I am a music producer and illustrator and have found both pursuits potent ways to improve my mental wellbeing. Achieving flow is a common part of the process in both of these hobbies. Whenever I make music or any form of art, I am hoping to enter this state because it is when things feel effortless.
For me the pandemic has made it difficult to get in “the zone”. There are so many distractions and pressures that I have really struggled with, as I’m sure is the case for many others. Stress has contributed to a shrinking creative output and this in turn has led to a lot of procrastination and avoiding behavior.
I have noticed that since my artistic output has slowed down somewhat and Netflix has taken over, my anxiety levels have been heightened and my mental health has suffered. I have always been aware of the importance of being creative and keeping my art and music practices going, primarily because I enjoy it but also because of the positive impact it has on my mind.
Then I listened to a brilliant podcast which confirmed my beliefs around flow state and how beneficial to mental health it is. The podcast in question was Blindboy’s interview with Neuroscientist Dr. Sabina Brennan. She is also the best-selling author of Beating Brain Fog: Your 30-Day Plan to Think Faster, Sharper, Better.
It was really enlightening, not only discussing the science of neuroplasticity and sleep, but of flow, creativity and learning and the effect it has on our health. It inspired me to write this article.
I want to share some of the things I’ve learnt about flow state and mental health with the Producertech audience.
So read on if you would like to learn more and I also recommend listening to Blindboy’s podcast for more on Mental Health and creativity.
What is flow state?
If you’re passionate about a hobby or the work you do, chances are you have found yourself in a place where time and space seems to alter. You find yourself “in the zone”, completely present and working/playing in the moment. Your body and mind are in tune and nothing else matters.
This is flow state, a term popularized by positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura. Flow state describes a feeling where, under the right conditions, you become fully immersed in whatever you are doing. It is a state of mind where time becomes abstract. Hours feel like minutes and minutes can feel like hours.
In a way, achieving this state is a lot like meditation only you aren’t really aware that you are doing it. Like meditation though, becoming aware of that state can snap you out of it.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it the secret to happiness and I am inclined to agree!
To say our brains are incredible is an understatement.
If I asked you to describe what learning is, how would you answer? To practice something, retain knowledge, memorise how to do something?
When your brain is learning anything it is creating new neural pathways. Education is thought to create new synapses. Although it hasn’t been proven, a life of learning is thought to reduce memory loss in later age and even help combat Dementia. The structure of your brain changes and, like a muscle, it can strengthen through the process of learning.
For me, trying to master something often leads to flow. There seems to be a connection between the process of learning and then the ability to lock into the thing you're doing and enter that present moment. Surfing is a great example of this. When you’re learning to surf, you learn the technique and how to balance properly. It is only then possible to surf by clearing your head and going through the motions. As soon as you think about the task of surfing, you pretty much always fall off. You have to rely on what you have learnt, the repetition and then letting it happen naturally.
How does flow state affect mental health?
Meditation can be tough for some people. Switching off the noise of the outside world and a busy inner monologue takes a lot of practice. It can even be quite uncomfortable for some, particularly those who have experienced trauma. Flow can be more achievable, especially if you have a creative hobby like making music.
When you’re making a track and you get in the zone you are effectively entering a meditative state. You exist in that moment and being present is a core principle of mindfulness. Whatever you are doing you should do it in the present.
For example if you’re washing your face, take the time to do it without distraction. We spend so much of our lives connected to a constant stream of data and information that even the simple act of washing your face without distraction can be a beautiful thing.
If you’re washing your face and all you’re doing is thinking about the past or the future, potentially worrying about stuff, you’re not being present. You can be left with big negative gaps in your day where you were just stressed and worrying.
With so many people suffering from emotional burnout, it is important to identify the things that help us manage our mental health before we reach a breaking point, whatever that may be. For us creatives, our art gives us the opportunity to live in that moment of creative process.
In a state of flow, your body and mind will know what needs to be done without having to think about it. This can make you feel less tired as you have more bandwidth freed up which leads to better concentration. You also tend to feel more energised and happy as a result.
Losing time to your phone, browsing the internet or social media can make us feel guilty. Losing time when you’re in the zone making music or art leads to pure bliss (disclaimer, that’s how I feel anyway). There is a sense of achievement based on your commitment to something that doesn’t necessarily have an end goal. You’re returning to a childlike state of play and do you remember how much fun that was?
Fulfillment and a sense of purpose. These are incredibly important to a healthy mental state. Purpose is something many of us struggle with, particularly at a time when the economy has been hit hard again and those of a certain generation feel a little left behind. Creating purpose through making music is a wonderful thing and flow makes that experience feel even more worthwhile.
How to achieve creative flow
After all that you’re ready to chase the zone and you can put yourself in an optimum state to enter flow. Here are some of my tips:
- Clear your workspace before you start. I find this is super important for me, I try to make sure everything is within reach and ready to go.
- Get rid of your phone. Put it in a draw, disconnect from messaging and social media.
- Create a comfortable seating position. I don’t like getting up too much if I’m making music or art so it is important to have a comfortable chair that isn’t going to hurt my back.
- Cut out junk food. This honestly helps. If I eat something fatty or heavy when I’m trying to be creative, I get tired and my mind wonders. Sometimes creating on an empty stomach works wonders!
- Find you optimum time of day. You might be a morning lark or a night owl, figure out when your brain works best and make the most of that time.
- Try and prioritise your sleep. Make sure you get at least 7 hours sleep per day. It will sharpen you up no end.
- Supplements! Read Rob Jones’ piece on them here.
Ok, now let's get out there and rediscover our flow! As the pandemic lifts I am optimistic that the world's creative output is going to explode and we’re going to be experiencing some great moments back in the zone...
Flow and Engagement
Check the Human Resources theories on Engagement. It’s a different approach that, in my opinion, it’s very complimentary to the flow. There are literally hundreds of studies on the matter. It’s pretty interesting
This was helpful reminder to not get to involved/distracted by the technical aspects. One just needs to enjoy/experience tbe process.