Have you ever been so absorbed by writing that the world around you faded away? Then you’ll know what I mean when I talk about being ‘in the zone’. It’s thrilling, it’s addictive and, sadly, it’s often elusive—but we CAN make it more likely. Here’s how.
Imagine yourself at the heart of your story. You see every detail clearly, you hear every line of dialogue, you feel every word as it flows onto the page. Each moment is one of heightened focus, of beautiful clarity, of intense living. You’re so lost in the story that you blink and an hour’s passed, and it’s only after the feeling’s gone that you realise what it was: the feeling of being in the zone.
In psychology, this state of consciousness is known as flow or optimal experience, and considering how effortlessly the words seem to flow in this state, I think it’s a term that fits writing perfectly. This mysterious, almost mystical state can be exasperatingly elusive, however, and that may be because we’re missing something vital about what it means to experience flow. Let’s break it down.
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Why is finding that flow state so hit-and-miss? Think back to the description of flow up above. If you’re having problems getting into the zone, maybe this is why: flow is more than the effortless way the story seems to write itself. That’s the result of the flow state, and so chasing after it in an attempt to experience it once again completely misses the point.
Instead, let’s get scientific and see what psychology—specifically, what flow expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—says about the critical components of optimal experience.
The Flow State Checklist:
1. Do you have clear goals?
According to Csikszentmihalyi, one of the key characteristics of flow state is having a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses. If you sit down at a piano, your goal might be to play a particular piece and so moving your fingers to the correct keys would be the appropriate response. Same for a game of tennis. Your goal might be to win and so the appropriate response would be to give it your all, playing to the rules of the game.
So what about writing? The writing process is varied, depending on how you work and where you are with your story, so you could have any number of goals. For example, to:
- Write new words
- Edit old ones
- Create a plot outline
- Reach the end of the chapter
- Have a fun time with your characters
- Write that scene you’ve been so looking forward to
Going into your writing session with a clear goal in mind (and a clear plan for the scene, if you’re someone who likes having an outline) can banish uncertainty and hesitation and free your mind up for pure creation.
What if you don’t like setting yourself specific goals for a writing session? Try this instead: define what ‘winning’ is for you. It could be as simple as enjoying what you’re creating. If you find the process enjoyable, you’ve achieved your goal.
[Speaking of goals... if you’re setting long- or short-term targets for your writing, learn how to make your goals S.M.A.R.T. with a little help from psychology here.]
So that’s the first feature that Csikszentmihalyi identified for reaching that flow state and the first point in our Flow State Checklist. What’s the next?
2. Is what you’re doing a challenge?
A characteristic feature of flow is losing track of time, but that can also happen when you’re completing a repetitive or boring task, like washing up or walking on a treadmill. So what makes the difference? According to Csikszentmihalyi, the level of challenge.
Tasks that let you zone out usually don’t require a lot of skill or concentration from you, either because they’re easy or because you’re so good at them they’ve become easy. Tasks that require more skill than you have demand intense focus from you (and typically a lot of frustration too). Optimal experience, however, sits on the border. When you’re doing something that challenges you and involves all your skill, but is still manageable, flow is likely to follow.
What does that mean for writing? Challenge yourself. If you find that your writing sessions have become boring, monotonous or too easy, find ways to push your limits and leave your comfort zone, ways like:
- Impose a time limit. For example, set yourself 15 minutes to write as much as you possibly can.
- Challenge yourself to a writing prompt or dare. Mix things up in a way you’d never have considered otherwise!
- Try writing a new form of fiction. You only ever write novels? Give flash fiction, novellas, screenplays or poetry a try.
- Or try your hand at a different genre to usual. For example, if you always write romance, try sci-fi (maybe with a romance subplot). If you only ever write literary fiction, try horror (maybe with a literary twist).
- Go super in-depth with a plot outline or a particular character’s development. If you’re usually a pantser (you write without a plan), try a flexible method of plotting or learn lots about a character before you start writing.
- Barely develop the plot or a character and learn about them as you write. If you’re a planner, try pantsing for a change and make things up as you go along!
Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that tests you personally and let’s you have fun.
3. Are you able to focus and concentrate?
Now I know what you’re thinking. Part of the definition of flow is being so focused that the outside world fades away. Surely this step comes in once you’ve got in the zone, not before? Yes and no.
Yes, focus is intense during flow state, so intense you’d probably miss an elephant lumbering by, but if you’re struggling to reach a state of optimal experience in the first place, finding somewhere you can concentrate could be just what you need. After all, how are you supposed to become completely absorbed by something if distractions keep snaring your attention?
Let’s get busting those distractions then. I recommend:
- Turn off the internet. The internet is hands down my biggest distraction and is probably quite high on your list too. Don’t let virtual distractions ruin your opportunity to get in the zone—turn it off at the start of your writing session.
- Write somewhere quiet/private. If you’re easily distracted by background noise or other people, find somewhere cosy to curl up with your work-in-progress and let others know that you don’t want to be disturbed.
- Enter fullscreen mode. If your writing programme has a fullscreen option, blot out everything but your manuscript by activating it.
- Word sprint. Give yourself a time limit (e.g., 15 minutes) and write furiously during that time. No hesitating. No pausing to edit. Nothing but the words. Give Write or Die a go if you’re struggling with the ‘no hesitating or pausing’ bit.
- Find focusing background sounds. Some people like to write to silence. Others need sound. If you’re the latter, try focus@will*, a music player backed by neuroscientific research, or Coffitivity, an ambient sound player for those who like the murmur of the coffee shop from the comfort of home.
- Meditate to increase your focus. If your mind is abuzz and just won’t focus, try a short five minute meditation to calm your thoughts, clearly define your goals, and create a mindset perfect for flow. I recommend the Calm app if you’re new to meditation.
- Write/edit by hand. Sometimes all you need is a pen and some paper to achieve true focus. Try writing in a notebook or printing out a hard copy of your manuscript to edit instead of doing everything on your computer.
- Train yourself to sit down and write. One of the best ways to sharpen your concentration and focus when writing is to practise them often—every day, if possible. Does that sound like a challenge you’re up for? Then check out the Writember Workshop, my friend.
Do you feel more focused yet? Then on to the next item in the Flow State Checklist...
4. Do you love what you’re doing?
Here’s the hard truth. You’ll never be truly in the zone if you don’t love what you’re doing. Yes, you may lose track of time when completing a repetitive or boring task, but to truly achieve a state of flow, you need to find what you’re doing intrinsically rewarding.
The good news? If you write because you love it, because you find it meaningful, or simply because you want to, no other reason, then this box should already be ticked.
On a smaller scale, remember what it is about each scene that you love. Going into a writing session with clear goals, a challenge in place and something to look forward to can make all the difference.
But what if you’re in the middle of a writing slump or a bout of burn-out or you’re so frustrated with the story you’re close to giving up? Give these questions a go:
- Why do you write? What keeps you coming back to it, time and time again?
- What drew you to writing in the first place? Why did you first pick up that pen?
- What about your current project makes your heart sing? What do you love most about it? What are you most proud of?
- What first got you excited about the idea? What about your project made you giddy? What made your fingers itch to start writing?
- How do you envision your project when it’s finished? What do you want it to look like? When you read it, how will you feel?
- What can you bring to this project that no one else can? What skills, experiences, mindset and passions do you have that make you perfect for your project?
- Which characters do you love and why? It’s okay to gush. No judgement.
- What’s your favourite part of the writing process? What about it makes it so fulfilling for you?
Keep that fire for your craft burning, friend. Your passion for your project makes optimal experience so much more likely and, far more importantly, it’ll keep you going when times get tough.
Love is key to flow—it’s what lets us achieve that optimal experience—but there’s another emotion that wars with love and bars us from entering The Zone: fear. And that’s where the next point in the checklist comes in...
5. Is fear holding you back?
Say you’ve ticked the box for every item above. You have clear goals, you’re adequately challenged, you’re focused and you care truly and deeply for what you’re writing—care too much, it turns out. You’re terrified those words won’t do their job, won’t be liked by others, won’t be as perfect as they feel in your head.
You’re suffering from a case of paralysis by analysis, dear writer. But it’s okay, because there is a cure. Writing with abandon. Here’s how you can get started:
- Don’t over-analyse the words before you even write them. They’ll never flow if you’re second-guessing every one of them. Remember: there’s always the opportunity to edit and receive feedback later. Just get those words out.
- Practise stream-of-consciousness writing. If those words are tightly bottled up, try a freewrite exercise to get the words flowing. Set a timer and, without stopping once, write anything and everything that pops into your head. Write about your fears. Write about your story. Just write and write and write. Try this exercise a few times to get used to writing freely.
- Say goodbye to the idea that the words have to be perfect as they hit the page. Because here’s the secret: they will never be perfect. No one’s words are perfect. No one’s. And that’s okay, because those words are human instead. Human words make human stories, and those are the kind that resonate.
Your At-A-Glance Flow State Checklist
We’ve covered a lot of info here so let’s condense it all down into a handy checklist for your next writing session. When you sit down with your manuscript, ask yourself:
- What’s your goal for this session? To write X words? To outline a chapter? To enjoy what you’re writing?
- Are you being challenged in a way you can deal with? Are your skills being tested, but not so much that you’re struggling?
- Are you able to concentrate fully? If not, is there somewhere you can better focus?
- Do you love what you’re doing, generally? What about what you’re working on, specifically?
- Is there anything holding you back? Fear? Over-analysis? Perfectionism?
And there you have it, dear writer—the mystical state of flow broken down into its component parts. Ready to start practising it? Before you do, a word of caution...
Proceed with care
While this post is about making the flow state more easily attainable, please don’t fall into the trap of believing you can only write when you’re ‘in the zone’. Similar to the belief that you can only ever write when you feel inspired, this mindset can strangle your writing and actually make the flow state harder to reach.
Don’t restrict yourself to writing only when you’re in the zone. Write regardless, whether the words are crawling onto the page or flooding it, because each and every one of those words matter.
You have a story to tell, friend. Better hop to it.