Three creatives on tuning out the noise and tuning in to your work
Published on February 16, 2023
Musician Diane Allen knows when she’s hit a rhythm in her creative process. “There's a positive feedback loop where the more you get into what you’re doing, the more you get out of it, and the more you get out of it, the more you get into it,” she says, describing a feature of the psychological state often described as “flow.”
First coined in 1990 by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow happens when a person is deeply focused on a specific task. It generates intense concentration, inspiration, and confidence in one’s work—and a lost sense of time and space. When you’re in flow, hours feel like minutes, and all your ideas can feel like magic.
Flow is often associated with creative work because it silences the pesky inner critic that is the enemy of creativity, allowing people to express themselves with confidence. However, anyone from artists to knowledge workers can benefit from this phenomenon. Most tasks beyond the check-list type actions require some degree of deep thinking, which is when tapping into flow is most helpful. Getting into this mindset is easier said than done, though—especially as modern work comes with more and more distractions.
For artists like Allen, tapping into this state is baked into their process, whether that’s giving structure to a routine, understanding what triggers their own flow, or finding smart ways to reduce interruptions. Experts in flow in their own right, three artists shared their strategies for other creatives—or anyone in search of more focus—on getting out of their own heads and sinking into their most creative selves.
Setting the stage is part of the process
Lindsay Keeling left her corporate marketing job after experiencing intense burnout. Now, she’s the founder and owner of her own business, Art Within. As a full-time artist who also experiences anxiety, getting into flow is pivotal to her process.
“I’ve learned that accessing creative flow starts with feeling grounded,” she says. “I’ve built a strong foundation of habits that help me access that calmness I need to be my most creative and put more of myself into my art.” On an ideal day, she starts by giving herself some time for breathing and movement—whether that’s doing a little bit of yoga or going on a walk with her dog. “It helps me come into the present moment and sets the stage for my day so I can ease into creativity.”
Once the initial stage is set, part of Keeling’s creative routine is telling her brain “hey, it’s time to create.” Simple things like a cup of hot tea, putting on her apron, setting up her studio, and putting paint on her palette act as a series of levers to turn up the dial on her work day and get her in the right creative headspace.
Then, the actual work begins—but getting into that flow state doesn’t necessarily happen right away. “When I start a painting, I’m not thinking about where it’s going—I’m just adding layers of color,” she says. “It’s when I get into flow that the structure and the details begin to form and it really becomes the painting it’s supposed to be. It takes time and focus to get to that point.”
As an entrepreneur in addition to being an artist, Keeling notes that a flow state isn’t only reserved for when she’s working on her art—it can happen when she’s working on the business side, too. “Flow state is important because it helps you access creativity, whatever form that comes in,” she says about the significance of the process itself, whether you’re painting a canvas or putting together a spreadsheet.
"I’ve learned that accessing creative flow starts with feeling grounded."
Focus on the emotion, not the technique
Diane Allen has been playing violin for over 50 years and was the lead violin and concertmaster of the Central Oregon Symphony. Getting into flow, or “flow experiences” as she calls them, have been formative to her career. So much so that today, her work revolves around teaching teams and individuals on how to get into the flow state.
Allen attributes her passion for the violin with her first experience of a flow state when attending a concert as a child. “Concerts are group flow experiences,” she says. “I have a profound memory of hearing a performance by the Cleveland Orchestra when I was about five years old and the force of the music pinning me to the back of the chair. That’s when I told my parents I wanted to play violin.”
After years of experience working with her own creative process, Allen knows all too well the affects of flow on her work. “I can feel the difference in my playing when I’m in flow compared to when I can’t access it. Without flow, I can play the music technically, but it feels emotionally flat. When I’m in flow, it’s a peak state,” she says. But before reaping the benefits of flow, Allen needed to learn how to tap into it.
She learned the hard way that unavoidable parts of her job, like auditions for instance, were lethal to her flow because the pressure was too high. “That was when I realized how important that emotional component is and how I could reverse engineer the steps I took to access flow.” she says. “Flow sits at the intersection of skill and challenge. You need just the right amount of both to connect with your task.”
According to Allen, this strategy of reverse engineering flow starts with thinking back on a time when flow occurred naturally. Ask yourself three questions: Where were you? What were you doing on the outside and the inside? And why was that experience meaningful to you? For Allen, this happens most often when she’s on stage playing the violin. “But on the inside,” she explains, “I’m sharing music with a room full of people, which is meaningful to me because it creates a sense of unity.” When you can understand and define how you get into flow, you can greatly increase the odds of getting into it again.
Know when to “zone in” and “zone out”
Just like Allen’s experience as a concert attendee sparked her initial passion for music, getting into flow can often involve a push-and-pull between inspiration and creation. For Geneva Price, a full-time artist with a background in psychology and archeology, “zoning out” on other people’s work is all part of the process. “If you've ever gotten so absorbed in a book or a movie that it’s a shock when you get called back to reality, that's a kind of flow state,” she says.
“Flow sits at the intersection of skill and challenge."
It happens the other way, too. According to Price, “zoning in” is when you experience that same total immersion while you’re the one doing the creating. But she warns that too much “zoning out” can leave little room for the inverse. “It’s an important distinction because people who don’t get to engage creatively regularly are always receiving,” she says.
For Price, getting inspired by others’ work is important, but too much can sometimes take away from the act of creating and producing on your own. Think of that errant idea that can spark when you’re going on a stroll or folding laundry. Listening to a podcast or turning on a TV show to fill in every silence can do just that, take up the space that could otherwise be filled by your own creative thoughts.
“We definitely need inspiration from others—but if you constantly have this input of other people's ideas, you're never giving your brain an opportunity to have its own. We need both.”
Let it flow
Thanks to a culture of endless meetings, notifications, and multitasking, the demands of the modern work day can often disrupt creativity instead of enable it. This makes the need for creating more space to get into flow more and more apparent—whether that’s building your own routine, finding work that excites and challenges you, or leveraging tools that help shut out distractions and keep you focused.
While flow is often associated with creative work because it empowers people to plow through mental blocks, any job that requires concentration can benefit from it. During these intense periods of deep focus, as it’s also called, seemingly unlockable problems fly open. And the experience of working in this state is itself gratifying—a simple joy everyone can use more of in their workday.
When coaching others on how to get into flow, Allen says it’s all about understanding your own creative process so that you can access it whenever you need it. And she believes it’s truly accessible for everyone. “A lot of flow experts are focused on elite performance, but we're all wired for this. If I can do this, so can you.”