I debated long and hard about whether or not to include the concept of “flow” in our summer series on rest because flow isn’t really a way of resting so much as it is a way of working.
The flow state is more commonly known as “being in the zone” and you’ve probably experienced it at some point. I know some people who report getting into a flow state when playing video games or running (not at the same time). Part of the reason I chose a math minor during undergrad was because I often fell into a flow state when doing math problems.
As a PhD student, falling into a flow state when writing is akin to finding the Holy Grail.
But the flow state, the zone, as elusive as it might seem from the outside, is actually something that can be cultivated.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is the positive psychologist who has researched and popularized the idea of flow. According to Csíkszentmihályi the key to flow is that the task is “just about manageable.” In other words, the task is a Goldilocks: not easy enough that you get bored but not hard enough that you feel defeated–instead it’s juuust right. The task is a challenge but one you feel up to.
The key to flow, as with so many things in graduate school, is understanding task management.  We seem to achieve flow when we pick a task that is difficult but not overwhelmingly so. There also seems to be some evidence that we achieve flow when we work on a task where we can observe measurable progress (remember the video games and running from before?). Unfortunately, not a lot of tasks in graduate school, are ones where we can sit down and see measurable progress at the end of an hour or working. A dissertation certainly isn’t that type of task.
The first step of inducing flow in dissertation writing is to break the actual writing itself down into manageable chunks.
You know your writing speed best so start by picking a goal that is at the outside limit of what’s manageable for you in a day–remember, it needs to be challenging but doable. For instance, I can easily write about two-three pages a day. A stretch goal for me would be to write three pretty good pages. My partner, on the other hand, writes slowly. He can, generally, write about two paragraphs a day. A stretch goal for him would be to write one and a half good paragraphs a day. 
The second step of inducing flow is to give yourself permission to write badly.
No, really. When I talk to graduate students they often report that putting words on paper isn’t the difficult part. What’s hard is dealing with the fear that what you write won’t be good enough or second-guessing how what you’re writing right now will fit in with what you write when you finally get to chapter four. That leads to this:
Instead, take a deep breath and remember
Give yourself permission to just write in the moment without worrying about how this sentence connects to what you said in your prospectus or how you’d defend this claim in a job talk. (No, seriously, I used to spiral out on that last one ALL the time and all progress would stop.)
The third, and final, step to inducing flow is to give yourself restful conditions.
Restful conditions here doesn’t mean a comfy bed, but instead means conditions under which you can focus without being interrupted.  If you’re a person who needs complete silence then scheduling time to go into your office on the weekend might be your way to flow. If you need some ambient noise picking a coffee shop where you aren’t likely to run into friends could put you on the road to flow. Once you’ve found your spot you can mute your phone, turn off your notifications, and enter into that smooth and beautiful flow.
If it doesn’t work the first couple of times don’t worry. It’s going to take some trial and error. You might find out that a student theater troop practices (loudly) in a classroom next to your office every Saturday and need to restrategize your location.  You might find that what you thought was a reasonable goal is too easy or too hard and need to recalibrate. The hardest part is letting go of expectations for your writing. This takes consistent practice but you can absolutely do it.
Although flow can be magical, our real lives aren’t often conducive to flow. For instance, how often are you able to schedule uninterrupted writing/reading time?
That’s why our final post in our summer session on rest will be on mindfullness which you can apply even when all of your officemates are meeting with students in your tiny office and your email is blowing up.
We are currently taking suggestions for our subject for September. Let us know if you would prefer a month focused on teaching tips or writing advice.
- Why is this? I don’t actually know but I think it’s because many advisors don’t actually know much about task management themselves and use one, or both, of the following methods:
2. Neither of these writing styles is better and writing faster doesn’t actually mean you finish faster. I tend to do a lot of research, sleep on it, then write a lot. My partner tends to write as he goes. I also wind up deleting most of what I write the first time around and he doesn’t. We take about the same amount of time to finish projects.)
3. The comfiest bed:
4. Yes, that really happened to a friend of mine.