Finding creative flow in a digitally connected world

Kristin: January tends to be a time of reflection and resolution. An opportunity to replace old habits with one that support healthy lifestyles and meaningful work.

In his 2004 TED talk, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asked what makes a life worth living. He noted that a lack of material resources causes unhappiness, but that more resources do not produce more happiness. Instead he looked to people who found pleasure in activities that brought about a state of flow – poets, musicians and elite sportspeople.

Daniel Pink made similar observations in his book Drive (and 2009 TED talk) about what motivates people at work. He found that apart from the most mechanical of tasks, financial incentives did not act as motivators, and in some case acted as demotivators. Instead, for creative work, the motivating factors were having autonomy over one’s tasks, feeling a sense of purpose, and mastery or the application of skills and knowledge.

Which brings us back to Csikszentmihalyi. He suggested a sense of flow could be created when people were able to apply a high degree of skill to a difficult and challenging problem in pursuit of an outcome. When the problem is insufficiently challenging, we either feel in control, or we get bored if the skill level required is low. On the other hand, not having the skills to deal with a challenging problem can provoke worry and anxiety.

Attaining flow requires sustained thinking and the creative application of our skills and knowledge to solve new and difficult problems – mastering a difficult turn for an ice skater, finding the right phrase for a poet. But when we reach a state of flow, we barely notice the time pass and gain great satisfaction.

How do we create opportunities for sustained thinking and flow in our connected world with the rush of Twitter, status updates on Facebook, hitting receive on emails and the incessant ping ping of messages on our devices? How do break old unproductive habits associated with connection?

On A List Apart last year, Jack Cheng wrote about the “habit field” that surrounds objects and spaces – like always opening the fridge when you walk in a kitchen. And he commented on the confusing habit fields that are our desks. On the one hand it should be a place of quiet contemplation and flow. On the other hand it is also where we check messages, talk on the phone, pay bills, research on the internet. If you check Twitter first thing in the morning and then regularly during the day, it becomes a habit associated with that space. Cheng noted that he deleted a certain Twitter client because he would find himself absent-mindedly clicking the shortcut key without realising. I do this regularly when I switch between applications, finding myself on Tweetdeck with no previous intention of viewing it. It has become an instinctive habit, muscle memory. Cheng now sits in a different chair for Twitter and email, saving his desk for actual work – in his case writing, designing and coding. Physically changing the space has reduced the social media habit field at his desk.

Imposing a physical barrier on unrelated applications is one thing, but other more subtle and seemingly useful activities can also interrupt flow. I am used to having the internet at my disposal when I’m writing so I can look up references, hyperlink existing articles or media or to check the thesaurus for that elusive word. But each of these activities is also an interruption to flow.

Writer Cory Doctorow agrees. In 2009 article for Locus, while noting that well-intentioned advice to stay away from the internet was wrong “creatively, professionally, artistically, and personally”, he’s also refined some approaches to writing to deal with the distraction of connection.

He recommends writing for 20 minutes every day (including weekends) to maintain momentum, to form a productive habit. He also notes that research is not writing, and recommends typing “tk” when you need to return with more facts from research. I tend to use an asterisk or a line of xxxx, but something that is easy to type and easy to find (without being embedded in lots of words) will do. You can then return to fill the research gaps away from the process of generative writing.

Which is not to say that social media is unnecessary or unproductive. I do use Twitter productively for networking, horizon scanning and knowledge sharing. I also use it to chat to friends, read the news, and as a time-filler when I’m listless. Losing hours to Twitter is not finding flow – neither the level of skill nor the challenge could be termed as creatively “high”. It can easily become an irritation and a time-waster when you let it.

Regaining flow is just as critical as establishing it. Doctorow also suggests leaving a “rough edge”, so that when you reach your time limit you stop – mid-sentence if you have to – so that when you start again, there is an invitation to engage with the content immediately. I am not good at open endings. I like to finish reading the chapter (or the book!), complete a section before closing a window in my word processor. However, making flow easy to locate again with a rough edge seems like good advice that could be applied to a range of creative pursuits.

In a year likely to be rich with digital connections, my New Year’s resolution is to find flow. To tackle challenging and meaningful problems to which I apply my skills and learn new ones. To rethink my habit fields so I benefit from my social media participation without diminishing creativity. And to find satisfaction in meaningful work.


  1. Great piece, Kristin.

    I think this is something we’re all struggling to get right. Twitter and whatever’s next are so good at taking us to good things, but the by-product is a Pavlovian response in our reward centres, constant refreshing, scanning, and instinctive interaction.

    I take time out to read books, long articles and papers, and write thoughts, observations and ideas ever day. Not sure doing social media/etc at another workstation is practical, but I can see the value… have to think further about this.

  2. Thanks Kristin,
    Some really good research & thoughts in there. I find that just picking up the phone encourages an automatic Twitter check response.
    Fortunatey I decided to use Twitter from day 1 as a creative outlet. I’m a thought caster, so it actually helps me clarify my ideas about creativity. While at the same time I’m able to share them with the world.

    • Thanks ineedtocreate.

      Absolutely agree on having Twitter in my creative tool bag. I like the way you write about it clarifying your ideas.

      I’ve come to realise that last year I did a lot of synthesis, juxtaposition and sharing, but little original output. I’m hoping I can expand my creative repertoire rather than shrink it. We’ll see how we go!

  3. I second Doctorow’s suggestion of leaving a ‘rough edge’. Although I didn’t alway plan to do it, I found that very helpful when writing my thesis: it meant I could pick up my train of thought from the day before and get back into the flow of writing more quickly.

    Putting in XXXX (or enclosing a phrase in square brackets) is also something I do a lot, as going away to do fact-checking really does break my flow. But remember to fix them up later… I’m reviewing a book at the moment which has a couple of ‘[Reference to be supplied]’s in the footnotes!

    Another thing I’ve sometimes had success (but only sometimes) with is writing sections ‘blog-style’ — not worrying about getting the academic tone right, just get the ideas down and get them down fast. Again, it has to be fixed up later and sometimes that’s a lot more work.

    • Ha! Totally identify with last paragraph.

      I spent all of last year writing a paper for an academic journal which finally the editor and I both agreed was not up to scratch. Part of the problem was relying on old research and not having enough time to refresh the ideas (another creative issue!).

      But a significant factor in why it was difficult to write was that I had trouble picturing the journal’s audience – I found it really difficult to strike the correct academic tone. It wasn’t until I gave up on the journal and pasted the words into my blog, that I started to enjoy writing it. I will probably post that article up soon too 🙂

  4. Such an interesting post!
    In my profession, flow is critically important to producing good pieces of content and also to allow me to brainstorm or ponder an idea for a client until it comes to something worthwhile. At the same time, I have to be responsive to quick and sudden requests – and yes, social media and media monitoring in general does ‘get in the way’.
    My tactics include some of those mentioned above: write away while you have a theme in your mind, and never mind the writing style or grammar, as long as you’re getting the substance of your ideas down. I also write notes on my phone to keep the flow of ideas happening wherever I am.
    The upside of not finishing a piece of content immediately, is that more ideas form and sometimes serendipity steps in to offer a fresh angle from somewhere else.

    • Re not finishing immediately…
      Same happened with this piece. I’d been turning over Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Daniel Pink in my mind for some time, for some time, but it took people forwarding the Jack Cheng and Cory Doctorow pieces on Twitter for it to have some momentum. (and writing it out with a paper and pen first to avoid distractions!)

      I think I’m trying to ensure I find a balance between the connection and synthesis parts, and the other mode which allows for reflection and creative original output.

  5. It can go both ways. I often get really excited about a topic and start researching, but by the time I know what I’m talking about I’m completely over the whole subject. Going back and fact checking is good, but sometimes leads to vast rewrites when it turns out I actually had the concept completely wrong.

    The trick, I think, is to stick with it. To find a mental space where you can start a project and finish it without distractions. If you don’t finish something, is there any point in starting? I should try to remember that.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Martin Hughes, Kristin Alford, Liz Chairopoulou and others. Liz Chairopoulou said: How to work creatively despite distractions of Twitter. I must read this again! « Bridge8 […]

  2. […] Kristin Alford blogged yesterday about her search for ‘flow’ amids the interruptions. Attaining flow requires […]

  3. […] Earlier in the year, I wrote on the importance of finding flow in a digitally connected world. More recently, in doing the Governor’s Leadership Foundation program and attending […]

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