To Write More, Better and Faster, Do This One Thing
The secret to flow is what we do before sitting down to write
If you’ve been in the writing community a while, you’ve heard the phrase “butt in chair, hands on keyboard,” often abbreviated as BICHOK. Many—if not most—people talk about regular BICHOK as the key to writing.
There’s some truth to this. I mean, you can’t publish a book without doing the work of sitting down and writing it (unless you hire a ghostwriter). And sure, sometimes writing crap for an hour helps get the gunk out, after which truly creative ideas can flow. If you want to use the BICHOK-and-only-BICHOK approach, by all means, I’m not going to stop you.
In my experience, though, BICHOK is only part of the equation. What we do before we sit down to write is equally important, if not more so.
Before I get into that, though, let’s look at creativity.
Creativity is not an intellectual process
Whether creative inspiration, flow and art come from the intuitive subconscious or a higher consciousness, they don’t come from the intellect. Even as a teenager, I used to say that my best writing bypassed the mind entirely; it went straight from my heart down my left hand and onto the page.
Quieting the thinking mind allows creativity to flow freely. Many of us have been conditioned to believe that the intellect is everything, but in practice, the thinking mind is a jackhammer, and creativity is a whisper. Until we quiet the jackhammer, we can’t hear the whisper.
The thinking mind does have a role in the process: Once a solid draft is in on the page, our intellect can be helpful in revising. So I bargain with my intellect: Go take a nap right now, and let me get something on the page. Then, later, you can help me refine it.
Quieting the thinking mind
Nine years ago, I wrote a post on creativity and mindfulness:
Creative ideas don’t come from sitting in a boardroom, at a desk or staring at a computer. These activities – or non-activities – signal our thinking minds to activate, and the thinking mind can’t innovate or create; it can only analyze, strategize and replicate old ideas. We humans are creatures of habit: If we sit in the same place (literally or figuratively), we’ll come up with the same old ideas.
True creativity and innovation come from looking at things differently – and that can only happen when the thinking mind is out of the way, when the subconscious can bubble up and offer its contributions.
If the concept of quieting your mind is new to you, I invite you to read Learning How to Observe Thoughts and Why Learning to Observe Thoughts is Important. A few weeks ago, I wrote a Living the Mess post about the importance of ‘getting the inside right.’ Here, I’m applying that practice to writing.
Finding your unique flow
I’m a big fan of spending time in nature, including meditating in nature. Year after year, I’ve found my creativity flows in proportion to the quietude in my mind. That said, not everybody has access to raw nature, and you may find other practices more conducive to your creativity.
Here are some other ideas quieting your mind in preparation for writing:
Practice seated or walking meditation
Do yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong
Spend some (calm, mindful) time with a cat, dog or other companion animal
Tend to your garden, if you have one
Take a hot bath (or, in summer, a cool one)
Each person will have different practices that work for them. I invite you to start with some of these and see which ones give you the best results.
If you get up an hour before your spouse and kids to get some writing time in, try spending half that time meditating. It may seem counterintuitive, but it works.
The first time I experienced this was when I wrote the Creativity and Mindfulness post. I’d been percolating it for more than a week, then one day, in the middle of a walk, I sat down and wrote it in my notebook, longhand, in 15 minutes. When I went to edit it later, I found that it didn’t need nearly as much editing as some posts I’d spent days or weeks hammering out.
(If you’d like support discovering your creative process, I offer Find Your Flow writer coaching, designed specifically to help you write more, better, and in a shorter time frame.)
Increasing your creative flow
Once I’d experimented with getting into an optimal state for writing, I coined the somewhat tongue-in-cheek phrase the Law of Increasing Flow.
From that post:
A couple of years ago, I began percolating the question, “What would it look like to create a Law of Increasing Flow?” My goal was to find a way to work at an optimal level without burning out. After paying attention to what helped me get more done, better and faster, I came up with three things:
1. Get centered before I sit down to work
2. Work in small bursts
3. Take mind-clearing breaks before I begin to fade
When I do this, I write more, better and faster than I could have if I’d sat at my computer the whole time.
(That’s a very old post that needs to be updated, but the core information is there.)
What stuns me—every time—is that when I make time to quiet my mind first, I write more in a session, the writing is higher quality, and I write faster. This is doubly true if I believe the thought, “I don’t have the time to spare.” I think about the preparation as priming the pump, so when I sit down, the flow is right there.
To this day, there are often times when my first reaction is, “I have too much to do! I don’t have time to go for a walk!” Yet every single time, if I make space to ‘get the inside right’ before I sit down, my writing (and editing) are higher quality, and I get more done in a shorter time frame.
For me, the most effective ways to prepare to write are either by walking outdoors (in nature) or meditating. Sometimes I find gentle exercise helpful, too, or playing with dogs or my cat. What’s not on this list, you might notice, are things like scrolling through social media, listening to loud music, or binging a Netflix series. Avoid anything that engages your thinking mind.
The results speak for themselves
I’m continually amazed at the results. If I take the time to get grounded and quiet my mind, I can write more in 30 minutes than I would have in an hour, or even six hours, of sitting and staring at a blank screen. The writing is better, too—more original and focused—and it requires much less revision.
It’s a paradox, I know. Life is filled with paradoxes. This practice flies in the face of everything we’re conditioned to believe about writing (that it’s difficult and painful and has to be a slog, and…yada yada yada). Yet this works.
(If you’re not sure how to quiet your mind, consider subscribing to Living the Mess, my other biweekly newsletter.)
Happy weekend, everyone, and happy writing! If you do this practice, please share your experience in the comments.