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Planning for Flow

In his classic work Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains the importance of having flow experiences in our lives. These are experiences when we are so involved with what we are doing that we seem to lose track of time and even of ourselves. We leave the cares and worries of our life behind and become engage with the activity we are doing.

Much has been said about flow and artists. Many artists do their best work when they are in flow. This may be true but I am one artist that often finds it hard to get into flow. I am intrigued to read what Csikszentmihalyi has to say about artists and flow.

“The goals of an activity are not always as clear as those of tennis, and the feedback is often more ambiguous that the simple “I am not falling” information processed by the climber. A composer of music, for instance, may know that he wishes to write a song, or a flute concerto, but other that that, his goals are usually vague. And how does he know whether the notes he is writing down are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? The same situation holds true for the artist painting a picture, and for all activities that are creative or open-ended in nature. But these are all exceptions that prove the rule: unless a person learns to set goals and to recognize and gauge feedback in such activities, she will not enjoy them.” 1

That puts a different bent on the idea of art and flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it can be more difficult for artists to get into flow than for other people engaging in physical activities such as playing a sport or rock climbing. He includes reading, which is not a physical activity, as flow because it has clear cut goals and immediate feedback.

Csikszentmihalyi is saying that in order for creativity to be a flow activity, artists need to set clear short-term goals which provide them with immediate feedback. “I think I’ll paint a picture today” may not be as affective as having clear-cut steps to the process of painting a picture.

Here is a list of things a painter might consider:

      1. Decide on my subject
      2. Gather reference material
      3. Gather my supplies
      4. Prepare my ground
      5. Develop design
      6. Decide on values
      7. Chose my colour palette.
      8. Decide the steps for painting this subject

“But this really puts a damper on spontaneity”, you might say. Then ask yourself, “How often has a completely spontaneous work really turned out?” Even fully abstracted paintings require thought in the area of what supplies to use, what ground to use, the design, values and colours to use. So even what may in the end seem spontaneous is dependent on some planning.

The point here is not so much that everything has to be planned but rather that, by setting out small steps to accomplish, we set up a goal/feedback system that will help us to derive more pleasure out of what we are doing.

Once the painting part starts, perhaps taking photos of the painting at the end of each painting session may provide some feedback that is enjoyable and valuable for future work. It is something to think about.

1. page 55 Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Your Feelings Will Change

Happy New Year to my readers and all the creative people who stop in to read my blog.

It is overcast and snowing here in Edmonton and although we had beautiful, moderate weather leading up to and through the holiday season, it looks like winter is ready to set in.  How easy it is to forget the mild, sunny days when things deteriorate.  Change is always happening.  Kelly McGonigal said that in her opening statements of her book, “The Neuroscience of Change.”  Because change is always happening, then even this nasty weather will change.  It may get worse but it may just as likely get better.  All we know is that it will change.

Maybe you have just finished up a great year with your creative practise.  You set yourself some goals and you reached many of them.  You are feeling really good about the year and looking forward to a new year and all you will accomplish in this year.  Take the time to savour those positive feelings.  This is important because we are often so goal oriented that when we reach our goals we don’t take time to savour that good feeling but are quickly on to the next goal.  I agree that to really feel fulfilled we will find it helpful to be more focused on the journey than the goal.  However, in order to feel successful we also need to reach some of our goals.  If we aren’t reaching our goals, our goals may be too unachievable or too broad.

Today we may feel happy or sad about what happened last year.  If you are happy, take time to enjoy those happy feelings.  If you are sad, that is okay too.  We all feel sad or discouraged at times.  These feelings, just like the happy ones will change with time.  Change is always happening particularly when it comes to our feelings…and the weather!

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