Increase writing productivity by understanding flow

We all know that feeling of being in the zone. You sit down to write after dinner and when you look up next, the sun is rising and the neighbors are heading off to work. Where the hell did last night go, you might wonder. Doctor, should I be worried about these blackouts?

Well the first thing to know is that this is not only normal – it’s downright fabulous. What you’ve just experienced is something psychologists call creative flow. The term was first coined by Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, but the concept has been around since the days of leopard attacks and pointed sticks. Flow refers to that state of creative engagement that is so total, so absorbing, that we lose all sense of self and time. We become one with our project. We become the all-singing, all-dancing writer of the universe.

But so what? Is this just mysticism and psycho-babble, or is it actually useful? Well…

As it turns out, the answer is, yes, it’s quite useful. At its practical core, flow is a state of heightened creative competence. In that state, your mind sets all secondary issues aside in order to harness the full resources of your wet-ware and engage them in the task before you. This is a very good thing.

Being good then, it stands to reason that we should probably want as much as we can get, right? Damn right. You want flow to happen as often as possible, and once begun, to last as long as possible. So there are two things you can do to make this happen:

  1. identify the conditions that encourage you to enter flow in the first place, and seek them out whenever you can
  2. identify and eliminate the conditions that tend to pull you out of flow once it has begun

Aside from the obvious things like telemarketers and persons from Porlock, one of the flow-killers for me is finger-jam. When the ideas are coming like from out of a hose, it drives me absolutely crack-ho if I can’t get them all written down in time.

Anyone who’s heard me talk about my writing process will know that I wrote my first draft (about 140K words) on this little guy pictured here. Why torture myself like that? Well, at first, the only time I had for writing was in the stolen moments: waiting for my wife in a shopping mall, waiting for the kids at school, etc. So I needed to work on a device that I had with me all the time. It wasn’t until I’d completed about  70% of the first draft that I was convinced I was actually on to something with this project. That’s when I upgraded to a more practical tool – but I’ll leave those details for another posting.

For anybody who’s ever tried to input huge piles of text with one finger on a tiny keyboard, you’ll know how big a task this was. Fortunately, I was able to almost double my input speed (up to about 40 w.p.m.) by installing a cool alternative keyboard, pictured here. Most people don’t stop to think about the fact that the QWERTY keyboard layout (the one most English speaking people use) was designed for a nine-fingered typist, not single finger poke artists, such as the Palm Pilot and other phone-sized devices often require. Compared to QWERTY, the hex-based keyboard is brilliant. It’s designed with the most common key at the center (the space key) which is then surrounded by the next most common characters (N,S,T,E,I etc.) Commonly occurring letter sequences are also arranged near one another, so, for example, that the C is next to the K, and the T, H and E buttons are all adjacent. In that one fell swoop, I dramatically upped my input rates, and as a result, I found myself dropping into flow state more frequently. (To this day I still wonder why nobody has recreated this brilliant input system for Android. Hint, hint. :-)

Coming back to the full-sized keyboards on our desktops and laptops, some people take this key layout efficiency notion to the next logical level, chucking their QWERTY keyboards in favor of one of the higher-throughput configurations like Dvorak or Colemak. In theory, these are superior layouts, for similar reasons to the hex keyboard mentioned above – the keys are arranged to maximize finger travel efficiency and letter distribution among the fingers. I too was once swayed by this logic and had become relatively proficient with the Dvorak system, when a startling problem came to my attention.

For some unfathomable reason, the rest of human civilization did not switch with me.

Every time I sat down at somebody else’s computer, I was forced to revert into a babbling idiot, typography-wise. After experiencing this four or five times, I made the conscious decision to surrender to the popular momentum, and went back to QWERTY, where I have remained ever since. I know I’m not quite as efficient as I could be, but if all the world is bonkers, then the sane man may be right, but he’s very, very lonely. Better to join the barking crowd and maintain my smug sense of superiority, I say.

But perhaps there’s more to explore here. Are keyboards actually the fastest way to input text? Some authors I know swear by the speed of their dictation systems. True, voice-to-text speech converters are much more efficient today than they were when I last seriously poked around under the hood ten years ago, but like the Dvorak fiasco, I suspect that there are secondary issues that would cause me problems. For example, I like to write in public spaces from time to time – coffee shops, libraries, etc. Would people there really forgive me the eccentricity of babbling to myself about belly-laughing genies and seductive ninja-cats undulating out of the mist? I suspect I’d spend a lot of the time I’d saved due to increased efficiency trying to convince the local authorities not to drag me away.

In actualy fact, I’m not convinced that dictation will be faster than typing – especially when you factor in the need for a second pass on the dictated text to remove the ums, errs, and ubiquitous translation gaffs, but I’m a scientist, so I don’t plan to be relying on guesswork. My next experiment will be to actually spend a week writing with a dictation system and comparing my hourly output to what I’m currently generating with the keyboard. Why a week? I figure I’ll need at least that long to teach the system how to speak Gnomileshi.

Stay tuned…

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.