel I’m providing more value with each new article than I did a year ago.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.
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.