Procrastination is a three-legged acid devil that needs an exorcism.
That’s not an overreaction. We all yearn for being able to actually sit down and get on with whatever we’re supposed to be doing. As creative people who are measured on the quality of their ideas, it can be daunting. The blank page. The empty screen. We wonder how we’re ever going to get started and get magical. We wonder how to reach that energised state where something "pops" and it all falls into place. Call it "being focused", call it "getting in the zone", but there’s a man with a very unpronounceable name who calls it "flow".
It’s the feeling of being completely engaged in what we’re doing. We feel incredibly in tune, free of any kind of distraction, so we can just be in that magical state of mind where the ideas come easily, time does weird things and the work almost feels like it’s discovering itself.
Here’s a collection of thoughts on why and how we’re able to get to this kind of mindset and how, eventually, we might learn to be able to control it.
In the 60s, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi became interested in the creative process of his artist friends. As they painted, he would observe, noticing that they could go for days without really eating, drinking or sleeping. They were so engrossed in their work that their minds had a strange power over their bodies.
He was so impressed that he spent the rest of his life studying what happens when human beings go beyond generic concentration and into the "optimum state of mental operation".
There are recurrent themes in how people describe the feeling. A chess player will talk about their experience very similarly to a racing driver. No matter what we’re doing, our brains behave in the same way in order to maintain the focus. They find a kind of sweet spot.
Oz Mohammed, MA maths and Teach First graduate
"I guess I know when I’m in the zone because I start to see all the connections on the board. Between all the scribbles of equations here and there, I start to see how they tie into each other; how I can manipulate them to get to where I need to get, whether that place be known or unknown at the time of doing it.
"It’s like looking at an undone puzzle. At first, I’ll familiarise myself with what parts are where and how I’d use them – this, mathematically, normally involves playing around with the equations to see how they tick. Then I can start to play with them. Sometimes, it’s rubbish and I don’t get anywhere; other times, I’ll get into the zone and, from there, it’s just automatic. But not automatic in the sense that I’ll do it without thinking – more in the sense that it becomes the clear way forward. It’s searching for an answer in a way that you know is progress rather than throwing a rock down a hole and hoping it makes a noise. I still have to concentrate on staying on the path and heading towards where I’m trying to go.
"It feels great when I’m there. In a lot of cases, it can give more of a clear understanding of some natural phenomenon than words possibly could. Being in the zone, I guess, is the feeling that you can speak the language fluently."
Andy Sandoz, creative partner, Havas Work Club
"I get as close to the real problem as possible. Then I look away. It’s like a lens on the world. Everything I see is a possible solution, everything is a metaphor. Some of them stick."
A while ago, the artist Robbie Cooper created a project called Immersion in which he photographed portraits of people as they were gaming. For those who have a console, you may not be aware that you pull ridiculous faces when you play it.
There’s a good reason behind the furrowed brows and poking tongues. Gaming is one of the best examples of how flow works. As we start playing a new game, we’re not likely to be that good, so the developers start us off in the shallow end – then, as we get better, the game gets suitably harder.
Flow exists in a place where our skills match the challenge we’re facing. The same goes for the drivers, the knitters, the writers: as long as we know enough to carry out the task, we allow ourselves the chance to achieve the optimum level of focus.
But there’s a fine balance. If we’re doing something that is too difficult for us, then we become anxious. Or if our skills are beyond the challenge, we get bored.
This is why flow is more achievable if we’re doing something we enjoy. We can grow with our passion and, the better we get at it, the more we can do with it. Hence people working in the creative industry are more likely to have these experiences. A brilliant designer will most likely have been interested in design all their life. So when their day-to-day mostly involves designing things, it’s no wonder they can occasionally being be in an amazing place mentally where they’re free from distraction.
Simon Jefferis, designer and musician
"For me, it’s less about the space I’m working in and more about who’s in that space with me. Certainly at university, when we’d be sitting around talented people who are quite like-minded, it was very easy to move stuff forward because you’d have the right people around to help your train of thought.
"An environment isn’t about where I am, it’s who I am with. I could be up on a roof but, if I’m with my friends whom I work well with, I can come up with exciting thoughts. Same way that, if I’m in the studio with a bunch of people, it’s just very helpful."
If you’re doing something you love, even if it’s just for an hour a week, there’s a good chance that you’ve had an experience with flow. Next time you’re there, pay attention to the process that has led to that moment. If we know our best working environments, we can recreate that level of focus more easily.
Dennis Christensen, associate creative director, Dare
"A good run down Regent’s Canal followed by a chicken curry with rice and peas gets my juices flowing every time."
Dave Bedwood, creative director, M&C Saatchi
"I wish I knew exactly [how to get into the flow], then I could recreate it at will. I’d say a few things have emerged over the years without conscious effort – I’ve sort of come to notice them.
"I always use pen and paper. It’s always a Moleskine pad. And always my Mont Blanc pen. Sounds wanky, but having the right instruments gets my mind in the right place. I can’t start any other way.
"I work anywhere but the office. And I tend to stare into space until my mind goes empty. Getting bored is painful but necessary. I then do something else.
"Then I chain myself to the computer and write. The quality doesn’t matter; the one rule is I can’t stop. In that sense, at that stage, I force the flow. It sort of feels like getting a dirty felt-tip pen and constantly scrubbing it until its original, clear colour runs again."
Sam Ball, creative director, M&C Saatchi
"It takes a little time to get into the flow, but there are techniques you can use to get you there faster. Before I start work, I may listen to a John Lennon interview or watch Muhammad Ali wax lyrical before a fight. What they say rarely has anything to do with the task at hand; nevertheless, it gets you in the right frame of mind in which to tackle the task. Everyone needs a little pep talk from time to time. Start your work fired up and you will get into the flow much quicker."
We should work on praising ourselves better too. The more we beat ourselves up, the more we’ll associate what we enjoy doing with negative feelings.
And don’t censor the work. When Hemingway said "write drunk, edit sober", apart from encouraging booze, he also meant that the "doing" comes first. Don’t focus on what other people might think. You can end up hating the work just because you think someone else will. It’s the reason that old-school creatives did a lot of their work in the pub.
How about group work? There are lots of people talking about individual experiences, but not much about how flow works in teams. That’s mainly because it isn’t common for people to be able to work at that level together. Everyone in the room has to be in the zone by themselves if there’s any chance of a group getting there together. And the more people that are involved in something, the higher the chances are that not everyone is going to be on that level.
Some people find it easier to work by themselves and feed back into a group. Others are more comfortable in a team situation. Confidence plays a huge part in group dynamics. Holding something back can stifle the creative process and this has a direct effect on the team. We feel like we’re being judged, they feel like we’re holding something back.
One way to work more effectively together is to develop trust through practising feedback. More often than not, it’s easier to say you trust a colleague rather than actually demonstrate it. When everyone is confident that ideas won’t meet any kind of judgment, a team can progress in working better together.
You can practise feedback by taking a few minutes to reflect on what has happened, then write down on a Post-it note what you think your team members did well and what they could have done better.
In fast-paced agencies, it’s sometimes hard to take the time to reflect it can be uncomfortable to feed back – but it works. And, in the long run, it gets everyone where they need to get to faster. The same can be said for: establishing the key goal together; trying to blend egos so you all take credit (and blame); and listening properly.
These things are tough to introduce into agency culture, but they allow whole teams, rather than just individuals, to get into the flow and create great work.
There are always going to be things we don’t want to do. Things outside of our passions that we just want to get done so we can move on. Flow doesn’t come anywhere near those. It’s not a quick fix for chores.
But it is less illusive than you first imagine for tackling the fun stuff. It requires both intense focus and a looseness of thought that help connect one thing to another in a new way. It likes inspiration from elsewhere and thrives on ritual. It loves drink, walks and Lennon. It sometimes even has a voice – ever woken up with the eureka moment screaming loud in your ear? Or heard an internal voice start an idea that you had to stop everything to catch, as if it’s a ghost whispering in your ear?
And, like us, it prefers to be around what we love. It’s reserved for those rare moments when everything just goes right. When a thing feels like it’s creating itself. When it’s 2am in the morning in pitch jail and everyone is working as one. It’s the most powerful and wonderful feeling a creative person can have.
That’s when the three-legged acid devil gets a fist in the face from Mr Csikszentmihalyi. And us.
Jake Attree is a creative at Dare and Laura Jordan Bambach is a creative partner at Mr President.
This is an edited version of an article that appears in Creative Social’s new book Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief: Advertising’s Next Generation, which is available to purchase on Amazon.