April 15th, 2014

Finding Flow – How I Quadrupled My Writing Output In A Day

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In line with my goal to write more regularly this month I have been making a red X on my calendar for every day that I write at least 500 words. Last week I made a strange and wonderful discovery that more than quadrupled my writing output. I usually struggle to put pen to paper (or keys to keyboard), but last week, in between bouts of hands-on coaching with a little boy, I found myself completely immersed in my writing, coming away with as many of 4000 words in an hour, when I normally average about 500. What’s more, the content is clear, concise and insightful. (I’ll be posting it everyday on the Move Autism blog for those interested.)

I draw a  red X when I write at least 500 words that day. Hat tip to Nathan Barry for the idea!

It just so happened that as I was working so prodigiously I was also spending a lot of time commuting, which meant time to catch up on podcasts. Somewhere during the week I listened through an interview of Steve Kotler on the James Altucher Show.

Steve Kotler is among the word’s foremost experts on Flow, having himself recovered from lime disease through enter flow states while surfing. For background, flow is a term in psychology that describes a heightened state of performance, accompanied by energy and complete immersion. As I understand it (and please comment if I have anything incorrect!) flow is characterized by the release of seven different neurochemicals, of which dopamine is just one. Simultaneous, and perhaps because of this release, the brain exhibits alpha-theta waves and is termed to be in a “flow state.”

In the podcast interview and in his book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance Kotler explores the fascinating domain of optimized performance, which is what I experienced in my own humble way during my more-than-quadrupled daily writing output.

I’ll delve more into the background and science of flow another time. For now, I’m more interested in making these big idea applicable to all of our daily lives.

First off, these are some of the aspects that I find appealing about the various physical activities I study (including gymnastics, handstands, riding motorcycles, jiujitsu, muay thai, ballet, tango, and others):

  • Challenging, but not impossible.
  • There is no perfect point at which the art is “done.” Performance can always been improved.
  • The stakes are high. Not always life threatening, but high.

I am currently training ballet, which fulfills all of these characteristics.

Stakes

While there is nothing that I do daily in my practice of ballet that is physically life-threatening, I have intense self-judgement around many different aspects of the dance form. One of the reasons I continue to training is to go through the process of overcoming those fears. (I also simply love to dance!)

Challenging

The scope of the art form, especially when I am dancing alongside dancers from the world-renowned San Francisco Ballet, is not easy to ignore. I have a lot of experience in training dance, but did not begin my training until 19 years old and haven’t practiced regularly over the last decade. I am dancing alongside people who have trained every day of their lives for over 30 years and are among the 0.01% best in the world.

 Performance Can Always Be Improved

Ballet can always be done better. It can more easily measured by what can be improved, than by an objective scale.

These three aspects are essential elements to entering a flow state. Challenge, increasing complexity, and high stakes are essential to triggering the release of neuro-chemical cocktail and entering “flow”.

Slight Variations

Kotler also discusses the amount of challenge required within a given activity. It is not effective to demand a many-fold improvement over what is currently possible. As I’ve discussed before, had I tried to do a gymnastics giant on my first try I would have landed, literally, on my head. For those of us who are over-achievers, it might actually be best to try for less rapid growth because the most successful range of challenge is about 4% increase on what is already possible. If I can do handstands for example, then perhaps a next step might be to do a handstand on a horizontal bar just a foot off the floor?

Given my current levels of ballet dancing, it is pointless to aim to keep up with a dancer from the San Francisco Ballet. Instead, I am identifying my own areas of improvement and working on those.

Application Everywhere

The elements I’ve discussed so far also fit align with how I coach children with special needs. The little boy I was working with last week had periods of stillness amidst very rapid and somewhat uncontrolled running around the room. While I did not try to forcibly change his behavior, I did encourage him towards stillness and more focused attention. Expecting him to adhere to our own capacities for attention just aren’t realistic. Instead, the question I asked myself was: “What are his next steps for learning to concentrate?”.

During my work with children I often enter a state of intense focus, where I am not substantially aware of what’s going on around me. Many of my software developer friends speak of entering this level of concentration when solving an exciting problem. This concentration isn’t necessarily anything more than what we all feel when reading a really good book. (But as an aside, that concentrated attention focused on a child almost always results in the child increasingly interested in me and our activities. If you want someone to pay attention, given them your concentrated attention and see what happens.)

Last week, when I came out of those periods of intense focus with the little boy, I drove to a local coffee shop and settled down at my computer. When I looked at the clock again I found that I had written many thousands of words, completely lost track of time, and had little memory for anything other than my writing. I don’t know for sure that this state of enhanced performance is the same as that experienced by TRX bikers flying down mountains, but it was a different kind of attention that I have ever experienced before while writing.

I’ll be continuing to pay close attention to my behavioral patterns around physical and creative practice in the near future. My goal is to regularly duplicate last week’s performance!

Do you have experiences of flow to share? Share your stories in the comments!


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