Welcome the Flow State

Being creative feels so good. Why don’t we all just go to that deep state of flow and stay there most of the time, most days? One important reason is that the flow state comes and goes. It’s not infinitely available.

Is it possible to figure out a cyclical pattern for when creativity is likely to show up? Maybe. We humans benefit from pulses like heartbeats, breaths, ocean waves. They’re primal reminders that recurring rhythms are essential to our being. Ignoring those recurring pulses, acting like we can just go and go and go, with constant activity all the time, is wearing and diminishing.

When I entered adult life, I didn’t know about this stuff. I assumed I could just press on. Youth helped me persist with this not-really-a-plan for my creative projects. Then time passed, and I found myself stomping on the accelerator without much to show for it except deeper bags under my eyes, and more pain and discomfort. I hadn’t necessarily gotten more satisfyingly creative work done. I was just more tired.

I paid more attention to pulses and biorhythms and chronobiology. Recently I learned a new word: Ultradian. I began to wonder whether knowing more about the ultradian rhythms in my life might help me enjoy creative flow more of the time, more of my days.

Ultradian rhythms

You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythms, natural processes that recur on a 24-hour (or so) cycle. Our built-in circadian clock’s job is to maximize the timings of biological processes. Humans aren’t alone in this: other animals, plants, fungi, and other organisms are all governed in part by these daily repeating processes.

Then there are shorter cycles that repeat during the day. Ultradian (rhymes with circadian, with the stress on the second syllable) rhythms like that recur on a cycle shorter than circadian, multiple times over the course of 24 hours. (In case you’re curious, infradian rhythms are recurring cycles longer than a day.)

Waking and sleeping

I wondered sometimes whether those oscillating sleep cycles of 90 to 120 minutes – one kind of ultradian rhythm – just knew to stop cycling when I got out of bed, or continued throughout the waking day. Turns out that Nathaniel Kleitman, the scientist who discovered REM sleep, also proposed the Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (BRAC) hypothesis which, yep, theorizes that those sleep cycles do keep going all day: repeating ultradian waves of arousal, peak performance, accumulated stress, and recovery time. (The BRAC hypothesis is not universally accepted science, just so you know.)

The BRAC hypothesis illustrated as a sine wave labeled "go for it" at the peak of the wave, "stress builds" as the wave falls, and "recover" at the bottom of the wave. The pattern then repeats.

Nathaniel Kleitman’s Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (BRAC) hypothesis illustrated as a sine wave

The piece at the bottom of the wave, for recovery time, is important, although we may want to overlook it when it’s inconvenient. Our brains consume a lot of energy, which is another reason to pay attention to our own reality in the course of the day. In fact, ignoring recovery time can be hazardous to human health. Pilar Gerasimo explains well what can go wrong.

How does this connect with making the most of our creative time? It seems that if we approach the time set aside for writing or other creative work in chunks of an hour and a half or so, allowing another chunk of up to half an hour afterward for less demanding activity – and ideally free of screens – we may have a smoother path toward satisfying and meaningful creative work that adds up day after day.

Welcome the wave

As an experiment, I’ve begun to observe my own hypothetical BRAC, to see what I can learn. I’m thinking of the cycle as a sine wave, ongoing and reassuringly there, humming underneath it all. When it’s energized, I can ride it, from the initial preparation up to the peak of the wave, relying on my brain and intuition to go deep (paradoxically) and narrow my focus. When it’s slipping into fatigue and the need to recover, I can slip with it, broaden my focus, and do a physical chore, walk outdoors, handwrite a note to a friend, or take a 20-minute time-out on the floor, eyes closed.

In theory, this break time allows the body to rest, the brain to re-set, toxins to get metabolized, and the sodium/potassium ratio to rebalance, resulting in a refreshed outlook, mind, and body, ready for what comes next.

Will I be able to squeeze more value out of 24 hours? That’s not my purpose here. To be clear, I’m playing with these ideas. Anything that emphasizes productivity, optimization, or ‘life hacks’ tends to give me hives. I don’t want to exploit my life. In the spirit of play, I’m curious to find whether more creative enjoyment will be available when I honor the BRAC sine wave and intentionally narrow and broaden my focus periodically through the day. Maybe I can play along with the wave. Maybe by paying attention to the ebb and flow I can welcome the flow state when it’s ready.

For people with more constrained and more public work schedules, this may feel outlandishly absurd to consider. Inc. magazine, not always a bastion of touchy-feely supportive content for creative types, published a piece about it, intended for office workers. Teachers may find it even more difficult, although potentially also quite powerful for their students as well as for them. Maybe it’s useful to consider which kinds of tasks it might be possible to alternate in a kind of rhythm that helps accommodate the BRAC without drawing undue attention from unsympathetic observers.

What do you think? Have you tried playing with this idea? Are you doing NaNoWriMo this November? Will you experiment with your BRAC ultradian rhythm during that time? I’d love to know.

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Thanks for reading!