Is publishing online a waste of time? Can't writing just flow? Is writing worth it? Here's the not-so-secret recipe to make writing engaging, inspiring, and blissful.
Conditions of flow
Setup your space
Seek immediate feedback then repeat better
What to write about, which ones to publish
Writing: Birds, seeds, and turners
Publishing: Three filters before you press it
Though Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi spent years studying happiness and creativity, he is remembered for something else. He theorized that people are happiest when they are in a state called “flow”. This is when someone gets so absorbed in what they’re doing that they lose track of time and everything else around them.
Being in the zone is the opposite of pushing a boulder uphill. Imagine if writing felt like the opposite, like the boulder just falls into place each time. It might be possible if we put mechanisms in place that help induce the conditions of flow.
A Harvard Business Review article (Bernstein and Waber, 2019) suggests that organizations experiment to find out what kind of office environment is most effective for their employees. I suggest that we can do the same for our individual work spaces. From a private studio, to a table at our favourite café, to a virtual co-working space – it’s important to deliberately choose and design the most conducive setup for work. Which one is for you? That depends.
If you find that the serendipitous interactions and live-action background noise inspires your creativity, surround yourself with more those. Pre-pandemic, big techs championed airy, undivided offices while small techs prospered in cluttered and crammed spaces. The environment was dense with people and their energy. It moved mountains. That was a win for the company and its people who thrive on tremendously stimulating environments. For an individual who wants to write more, this might mean taking your laptop with you to a coffee bar or the park.
But not everyone works like that. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people like me, who prefer less sensory-inducing elements in the environment. Susan Cain (2012) wrote a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. There, she says our world is mostly designed for extroverts. Workers are placed in open office spaces, often filled with loud and crowded interactions, in the hope to spark some kind of creative collaboration. Though that sounds energizing for extroverts, it drains introverts. If this sounds like you, you’ll want to try a more private space to write and do your work. This might mean your own office space at home or a simple undisturbed studio corner plus your favourite over-the-ear headphones.
My setup also includes the tools that I use. Do you use a typewriter, a laptop, a desktop, a notebook, a pad of paper, or the back of an envelope to write? What’s your favourite pencil or pen? For me, each tool feels just like an extension of my brain and that oils up my process. The best setup also takes into consideration the most conducive time of the day to do your best work. Are you a morning person or a night owl? If you can, experiment and see what combinations thereof work well for you. Try to make it inviting to sit down and do the work for the writer in you.
- Choose sensory-dense environment if you find it energizing. Choose sensory-deprived environment if too much stimulus drains you.
- Deliberately choose your tools for writing. Pick the ones that feel like an extension of your brain.
- Pick a conducive time of the day to do your best work. Morning if you like waking up early. Evening if your energy peaks later in the day.
- Experiment with different setups and keep improving.
When Carol Dweck gave 10-year-olds problems that were challenging for their age, some of them reacted delightfully. They said things like, “I love a challenge,” and “I was hoping this would be more informative.” That frames the kind of thinking that helps people grow. Part of anticipating and loving the challenge is having the ability to improve over our existing abilities. The state of flow allows for that to happen.
Flow occurs when the required ability is just above the available ability. That means that for each work session, you want to hit a level of difficulty that keeps you engaged. Not too high that it’s discouraging but not too low that it’s boring. If it’s too difficult, people are tempted to give up, or do worse things. Studies showed that when a group of children failed a hard test, they said they would cope by cheating next time (Nussbaum and Dweck, 2008) or by finding someone who did worse than they did (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck, 2007).
Instead of starting with an impossible goal, what you want is a level that enables the mind to process its current shortcomings. “When the job presents clear goals, unambiguous feedback, a sense of control, challenges that match the worker's skills, and few distractions, the feelings it provides are not that different from what one experiences in a sport or an artistic performance,” wrote Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (1997). Design your work session with these elements in mind: clear goals, feedback, sense of control, skills, and focus. A clear goal translates into either a check or an ex at the end of the session. Feedbacks are actionable areas of improvement for upcoming sessions. A sense of control means you will own every decision within that working session. The use of your current skills is at the core of it all. The work session should allow you to apply yourself fully.
When it comes to writing, the kind of challenge you want to set is one that produces a visible output. You can can see that output, edit it, and improve on it. The easy part is that when you write, you immediately have something visible on the page to edit for next time. But the less easy part is starting on a blank page. The question then becomes, “what should I write about?”
- Set goals that are attainable within one working session. Own every decision within that session. Apply yourself fully in that timeframe.
- At the end of a writing session, have a piece of writing that you can critique and improve on. It doesn’t have to be a Pulitzer.
It’s true that you can write about anything. But if you’re going to spend time and effort on something you will share in perpetuity online, I’m guessing you’ll want to make it worth your while. It’s important to separate these. For me, writing is more a practice of showing up and putting words onto the page. I’m writing for me. On the other hand, publishing is a practice of refining and filtering those word strings so that they’re worth sharing. I’m publishing for someone else.
In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Ann Lamott (1994) suggests to start from the start. Write about your childhood. Everybody has a childhood. Our starting objective is to not have a blank page, so we write something. Anything. That can be about your life as a kid. From there, it branches out. How you learned to ride a bike. Who your oldest friend is. Your first love. Your first heartbreak. What’s the biggest lesson you learned in school? It doesn’t have to be academic. Your greatest career challenges. Adulting. The years after.
On a micro-level, each daily interaction is a seed for content. Start by narrating your day. What made you happy? What made you hurt? Which moment made you say, “ahuh!”? Write about highlights. In his book Storyworthy, Matthew Dicks (2018) says that your one lifelong writing assignment is to write something storyworthy everyday. Years from now, when you read these pieces, it’ll feel like they happened just yesterday. The details will be so vivid and the feelings fresh and the experience engraved. Today, who made your day and what did they do? What idea got you excited? Which hour turned a sad face around? I think it’s also nice to take note of the tiny moments that transform the way we think, feel, and see each day.
At some point, the challenge becomes how to trim the work. It’s exactly like how Stephen King (2000) wrote it, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Prune ruthlessly. In other words, choose carefully what to publish and what not to publish.
I’m referring to publishing online, though there’s a whole world of publishing out there. There are three questions I try to ask before I click on the publish button. Is it story-worthy? Is it share-worthy? Is it self-worthy?
Storyworthy means it’s worth writing about. A writing instructor once said to me, “remember that your readers are smart.” Ever since then, I try to probe more carefully before I publish. Am I respecting the reader’s time by writing this way? Is this the best way to communicate my idea to an intelligent audience? Is the idea itself important and poignant? Most importantly, is it better than silence? If the answer is a definite yes to all these, then it’s storyworthy for me.
Shareworthy means it’s something worth sharing with family and friends. Is it a universal story? In other words, will someone – other than me – find it relatable and useful? Is this piece of writing going to be worth the real estate it will take on the web? Is it beneficial enough to take up the attention of someone I care about?
Selfworthy means I personally enjoy it. Is it something that I genuinely care about? Is it curious and intellectually stimulating? There are many interesting ideas out there. The thing is, if you don’t personally enjoy thinking or talking about an idea, it’s difficult to write about it well. A lot of mental energy will be wasted trying to wring the words out of your brain. On the other hand, sincere interest minimizes friction. You will find ways to present an idea with enthusiasm, if you're into it. You will naturally enjoy its nuances. I think that’s important too.
- Tell your story. Talk about your day. Use writing as a tool for thinking. Write about something you’ll want to remember years from now.
- Before pressing publish, try to ask: Is it worth reading? Is it worth sharing? Is it genuinely interesting for you?
Publishing online isn't a waste of time. We can choose to write about things that we genuinely care about and that others will find useful. Knowing that something you create will be worth reading and sharing inspires good work. So when deciding what to publish, try to see if what your working on is story-worthy, share-worthy, and self-worthy.
Writing can as engaging as playing an instrument. It's possible for writing to just flow, if and when we create the conditions that help induce that flow. Set-up time and space that fit your personality best. Choose tools that feel like an extension of your brain. Experiment and fine-tune this setup over time.
Bernstein, E. and Waber B. (2019). The Truth About Open Offices [online article]. In Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-truth-about-open-offices. Accessed: 2022 September 20.
Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development, 78: 246-263. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.00995.x. Accessed: 2022 September 20.
Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Crown: New York.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books: New York.
Dicks, M. (2018). Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling. New World Library: Novato, California.
Dweck, C. (2014). Developing a growth mindset [online video]. In Stanford Alumni Channel. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiiEeMN7vbQ. Accessed: 2022 September 19.
Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor Books: New York.
Nussbaum, D.A. and Dweck, C.S. (2008). Defensiveness Versus Remediation: Self-Theories and Modes of Self-Esteem Maintenance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34:5. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672073129. Accessed: 2022 September 20.