Creatives Don’t Need “Flow”, They Need Processes.

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The idea of “flow” isn’t foreign to many. Mystical as it had been when it was first presented by Hungarian professor and author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his first book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the idea has stuck with the world all the same. He defines it as a gratifying, hyper-focused state in which a person is put when engaging in an intrinsically valuable, challenging task.

In a 2004 TED talk, he shared an anecdote from a leading composer who claims to have had experienced what we know today as creative flow. “You are in an ecstatic state,” says the composer. “To such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. My hands seem devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music], just flows out of me.”

Extreme examples of this would date back to Michaelangelo’s most famous work, the Sistine Chapel, which he’d apparently worked on days without stopping, forsaking rest, sleep, and sustenance. Horrific examples, meanwhile, come from films such as Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy (2015) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), in which artists lose grip of their individual selves for their art, albeit to terrifying ends.

Stills from Sean Byrne’s ‘The Devil’s Candy’ (2015) and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ (1980).

I’ve yet to experience “flow”. I don’t think I’ve been in a place yet where I’ve created in such a state that outpours so much creative energy. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel gratified by nor focused on my work. I’ve always operated in smaller bursts of energy throughout the day rather than create with one great outpouring. I’m not in a state of creative flow, at least not in one as described above. I’m not complaining, though. Aromantic as my method seems I get my job done.

To give you context, I work as a product developer in a digital marketing agency in the Philippines. My work at the time of this writing is to develop a site which we use to try out different content marketing methods. What we’ve developed, ultimately, is a blog (or a series of them) that caters to specific audiences. I currently man the post for the “tech” and “entertainment” vertical of the website called Typist Tech.

Creatives Don’t Need “Flow”, They Need Processes.

In it, I’m expected to output at least two insightful, optimized-for-search articles that solve the problems or piques the interests of my vertical’s audience, which in this case is the Tech, Gaming, Pop Culture Savant.

I’m sure there are other professionals who are able to churn out this volume of content at a significantly shorter time, but anyone who creates content for a living will side with me that creating content in and of itself is no small ask. There’s plenty of research that goes into it, plenty of time for media creation, and plenty of dedication required when promoting those pieces of content.

On top of this, I write for a number of different publications as a freelancer. On average, I say I’m writing at least a thousand words per day.

You need not feel deterred if creative flow escapes you. Certainly, the idea of being put in a trance-like state when creating is romantic and appealing, but lest we forget: output trumps process. At the end of the day, as creatives, you are judged based on the work you put out, not by the means with which you do it. Michaelangelo is famous for the Sistine Chapel, not for starving for it.

You can very much write 1,000 words and write well consistently every day if you build processes. Forming creative habits is one great way to help this cause. Anything from journaling ideas before and after bed to going for a morning run works; the goal is to condition your mind to create, which is already wired to and only requires a bit of a push.

For example, I write more and better at night. Therefore, I see to it that I participate in the daytime so I inspire enough creativity come nighttime. I also set a few hours before bed with room for fifteen to thirty-minute breaks, which are crucial in collecting my thoughts as I write. Finally, I actively block out all distractions and make sure I have a clear goal and a map to get there.

To achieve this, I use a number of tools, including:

  • Noisli — A Google Chrome extension that emulates the ambient sounds of a coffee shop — the second best thing next to coffee.
  • Todoist — You will remember in my previous post, The Creative’s Box Of Badass, I used TickTick. I left that piece of software to move to Todoist, whose experience on Windows, Android, and in general simply feels smarter and intuitive, albeit at some cost ($15/yr.)
  • Evernote — Something I missed listing last time. Perfect for idea capture. Best paired with the Web Clipper Chrome extension.
  • Trello — Sometimes I’ll work on something that’s part and nested in a bigger project. I use Trello to track every task I need to make sure I hit everything I need during the day.
  • A hot cup of coffee. Or two. — Needs no explanation.

As it is, creating content and being a creative in general give me ample gratification and draw from me great attention. I’ve yet to be entranced by my creative work that I lose track of time, forsake food or sleep, or wield an axe like a madman, although I’d be lying if I said I don’t wonder how that would all be like. For now, my method, pragmatic and aromantic as it is, would have to make do. And maybe, if you’re stuck working on a project or just a piece of content you’re working on, it might not be smart to find your flow and step on it. Maybe it’s smarter to just build a process.