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Finding your flow: how to focus your mind

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Have you experienced that feeling when the words just flow out of your fingers, your mind focuses, and you find yourself engulfed in your work? You write, and you write, and finally, you come out of this trance, feeling slightly dazed, and finding that time has flown by. This experience is called the theory of flow, a concept coined by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his TED Talk, Csikszentmihalyi describes this state as being in a sense of ecstasy. Ecstasy, he explains, relates to the Greek meaning ‘simply to stand to the side of something’.  When we are in our flow this is exactly what happens, we become absorbed into our activity and, as Csikszentmihalyi describes, we become so obsessed in our work that even our own identity becomes ‘temporally suspended’ as we stop focusing on hunger, tiredness and even blinking.

For students, this theory of flow is incredibly useful when it comes to writing essays, dissertations or chapters. By getting into our flow, we can let our thoughts and ideas pour onto the paper and let ourselves neglect any other thoughts or feelings which would otherwise distract us from our work. But how do you get into this magical flow? How do you stop yourself from procrastinating? The key is optimal conditions; we need to have a sense of control over our environment and a level of energy to carry us through our state of flow. However, we do not want so much energy that we become anxious as Csikszentmihalyi’s graph from his TED talk demonstrates, flow comes at the antithesis of control and arousal.

Credit: Csikszentmihalyi TED talk 2004

Getting into the flow takes practice and I have found the following two exercises helpful over the years to help me get into my flow.

Free Writing

Free writing is a well-used technique which engages our brain and forces us to write down whatever we are thinking, it also involves getting off the laptop/computer and writing with old-fashioned pen and paper. Give yourself a time limit such as 2-3 minutes and a question to write on. The question can be as easy as you like and doesn’t have to relate to your research as the aim of the exercise is to get your brain ‘in gear’ rather than offer up any insightful ideas. ‘How’ questions are always a good place to start, such as ‘how could I analyse qualitative interviews?’ or ‘how many books have I read this year?’ By doing this activity a couple of times you start to learn how to focus your brain on one specific question and leave all your other thoughts behind.

The Pomodoro Technique

I am a big fan of the Pomodoro technique which is a time management tool that aims to help you focus in short busts of time. Using this technique, you work for 25-minutes intervals with 5-minute breaks. Don’t forget to use a timer so you’re not tempted to keep checking the clock. The Pomodoro technique is useful for getting ideas down for your research as writing against the time forces you to not overthink what you are writing. I find I’m most in my flow when I do three rounds of Pomodoro where I can only write something new, and I then do one or two rounds in which I edit what I have written. This way, my mind becomes focused on either ideation or editing. 

Writing over the summer is always going to be a bit of chore, but I hope these techniques will help you get into your flow of writing! And if you’re interested in hearing more about the theory of flow, check out Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk from 2004

Happy writing!

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