Finding Your Flow

Doing so can enhance your scholarly life and help you advance your career, says Victoria McGovern.

July 22, 2019

Dolly Parton wrote "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You" on the same day. John Boyne wrote his 2006 novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in 60 hours. John Hughes wrote Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in four days, during which he also worked on a rewrite of Pretty in Pink.

Those creative achievements are remarkable not only for their speed but also for their intensity. The writers’ concentration let them work productively for hour after hour, but it was their focus during that time on the stories they were telling that made their works whole, compelling and enduring.

It’s likely that they were all in the groove or firing on all cylinders or in the zone -- that they were experiencing flow. The idea of flow has quickly moved from psychology into common use, and then into mysticism. Describing what flow feels like is as hard as describing how it feels to sneeze. But like sneezing, flow is something that most people have experienced. We recognize it when it happens. We smile when we see it in performers, athletes and, arguably, in animals. It’s a state that seems paradoxical: a mix of relaxation and focus, of ease and being off balance. “Flow time” is said to both fly and stand still.

While Boyne’s two and a half days of work was a step away from his typical pattern of writing a novel over several months, Parton has said she writes a song every day, and Hughes was well-known for working quickly. Did their day-to-day patterns of creativity and productivity influence their capacity for flow? Probably -- and in the same way, developing regular writing habits and learning to get into flow can help you advance your own work and career.

Inspired Performance Is Just Beyond Your Reach

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the psychologist most known for writing about flow, described it as “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.”

Having mastered the basics is part of the magic of flow. Someone who has never played soccer is unlikely to trot out on the field and have a perfect game, but any player with good ball skills can have a game where everything comes together. Absorption is another part: working or playing at a pace that is nearly beyond your skills keeps you too focused to get distracted. That may be the reason that so many people truly do write better under deadline pressure. When your mind doesn’t wander, you make fewer small mistakes. Even better, when you’re engaged and engrossed, you don’t think about how you look, how you sound or how foolish you might seem. Crises sometimes bring out the best in people because they have the same effect.

Working to become more flow-prone can enhance your scholarly life. The experience of flow can overtake all kinds of activities. The same phenomenon that sets your writing self on fire can descend on the work you do with your hands, spurring remarkably productive time in the lab or in the field. It can elevate your mental work, too, leading to insights that you would never have while half-heartedly paging through journals on your laptop.

Putting Flow to Work in Academic Writing

Graduate students are lucky: they have many big, deadline-bound writing challenges with which to seek flow. From papers and mock grant proposals written for courses, through the qualification process, writing papers, writing the dissertation and, for some people, writing a book, students have plenty of room to develop good writing habits and work to deadlines. Everyone’s writing habit is different, so it’s up to you to develop one that will suit yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses.

Whether you write fast or slow, hold off on starting until you’ve figured out your story. Don’t begin writing when you still have to read, or worse, still have to go to the library to find what needs reading. Know your data, too, or your argument, if your work isn’t data driven. In long projects like dissertations, your writing may expose areas where you need to read more and then resume.

My modus operandi for scholarly writing projects begins with procrastination. I used to believe that was a weakness -- or worse, a tragic flaw. After years of being me, though, I’ve concluded that it’s something else. During the weeks or months before I sit down to write up a project, my mind is playing with the data and ideas that will become the core of whatever I’m writing. This goes on nearly unconsciously and rarely feels like work. The work only feels like it begins when I finally sit down and write.

Like John Hughes, once I start to write, I do it very quickly. All of the pieces are waiting for me, but I have to put them down in the right order. There’s nothing rote about it. It’s like dry stacking a stone wall, where finding the right spot for a stone and the right stone for a spot requires attention, concentration, memory and a sense for what makes a structure stable.

What’s Complex Is Easy, What’s Simple Is Hard

How can you find your own flow? If starting with all your ideas, data and reading in hand seems like an impossible ideal, try doing something harder: an exercise that will help you practice. Give yourself defined length of time, say, a Sunday afternoon, and resolve to spend it doing nothing but writing love letters. Not just one, but let’s say six, in the hours between noon and five. They should be true and heartfelt, and they should be focused on delighting their recipient, not impressing your inner poet. Your letters can be funny, but they can’t be full of jokey insults, which are cheap and beneath you.

Write to your current Snooky Wookums, to your parents, to your best friend, to your dog, to your grandmother -- whomever. Who would dare say whom you can love?

Challenge a friend to do it, too, so you won’t give up, do a poor job or while away the time watching cat videos. Agree to meet the next day to talk about the experience, and agree that if one person does not write six complete and thoughtfully composed letters, then they have to buy the other’s beverage.

With love letters, you don’t need to read more. In this challenge, there’s just you, a clock and a need to put the right words in the right spots. How do you start? The fastest way for most people to meet this challenge will be to spend more than half the time thinking. Make some notes. What do you need to say? Is it true? Does it bare your soul? Will it touch your loved one’s heart? If not, spend more time thinking.

Trust me, it’ll take a while. But don’t take too long -- you’ve got letters to write. When you’re through thinking and know what you want to say, look up at the clock and try not to panic. Six letters in not a lot of minutes! How will you finish in time?

Next, turn to your keyboard or stack of paper and start writing. Keep an eye on the clock and keep your mind on the true task: delighting the recipient. You won’t have time for distractions. You won’t have time to overthink. Me, I’d make sure I spread my time around, probably by writing all six letters at once. Whether you do that or try the harder way -- writing them one after another -- make sure you finish before the time is up. You’ll only have time to pull forth the words and write it all down -- not for perfection or second thoughts. Just write it and be done. Simple.

The time pressure, the anxiety that comes with expressions of love, the depth of your subject knowledge and your lifetime accumulation of literacy will make it possible for your mind to slip free of distraction and doubt. Your hands will write plainer, surer words on the page than you might have thought possible. If you can complete this exercise, you will have upped your game and hit your stride. It’s likely that you will have found flow.

Once you’ve found flow, you’ll know what it feels like and will have an idea of how to make it happen. With some practice, you’ll be able to get there reliably time and again. Then you can put it to work for you in advancing your career.


Victoria McGovern is a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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