Flow State

Maybe it’s less important than we like to think?

Assumed audience: Other “knowledge worker” types: writers, composers, artists, programmers, you name it. Anyone who has felt (and felt the need of) “flow.”

Epistemic status: Mulling, tentative.

It is something of a truism among software developers that flow is critical: that we can only get things done, when we are in that deep, magical state, where distractions fall away, and we simply knock out whatever program we are working on. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for writing, for composing, and so on. The life of the mind, it seems, is an incredibly fragile thing.

So far as it goes, I am sympathetic. I really enjoy getting into a flow state. And yet.

As I reflected on yesterday‘s post, I wondered: do we actually over-value flow? Not because flow is bad or because it is not valuable: to the contrary. But if we tell ourselves that we cannot work (or work well) without being in a flow state; or that flow is essential“ for genuinely good work, we miss opportunities to make progress in smaller pieces of time, and we also miss opportunities to develop the muscles to make progress without that elusive state.

I suspect that practicing doing things in the small opportunities we have helps our minds learn to get to flow faster. But I also suspect that we can accomplish a great deal without that, and that by over valuing it we miss opportunities not only to make small amounts of progress but also to make different kinds of progress than we would otherwise.

Cal Newport has made a career out of telling people why their interruptions are bad and how they keep us from attaining that all-important flow state. Maybe, though, the interruptions” are themselves actually the job sometimes. More than that, maybe the interruptions are critical elements of creativity, can be generative — if we allow them to.

Parents, of all people, know that children can be distracting” or an interruption.” (Famously.) They are ends in and of themselves, deserving of our attention; and so too are all the many people around us. (Children in particular are also, if we will let them be, very often our biggest fans, and they are very profound guides to wonder and creativity.)

This is not a plea for more interruptions. I have felt very keenly these past weeks the desire for fewer interruptions. But it is a plea to recognize that interruptions, and things which break our flow, are not always bad things — and indeed that blog posts we dictate most of into our phones while minding our children on a church playground after the service ends… these can be good things too, even if the circumstances of their authoring did not involve a whit of flow.

To wit: ever thought about how J. S. Bach, father of some twenty children, produced an oeuvre that is among the greatest in musical history? I suspect (from reading a good deal about him over the years) that it did not have nearly as much to do with being in a flow state as we all might want for ourselves, and had a great deal more to do with learning to do the work, come hell or high water.