When we enter that state of heightened concentration sometimes called flow, we might accomplish what seems like a month’s work in an hour. Shouldn’t we try to attain flow more often then, and to maintain it longer, if our goal is to be as productive as we can? Sure, but we can’t always be in flow – that’s reality. And the downside of experiencing flow – of knowing it, loving it, craving it – of being a “flow junkie” – is that we miss it so terribly when we don’t have it. Being “out of flow” feels all the more frustrating if we compare it to the effortlessness and speed that’s been ours in better moments.

When we’re in flow, virtue comes easy – we can manifest perseverance, creativity, optimism, industriousness – all without struggle. But when we’re out of flow, it’s not just that inertia is harder to overcome – that our work feels slower and more laborious – it’s that vices seem to overtake virtues – that now we become susceptible to distraction, laziness, sloppiness, and doubt.

In out-of-flow times, the memory of our former virtue can make the present slog seem pointless. If work is going to be this painful, exposing our faults so harshly, why not give up? Why not wait for the next moment of hyperproductivity, when luck bestows it, when the task that’s taking hours might get done in a minute?

Being in flow, one day, and out of flow, the next – it’s a dizzying oscillation. At our peaks, productivity takes care of itself and we don’t need any advice about getting things done. At our troughs, we need help but it’s difficult to apply any tip or strategy we’ve ever collected.  

Could a “flow junkie” be persuaded to sacrifice the heights of flow in exchange for a steadier, less manic experience where the lows would be shallower and easier to bear?

Such a compromise is unnecessary because yes, there’s a way to smoothen the lows without compromising the highs. Simply take the lows and subtract the self-critique. Preserve the feelings of clumsiness, inertia, indecision, and inefficiency, but take away the labeling thereof.

The trouble with being out-of-flow starts when we name the condition. We’re working at a snail’s pace, lacking focus or direction – fine! But at some point we cross the line from just working tepidly to commenting on our work, deciding that we’re “not being productive,” declaring that “Things aren’t going well!” The act of labeling then leads to comparison: we could have accomplished so much more, if only we’d been in a better frame of mind – what a shame that we’re not!

How can we stop our minds from judging our current condition in relation to other, more favorable conditions we remember? We might exhort ourselves to “stop judging” or “stop comparing” but that’s hard advice to follow unless we have a new idea that can replace the pessimistic conclusion. 

An idea that helps is to think of flow as a supported state – the tip of an iceberg supported by volumes of ice below. Flow happens because the conditions have been built up, nudged into place by all of our out-of-flow efforts, all the work we did when we weren’t feeling particularly good or glamorous.

Every essay and piece of music I’ve written has been the product of a flow state. I simply could not have put the words or the notes in place if I hadn’t entered flow. But to be able to enter flow, I might have spent days or weeks experimenting with half-baked ideas, writing “useless” fragments, producing failed beginnings, and not “using my time” in a way that seemed particularly effective. When I do attain flow, it happens because I’ve accumulated all the experience – the litany of experiments gone wrong, the history of false starts – that now puts me in a posture to try an experiment that might go right.

I could think of my life as fortune and misfortune intermingled – it’s my great fortune that I’m sometimes in flow, and it’s my misfortune that I’m so often not. But this view ignores the connection between those two states: what’s labeled as “misfortune” here is the very thing that creates possibility of “fortune.”

When I set out to compose a new piece, I might feel “stuck” and ineffective for weeks and then it might seem like inspiration finally strikes and the essay or the music gets written. More accurately, I started by doing the preparations – necessary preparations – to enter flow. Because the preparations were tedious and slow I mostly forgot about them, remembering only the excitement of the flow itself, not what made it possible.

When I’m out of flow and I find myself wishing for my erstwhile high, I shouldn’t think I’m being denied some gift that luck could have offered. Luck can’t go back in time and lay all of the groundwork, putting the pieces in place, little by little, to support the next experience of flow; but I, right now, have the opportunity to work on that. What can I do right now to enable myself to be productive in the future?

It’s such an exciting thing to see a seedling emerge from the soil, to witness a little bit of green spring up from endless brown, as if by magic. But that soil had to be prepared. Perhaps the field laid fallow for a year. Nothing happened. Then someone tilled it – “to till is divine” – and planted a seed – and waited without knowing for sure that it would sprout. 

As we stare at the “mud” of our own projects and pursuits – we can be frustrated by the absence of any visible sprout – or we can learn to find beauty in the soil itself, doing whatever we can, little by little, to enrich it, to make it more hospitable to seeds. ■

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