Creative flow: the formula and how to evoke it


The last week has been one of those weird ones when things are just out of balance. If you’re like me, you probably have periods of doubt, and the creative flow just isn’t there.  My mantra during those dreadful days is: "This is going to pass, just ride it out." I also tell myself that for most part, our feelings are just a chemistry mix in our brains (perhaps shaking that cocktail will bring back the good feelings :-D).

Another comforting thing that I just discovered is a very pragmatic and even scientific way to look at the lack of flow and motivation. Because I can recognize that the feeling of being stuck, off or out of flow is almost always related to whenever I’ve been spending time trying things that are either very frustrating and difficult, or something repetitive and boring. Is it like that for you too?

Realizing this got me curious. What is flow really? And what makes you get into or out of the flow mode? Does everyone get flow or is it just artists or sports athletes?

I remembered a Swedish science TV-program where I had heard something about the concept of feeling flow and after some searching managed to find it. In the episode they talk about a study on happiness and also mention flow. According to the study everyone can get flow and the scientists even had a formula for it, which shows the correlation between the level of challenge in combination of level of skills that and how it effects our feelings from apathy to excitement about a task.

It shows that it's such an interesting and useful formula that I just have to share it with you here.

What flow is

Flow is a feeling of mastering a situation in the way that everything seems to fall into place.

According to the formula finding flow starts with engaging in an activity with your undivided focus. Flow sets in when the level of challenge this activity presents to you perfectly matches your level of skills for executing the specific task.

For achieving flow the levels of challenge and skill have to be high. This means that when you are taking on a task or doing an activity that is very challenging for you, but you have the right set of skills to attack the task, you can get into that flow mode.

But the formula also explains how other feelings are correlated to challenge and skills, and now it get's really interesting.

Bored, excited, worried or in control?

This chart explains how both negative and positive feelings correlate to different levels of challenge and skills. 

On the vertical axis to the left you can see the level of challenge and the horizontal axis displays the level of skills.

In the top right corner you find flow, as explained above. 


As you can see, on the left pink side are negative feelings of boredom, apathy, worry and anxiety. On the right blue side are positive feelings like relaxation, control, flow and excitement. And if you take a closer look you can see in what mix of levels of challenge and skills each of these feelings set in.

How can you use this formula?

Now, pick a feeling from the chart and then turn inwards. Think about a situation when you felt that. What activity or situation made you feel this way? Something that made you feel worried, or bored? Or in control or relaxed? Now think about that activity and then look at those axises again and you can get an instant answer to why you felt that way about it. 

Ever wanted to throw the computer out the window?

For example, when I started out and were about to create a website I chose to use WordPress. But when I got started working in this tool I felt really anxious about the task. I wanted to rip off my hear and just scream at the screen because I had no idea of how to create the website that I wanted. Looking at it from the formula point of view it was a very challenging task for me, and I had not enough skills to take it on.

My choices were to either learn as much as I could about working with WordPress, or finding another tool that I could handle better. I chose Squarespace. Which was definitely matching my skillset much better, yet still a bit challenging so it moved me into the excitement compartment of the chart instead. Now that I’ve gotten to know the tool even better, but still learning, I can say that now I’m switching between excitement, flow and in control.

Tools to change a negative feeling into a positive

The beauty of this chart is that it from identifying the feelings we have towards a task, we can identify the problem by mapping where on the chart we are and then help us to take actions that can move us into some of the positive feelings instead.

By increasing our level of skills we can move from anxious to excitement and perhaps even flow. Then when we’ve done it for a while, learning more, getting used to it, the level of challenge will be lower and you might even move down to the feeling of relaxation for this activity.

Or you can change the nature of the task instead, lower the challenge and find an approach or a tool for the task where you are more skilled. 

And whenever something makes you bored or feeling apathy, you now know you have to find a way to increase the level of both challenge and skills.

The formula can help us look at a problem or a negative feeling with a new perspective and be rational about it.

A guide for those off days

I love the chart and will now print it and keep it on the pinboard by my desk. Whenever I feel bored, worried or anxious about something I can glance at it, sort out the reasons behind it and think about some options how to change my feelings from negative to positive.

I have created a mini poster of the chart that you too can download, print and keep as inspiration, comfort and perhaps as a guide to navigate your feelings during those days of feeling off and unbalanced.

<< Get the Feelings Chart poster here >>

Use it to analyse your state of mind, level of challenge and your skillset and find a way to move yourself over to a more positive feeling whether it’s changing your level of skill, the challenge of the activity or the activity itself.

Good luck!

For all Swedish speaking readers: here is a link to the science TV-show >>