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Give yourself the flow time you need to flourish

When I’m coaching and teaching academics, I recommend that they designate and protect four kinds of time: Free, Fixed, Focus, and Flow. Previously in this series, we looked at Free timeFixed time, and Focus time. In this short article, let’s look at Flow time.

Although folks from other professions may benefit from Flow time, academics MUST have Flow time. Yet, it is the type of time you are least likely to designate and protect while doing your planning for the week, month, quarter, semester, or year.

Let’s be clear on what constitutes Flow time. Flow time is unobstructed by appointments or other time-bound commitments. It is not “free time” per se, yet for an academic, it is freeing. You’re free to think, free to work on projects that aren’t due this week, free to devote time and energy to something that is off in the distance, free for some creative work, free for some thoughtful collaboration with someone, free for the magical connections that come with unencumbered reflection, along with many other delightful pursuits.

Not long ago, a coaching client who is quite familiar with the four kinds of time (Free, Fixed, Focus, and Flow) sent an email to let me know she was having a Flow day. She said, “I like working on things that are not burning or smoking and stinking up the office.”

So while you are certainly able – and required – to set appointments (Fixed) and work within designated timelines (Focus), you desperately need significant periods of time for Flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow, describes attributes of the flow experience, which apply to the Flow time you need to make space for in your calendar, i.e., the ability to completely concentrate on what you’re doing; actions and awareness merge; time transforms (either speeding up or slowing down); a sense of effortlessness and ease; a balance between challenge and skills.

Sounds magnificent, right? It is! And Flow time is important for writers because it’s where they make substantial progress, including:

  • conceptualizing in unexpected ways,
  • discovering surprise solutions,
  • making seemingly random connections,
  • experiencing the spurts of productivity that result when you are writing without the fear of a looming deadline,
  • finding answers you may or may not have known you were seeking,
  • and more, thankfully!

In case you need a reminder: You were hired for your brain and your ability to think, problem solve, and create. Even though that is why you were hired, no one is going to build in the time for you to do these things. YOU have to build it in and claim it – strategically and consistently.

Building in Flow time is one consideration. A second consideration is becoming adept at putting yourself into a flow state, regardless of where you are. It requires awareness of what Flow feels like for you. Most likely you don’t own the equipment to measure the difference in your brain waves when you get into Flow, i.e., moving from Gamma and Beta to Alpha and Theta.  However, when you begin paying attention, you become attuned to the sense of dropping down into a liminal awareness state of concentration. When it starts to happen, make sure you let it.

In the same way you can match Focus work with certain places and practices that are more conducive to what you need to accomplish, you can also set yourself up for Flow time. There are routines that individuals find helpful for accessing their FLOW state (think about the ways many athletes use routines). You will have to find what works for you, but consider noticing what you already have in place or start to establish a routine. Maybe you want a complete lack of sound, white noise, or particular music.  Maybe you find that a certain lamp or type of light makes a difference for you. Maybe you like diffusing a particular essential oil to support you during Flow time. For others, assembling the tools they need is enough to propel them into their Flow state.

Is it possible to write articles, books, grants, manuals, textbooks, and op-ed pieces without Flow time? Certainly. And let me digress for a moment with a little story.

In 1987, I went on an educational trip to the U.S.S.R. about a year after Chernobyl. There were no fruits or vegetables with any of our meals except a few cucumbers that appeared at one meal. None of us starved. However, the night my now-husband and I got back, after 26 hours of travel home, we dropped our suitcases in the living room of our duplex, took a shower, and drove quickly to a Wendy’s (before it closed) for their salad bar (around which we made several trips).

Is it possible to survive on a diet devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables? Yes, but I prefer to live more happily and healthily than that.

Is it possible to survive the writing life devoid of Flow time? Yes, but I prefer to write more happily and productively than that.

If you don’t currently have this kind of time built in, begin to re-think your calendar and move toward having the equivalent of two days out of seven devoted to Flow time. Set these up for full days when you can but at least for half-days when you’re doing your planning.  And feel free to send me a thank you note telling me the difference it has made for you.

If you’re someone who already plans for and protects your Flow time, then I know you wouldn’t go back to a life without it. Once you become accustomed to having Flow time and experiencing the magic that can happen here, if for some reason you don’t get it for a week or two, it’s not pretty. Stress goes up, productivity declines, job satisfaction goes down.

As a professor and a writer, you need time to just be. Be with your thoughts. Be with your work. Be with the wonders of your mind. For highly intelligent and creative people, there is a high cost to being without Flow time. You lose productivity and the sense of achievement that comes from doing great work that contributes. We – your readers – lose what you could have taught us through your work. Be generous with yourself and with us. Give yourself Flow time.

Meggin McIntoshMeggin McIntosh, also known as “The PhD of Productivity®,” is professor emerita and founding director of her university’s Excellence in Teaching Program.  She is now an executive coach for high-achieving academics who are intent on making a difference through their work.  Whether she’s coaching, teaching workshops, or writing, Meggin’s mission is inspiring joyful work.  You’re welcome to explore and receive many of Meggin’s publications, videos, and classes through her hubsite  More and more of them are being offered freely each month so be sure to take a peek if you want more joyful work in your life.