Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 29, 2021

Is Your Writing in a Slump? Get into the Flow!

by Kris Maze

Is your writing in a slump?  Are you having trouble finding motivation to finish your next project?  Have you lost that loving feeling?  (Insert cheesy, singing jet pilots here if that works for you!) Fear not, skilled writers, we are in this together and I hope you will soon find your words flowing like Niagara Falls.

Getting into the Zone, or Flow, has been a popular topic for creatives like writers since the 1990s.  What do you already know about the theory and its application to writing?  Check out your understanding of these studies that clarify the mental process of writing and enhance your satisfaction with life.

The History of "Flow"

The modern granddaddy of Flow is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high) and most of his work can be traced to his best-selling book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

In Csikszentmihalyi's first chapter, he warns that the book is not intended to be a "how to be more creative, to get more output, or to be generally more happy" promise, but these perks could be side effects. Knowledge is power, peeps, and the more you understand why and how writers write, the more satisfying your overall career with written words can be.

Another resource that goes into depth: How to Get Into The Flow, by Steven Kotler. That video link describes how writers can reach their potential with Flow. He explains the concepts underpinning Flow to help writers figure out how to tap into their creative juices and why writing feels so good when it is going well. 

Flow - the Optimization of Creative Experience Summarized

Of the 8 identified characteristics of Flow, the first 3 are precursors to the mental state of "writing Nirvana." Consider these conditions when trying to get into the groove of writing.

1. Have clear, obtainable goals with a timely feedback loop.

Each time a writer sits at their desk they have the same goal - get words on the paper.  One way to increase their productive Flow is to set clear goals.  Having daily goals, such as word count or pages edited, gives the brain less to figure out and allows it to focus more exclusively on the task at hand: Writing. The daily goals can add into overarching goals, alleviating more thinking tasks for the brain.

In general, to get into the Flow, we want to limit the other things our brains want to work on. The subconscious  mind and constant input from our surroundings can detract from our ability to focus.  Can you automate some tasks to free your mind more? Delegate the housework, or cut down the to-do list of unfinished things?  Find ways to lessen the burden on your mind and see your productivity rise.

The Feedback Loop could warrant its own post, it is so important. But for brevity sake, feedback as mentioned here is about identifying the quality of the writing you are doing.  Perhaps your feedback loop includes your critique group or partner.  Some writers use an online editor for quicker feedback.  Self editing after a break can also help you determine how well you are hitting your writing goals.  This feedback informs your future writing sessions as you iterate your process and make improvements.

2. Have a high level of concentration with a limited field.

We have a lot to consider when examining what is stealing our concentration.  

What external distractions infiltrate your writing time?  Identity the things that pull you from your creativity and then, protect your writing time from them. Internal influences are mentioned in later bullet points and addressing them can help writers focus as well.

Ask yourself these questions regarding your writing space.

  • Do you have a designated place for writing?  
  • Does the setting help your focus?  Perhaps it is quiet that you need. Or background noise to eliminate the distractions.  
  • Would headphones for silence, or ambient music to limit out unwanted noise interruptions help in your case?

One personal hack that has worked for me, is turning off all notifications for social media and non-work related apps.  I also uninstalled the games from my phone (even Sudoku!).  When I find myself reaching for a game or to check messages and see none, I give myself metal white space instead.  That has helped me have energy to tackle writing tasks and feel less stressed while getting my work done. It seems that when I was “taking a break” I was actually using up critical thinking that I could be pouring into my writing!

3. The writing task is carefully balanced with skill and interest level.

As a language teacher I find this an important characteristic for growth as a writer.  Choosing writing that both challenges you and is at your skill level is the caveat of this characteristic.  Picking a genre out of your wheel-house or increasing your daily word count, may be a goal to jump start your writing, but be sure it is realistic for you.  If you want to show improvement, set your goals and intentions at what you can do and add only a tiny bit of challenge.

Like learning another language, If you push yourself too hard with language that is too fast or over your level, you will end up frustrated and shut down. Likewise, if a language is below your level you may be bored and disengaged.  

As a writer, we set ambitious goals, especially at the beginning of the year. Think about the writing goals you have set for yourself.  Are they attainable goals and are you comfortable with the work you set for yourself? If your word count or topic is too easy, you’ll get bored and abandon the work.  It is worth the time to reflect on your goals and make sure they are SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

The psychology of finding Flow depends on this reflection.  The better you understand your writing habits and what makes it enjoyable, the better you can honor and improve your skills.

The remaining 5 characteristics of Flow are indicators of when you have found the sweet spot and are writing like mad.

The more complete your Flow experience, the more of these you could claim.  We have all been in that state of mind, but in case you haven’t, here’s what it is like:

4. A Strong Sense of Control

Unlike the negative connotations the word “control” can bring, this version is desirable.  This version says “I’ve got this!” and isn’t impeded by worry about the past or anxiety about the future.  This relaxation and comfortable feeling are control in a centered way and demonstrates a warm stability when writing.

5. Effortlessness

The words flow like melting butter to the page and you have little brain power invested into this endeavor. ALthough the previous efforts of writing drafts and research are just probably paying off, this characteristic of Flow keeps us coming back for more.  Like an elusive hole in one in golf, watching one happen seems so easy, but is hard to obtain. If you notice it, enjoy it!

6. Time Has Little Meaning

If you have ever stepped away from the desk and wondered where the last hour went, you understand this litmus test of Flow.  The ability to focus on writing alone, can temporarily shut down the writer’s sense of time.  

Brain research shows that parts of reasoning that regulate social norms decrease during Flow.  So the idea that writers are often late to dinner, forget to call, or skip social functions all together is possibly connected to capturing good Flow moments.  It may have merit, but I don’t recommend using that as an excuse!

7. Action melds with Performance

This aspect describes the feeling of being one with the work.  It may apply more to dancers, musicians, or athletes that report not feeling control over their body while performing.  

The research describes this process of losing self as the lack of self- consciousness, worry, and preoccupation with particular social expectations, which allows the person to solely focus on the art at hand.

I like to call this one the “Get out of your way!” mantra.  We sometimes underperform because we allow ourselves to stumble over our own doubts and preconceptions. Identifying this tendency and replacing those thoughts with positive ones can help writers get back into the Flow of writing.

8. Has an Autotelic Quality

Writing that seems to flow on its own without the author. The writing is pouring out and the author is merely a conduit.  The feelings of the goals finishing themselves is both pleasant during the experience and after as one accomplishes the task.  This is a combination of the other aspects working together.   

What tips do you have to get out of your writing slumps?  Have you been able to achieve a state of Flow? When do you have to push through and simply get the writing done the most?

* * * * * *

About Kris

Kris Maze is an author, freelance writer, and teacher. She enjoys writing twisty, speculative fiction with character driven plots.  After years of reading classic literature, mysteries, and thrillers, she began to write and publish her own  books. She also writes for various publications including a regular post at the award winning Writers in the  Storm Blog. When she isn’t spending time with her favorite people and pets, Kris Maze is taking pictures, hiking, or  pondering the wisdom of Bob Ross. You can follow her author journey at her website at KrisMazeAuthor.com

My Free short story, The Detour, has had a makeover! Not only has the text version been updated and beautified, there is now an audio edition.

Many of you have joined the newsletter to try out the audio version. If you prefer the PDF and haven’t gotten it yet, this link will take you to your free PDF download.

29 comments on “Is Your Writing in a Slump? Get into the Flow!”

  1. When I'm stuck—I know that something is missing in a scene or just don't know what needs to happen next in the story—I find that getting out of those frontal lobes of my brain is the best thing I can do for myself. I walk. I weed the garden. Something that engages the body in a repetitive, rhythmic task. Or I do something that uses a different kind of creativity. For me, that's playing the piano. For two experienced writers I know (Barbara O'Neal and Sandra Scofield), it's painting. Something that does not depend on words but uses a different part of the creative self. To keep with the image of "flow," you could say that it takes a different part of the self to yank out the stopper that's keeping the flow trapped behind a barrier!

    1. Barbara, your examples of repetitive creative exercises to trick our brains into Flow are great. I also find food prep relaxing and freeing to the mind for the same reason.

      1. We also have a perennial puzzle going on one table or another to relax the brain and have fun.

  2. I use the SMART goals. Those work well for me, especially if I have a quiet space.

    When I get stuck, I walk away from the laptop and do something mindless to let my brain puzzle out the scene without the distraction of worry.

    As an aside, when I was a Resource Specialist Teacher working in Waukegan, Illinois, the school district had us use SMART goals for the student's Individual Education Plans. Those goals worked for the kiddos, too.

  3. SMART goals are used a lot in education, but it is a framework for setting goals that applies in many fields.

    Since they identify what the writer wants ( edit 5 pages and write 500 new words 5 days a week, for example) they lessen the cognitive and provide quick feedback.

    Did I achieve my goals? Is my goal obtainable? How can I reset or revise this goal to meet my long range plans? Etc

    Walking away and letting the brain get 'white space' is one of my hardest challenges for sure, but I agree Ellen, it makes a difference!

  4. My noise-canceling headphones are the only way I've gotten any Flow happening in this house lately, with everyone home. I'm a huge fan of those headphones during a pandemic. 🙂

  5. My flow comes and goes in spurts. I have trouble focusing when I'm home in my primary writing space, but seem to have no problem if I'm writing out in public. I do my best work sitting in a noisy pub with people laughing, milling around, and lively music playing overhead. I feed off of that energy. I can't wait for things to get back to normal so I can resume that practice.

    1. Bob, although public spaces are not my best writing venue, I do like writing outdoors when the weather cooperates.

      Where do you get your people fix these days with the pandemic?

  6. I actually wrote a post here last month about people watching during the pandemic. Here's the URL.


    There are still public spaces where you can people-watch. You just have to take a different approach. The weather here in central Arizona is nice enough most of the time to hang out in parks and and such, so we still have opportunities, but I do miss the pub crowds and live music.

    1. Ah, live music - it's just not the same on a little screen.

      I'm privy to going to an overlook near the river to people watch. I had the accidental pleasure to hear a horn section playing - safely spaced in the open air, it was enthralling. Although they were just practicing, it turned the park into a promenade.

      Good suggestions, Bob!

  7. Kris, I've always been fascinated by the concept of flow, and I love when I experience it. But it's somewhat unpredictable for me, and I haven't nurtured it. So thanks for this enlightening post--I have some thinking to do!

    1. Hi Karen, it can be like the elusive runner's high. We keep writing for some reason, so we must find the process and our final products satisfying. Perhaps FLow is happening when we aren't looking for it, too. Keep on writing!

  8. Great post. During my day job, I have often used the SMART strategy to relate to projects and other initiatives, but have never connected the dots to my writing life. Nice post. I am going to share it on my blog as well.

    1. Thank you, Don. I'm glad you could see the crossover for writing. Good planning works for any endeavor. I appreciate the share!

    1. Hahaha - yes!

      My family is lovely, but we get a long so much better after a little break like an hour at the coffee shop. (Which isn't quite the same experience right now.)

      I'm going with what Jenny said - noise cancelling headphones erase a lot of distractions and signal that 'mommy is working'.

      1. Mine are old enough to know when mom is working. Especially the husband. lol

        Unfortunately, due to tinnitus, headphones aren't an option.

  9. Kris, thanks for this post. I have been a stuck and non-productive writer for over a year, although I have 35,000 words written for my current WIP. I've used lots of excuses, including sewing literally hundreds of masks, and coping with a new puppy and a disabled husband. But they are only excuses, and today I commit myself to writing at least two hours and getting at least 500 words down. Thank you for the needed kick in the posterior and some great suggestions.

  10. Nothing happens until I turn on Freedom on my Macbook (or Anti-social, if I need to be able to get information from the web). My mind is so damaged that it takes almost nothing to divert me from writing NOW, but these little internet-blocking aps keep me from giving in to distractions easily.

    It takes me several minutes to restart my computer, and cancel either program, and I know this, so I don't unblock unless I have to. The commitment I make is for a carefully chosen length of time I think I can manage - and the fact that I have even a few minutes left on the timer will have me looking for something useful to spend it on.

    I'm always exhausted, and decisions take energy - but turning on Freedom is doable if I'm even remotely capable of writing - from long practice. That, and taking a 30-minute nap when my energy flags or my body diverts blood from my brain to digestion, have allowed me to write. Slowly and painfully but to my standards, developed by years of reading before I became ill.

    No one else I know writes as I do - one finished scene at a time with a tight structure - but I can handle a scene: it's like writing a short story. So the first novel in the mainstream trilogy took me 15 years, the second is in its sixth year (we moved - lost about two years there), and I really hope the third is faster!

    I love flow - Freedom helps me get there on the days when it's possible.

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