This essay was written by me, Brandon Nolet, in the context that I want to learn more about flow and mental momentum, so I’ll teach you about it.
First let’s define what it means to be in a state of flow. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Basically you’re so focused and involved in what you’re doing that you lose track of time, you feel like you’re the only person working on whatever it is you’re working on, and it’s just you and the task at hand.
Secondly, let’s look at mental momentum. This one is less defined in academic spaces but the basic concept is that there is a certain amount of overhead attributed to starting and stopping, or switching, tasks. It takes a certain extra amount of mental effort to get into doing something. This is called building mental momentum. The longer you work on a given task, the more mental momentum you’ll be gaining, to a certain point. That point depends on your interest, the task at hand, and the conditions you’re working in. Having a higher mental momentum increases your chances of achieving the mental state of flow.
How to Increase Mental Momentum
Of course the first rule to increasing mental momentum is to actually get started on the thing you’re doing. This first rule is critical in understanding why people procrastinate, why people refuse to start a large project and has more to do with your mental state than the actual task to be done.
Consider the physics of moving a car. The most energy expended to move a car forward is when the car is completely stationary. You start your car in first gear because it provides the most torque (pulling force). However, it can’t go as fast so once the car is actually moving, you’ll eventually move into second gear, and so on. The higher the momentum, the less energy required to maintain that momentum, again, until a certain point (that point is beyond the scope of this post).
The same goes for your mental momentum. Once you actually get started on a task, the task seems less daunting, you’re more acclimated to the task over time, and the effort required to maintain that mental momentum is a lot less taxing. Contrast this to starting and stopping something to get in a reply to someone on the fediverse, getting up to get food, checking out a YouTube video, then getting back to what you’re doing. It takes time and effort to re-familiarize with the point in the project you were at and that’s effort that can eventually drain you of all energy.
In the immediate future, that’s the best you can do to increase mental momentum. Start something and keep working on it until you lose interest or use the pomodoro technique if you wish. In the long term, repetition will be the best method of increasing mental momentum. If you find writing a daunting task or you find yourself loathing writing, it might be beneficial to simply write something every day.
In repetition, you find yourself structuring your environment in a way that’s conducive to that behaviour. You learn all the little tips and tricks that come with that performing that task and you learn a little about yourself in the context of the task. You become more in tune with that task and eventually it could even become a habit. I learned this on this 100 days of writing challenge. I never thought I’d be writing more than 2000 words a week in blog posts and here I am sometimes going over 4000!
How to Achieve Flow
Flow is also known colloquially as being in the zone. Achieving flow can be very difficult if you’re not interested in the task at hand. For example, I don’t think I’d ever be able to achieve flow while doing dishes but I could certainly achieve flow while singing (it’s a pasttime for me, not something I advertise much). So I mix singing and washing dishes by putting on some good tunes and sing along to them while I do the dishes.
It’s important, however, to remember that you can’t exactly chase flow. It’s something that comes to you, something that happens naturally. So it’s not like you can exactly induce flow, but you can certainly structure your habits and your environment to be more conducive to flow.
Some methods of achieving flow encourage the removal of any and all distractions. The internet is probably the biggest one and there’s very little work on a given computer that actually requires attention to be given to the internet. My best attempt at removing distractions was to move any work that I can outside of the web browser and into a local application. There are obstacles that could prevent you from doing that, like being entrenched in Google Docs, but sometimes you have to realize that maybe the tool you’re using is overpowered or unnecessarily stuffed with features that you don’t use, which can be distracting in and of itself.
Other methods of achieving flow encourage using either white noise or ambient-type music to create a mental state of relaxation. There are few people who can focus on a given task when they are in a state of disarray or stress and these types of ambient noise can help relax the mind. Having ambient noise also helps eliminate the distraction of the little creaks and cracks that our dwellings naturally create.
The last method I want to discuss is choosing something challenging to work on. Something that’s just challenging enough to be appealing but not so challenging that it seems daunting. When you have something that’s just challenging enough, your brain can more easily hold its attention on that task because it’s stimulating the brain in a certain way that gives you pleasure. Challenge means novelty and novelty means greater amounts of dopamine release.
Learning About Yourself
All of this advice here can boil down to an ability to observe how you work best. In order to work better and be more productive and be well disciplined, etc you have to learn about what makes you tick. Observe your thoughts and figure out where the mistakes are, and then learn how to correct them. But actually correct them or else you’ll face the effects of cognitive dissonance.
I want to discuss meta-cognition in the future but for now just know that it’s important to observe your thought processes, ponder it, and figure out how to make the most correct of processes happen. It’s not only the decisions that you make that are detrimental to your mental health, but also the thoughts and words that lead up to those decisions. Just because thoughts are mostly immaterial doesn’t mean that the thoughts don’t have material effects on your behaviour.
Mental momentum and flow are connected. With more mental momentum your chances of achieving the state of flow are more likely. By continuing on a given task rather than switching from task to task you’ll be better equipped to have a high mental momentum. Practicing thought observance will further increase your likelihood of being able to structure your environment, mentally and physically, in a way that’s conducive to mental momentum and flow.