anna brones

writer + artist + activist

Posts Tagged ‘flow

What Blocks Our Creative Flow? (And How Do We Get Back There?)

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Creative flow is that sought after state that so many of us keep wanting to get to. When we’re there, we feel strong and empowered, as if we are doing exactly what we should be doing in that exact moment. We may work hard, but in a sense, that work feels effortless. When we’re not there, that state feels more elusive than ever, and we try to think of every possible means of chasing it down, hoping to harness that power once more.

But what is creative flow? When and why do we get into that state?

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” wrote Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow. 

That’s what we feel when we are in that moment of creative flow. We are immersed in what we are doing, everything else falls away. This doesn’t just happen in creative practice. Ever felt a runner’s high? That’s because of flow. Or when you come out of an hourlong yoga practice and realize that you haven’t thought about anything else in the last 60 minutes besides your physical presence? Flow.

I found a segment from WNYC from a couple of years ago on the neuroscience behind creative flow, featuring an interview with Dr. Heather Berlin. “Productivity doesn’t necessarily correlate with creativity,” says Berlin. An excellent reminder that just because we are producing work doesn’t mean that we are being creative or doing creative thinking. Some of the best stuff comes to us when we’re on a walk, or staring out the window. That’s because, “the unconscious can do much more complex processing,” says Berlin. The creative flow state can’t be forced. In those moments it’s better to turn off and tune out.

In her interview, Berlin mentions a study that involved MRI scans of jazz musicians’s brains while the musicians were improvising. This study is about ten years old, but the lessons to be drawn from it are timeless. According to Science Daily, “The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview.”

In other words, if we can turn that part of the brain off – or at least put it in pause – we might be better able to lower our inhibitions and better tap into our flow state.

Earlier this week, someone asked me what my writing process was. I would love to say that I diligently sit down on a regular basis and write for a predetermined amount of time, avoiding all distractions and committing myself to the process. I can think of about one month in the last year and a half when I was good about doing that (and I managed to write a book in that month, which I guess is proof that such commitment does work). However, for the most part, my writing process is what I call the “marination method.” I have an idea, or an assignment, I file it away at the back of my brain, and let the idea sit and percolate. Eventually the deadline nears, and I have to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and release those ideas.

Often I feel that I am up against a block, and in those moments I know that before I can sit down and do the work, I have to do something to get the creative juices flowing. A creative warm up so to say. That can be a run or a walk, or just taking a few minutes to paint with watercolors. (Sidenote: I am avoiding a deadline at this very moment, but telling myself that writing this is a good way to warm up to finishing the piece I need to turn in). Something to get my mind away from focusing too hard on the project at hand, and letting it wander instead. Often I find that somewhere in this process the unconscious kicks in, things come to the front of my mind that I hadn’t even considered. When I finally get there, then I feel like I am in the flow state.

I’m not necessarily advocating for that as a writing strategy, but in the moments when we feel that we are up against those creative walls, it’s an important reminder that pushing through isn’t necessarily the best path forward. If you let the prefrontal cortex do too much obsessing, you’ll keep coming up against that block. One study even used targeted electric currents to block that part of the brain, showing that doing so can help to break down that wall and lead to more creative thinking.

But we don’t need electric currents to stop obsessing. Think of another use of flow: physical movement. Exercise is good for our creativity. Intuitively, I think it makes sense that physical movement would lead to creative movement.

If we’re looking for that creative flow state, we have to do the things that get us there. There’s no magic solution, but you can be sure that refreshing your email isn’t one of them.

Stay small; often we don’t have an entire day to devote to a creative project, instead, think about what you could do creatively in fifteen minutes. If you can do those fifteen minutes every day, that ends up leading to a very regular creative practice, which helps to encourage the flow state.

Focus on putting one foot in front of the other; your overall project may be huge, but focus on the individual steps to get there, in order to distract your brain from derailing.

Think process, not product; flow is about being immersed in the moment, not getting hung up on whether or not the end product will be perfect.

Change your scenery. Take your notebook outside.

Avoid distractions. Unless of course they are the kind of distractions that encourage creative thinking.

Move.

Breathe.

Flow.

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Written by Anna Brones

July 20, 2018 at 11:40