Turn Studio Time into the Flow State

This is the 3rd post in the series about effective life strategies for working artists.

When I make wishlists, the thing I wish for most is more time.  More time to learn and develop new skills, more time to write, meditate, reflect, draw. More time to study languages and read. More time to make art and still attend to all the other responsibilities of life.  More time to sit in a sidewalk cafe and people watch.

We all know that our perception of time is subjective, and with proper attention time can be extended or shortened based on our own state of mind.

Along with Time Tracking (keeping track of in-studio hours with the objective of 1000 hours per year working in studio), it is important to try to make those in-studio hours effective.

Forcing oneself to do creative work is hard.  It’s better to tease, wheedle, and bribe oneself, and lay out a path of treats so that getting down to work is easy.

Sure, I would (and do) count sitting in the studio staring at a blank page or a box of clay as “studio time”- but it is nice to have some simple strategies to get past the metaphorical blank page.

Tiny Tiny task lists.  Yep, that’s right.  Both the tasks are tiny and the lists are tiny.  To make the whole thing less intimidating, keep a box of scrap paper handy.  The best pieces are about an inch wide and 2 inches tall.

When beginning a block of studio time make a tiny task list on the tiny paper.  And the tasks must be tiny too: simple tasks that are unarguable.  There should be no resistance to the individual tasks, because they are small and simple and easy enough that intimidation is impossible.

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Sound and Scent Triggers. The concept behind creating a trigger is simple.  It is a form of classical conditioning (think Pavlov).  If you have ever trained a dog, this should be easy to understand. With dogs, it can take just a handful of repetitions for them to associate a stimulus- like a bell- with a reward- like a treat.  Clicker training is based on this concept.  Smart dogs will make the association within 3 or 4 repetitions. Humans are equally easy to condition, and it is nice to know how to use it effectively on yourself to modify behavior.

Classical conditioning links any neutral trigger (word, sound, scent, other) with a response.  In this case, your goal is to link a track of music or a scent with beginning a studio session. Do this repeatedly, and your resistance to getting started vanishes the minute you hear or smell the trigger.

Use the same album, playlist, or meditation music every time you enter the studio.  Light the same incense or candle.  Doing this repeatedly, as improbable as it may seem, it will get easier and quicker to get into the flow.

The more you use the triggers, the more “charged” they remain.  No doubt you can identify triggers that remain charged years after you have used them.  (When I hear a certain ringtone that I used from 2008-2012 or so I feel stress, even though I haven’t used it on my own phone for 7 years or more.)

Stories.  My studio sessions range from 2 hours to 12 hours per day, depending on the type of work I am doing and the available time.  My goal is to spend all my flex time in the studio.  I generally achieve 80% of this.

But here’s a thing I notice. Sure, I might get started by using some triggers and a tiny list, but with a day long studio session I need strategies to stay in the flow.

Writers and musicians will experience this strategy differently.  But as a visual artist, there is a certain amount of mindless “making” in what I produce.  During the tasks that occupy my hands but not my chattering mind, I need to keep the flow going.  I have experimented with everything auditory- music, podcasts, television series, educational audio programs, foreign language learning.  The thing that works best for me is long-form fiction audiobooks that have some thematic alignment with the work I am doing.

The long form story keeps me focused and amused at my work, and the thematic alignment provides delicious moments of synchronicity.


What are your strategies for getting in the flow?



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