Get into the flow and return to joy
By Lydia Michaels, C.L.C.
Does your author career make you as happy as it once did? Balance is a critical variable of happiness, but happiness is subjective. We each face unique challenges that throw our day-to-day lives off balance, leaving us overwhelmed and sometimes discouraged. However, a few simple shifts can bring about massive life improvements. Aligning our purpose with our core values helps creativity flow, while increasing our sense of fulfillment so that feelings of success can grow.
The first shift toward a more positive lifestyle starts with focusing on what we love—writing. The act of writing creates a cathartic experience for authors, while non-authors often consider the task laborious or even agonizing. This gratifying effect is caused by a rush of dopamine in the brain that non-authors are less likely to experience.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. When we write—I mean really write—we enter a flow state, and the stressors of life disappear. A harmonious synergy thrums through the entire body, synthesizing our total being and delivering a satisfying sense of wholeness through a delicious surge of dopamine.
All mammals possess a hedonic sense of welfare, meaning they naturally repeat behaviors that trigger dopamine in the pleasure center of the brain. For a dog, this might be nudging its owner’s hand the second they stop petting. For a human, this could be sex, shopping, gaming, eating, or any other pleasure-inducing activity. One of the simplest dopamine stimulators for authors is writing.
Just as athletes experience a “running high,” writing can be equally addictive to authors. Although writing and running are two very different activities, both create similar motivational rushes of dopamine for the individual.
Withdrawal from writing time can interrupt those delightful chemicals and agitate authors. Unfortunately, publishing comes with many responsibilities outside of writing. But what if we could trigger similar “feel-good” responses from the brain’s pleasure center when working on non-writing parts of the job?
Learning to trigger dopamine can improve any experiences, especially tasks labeled unpleasant. General self-care practices like getting plenty of sleep, living a balanced life, listening to music, and meditation all increase dopamine levels and overall brain function. Neglecting our needs and overworking has the opposite effect of self-care. Many authors battling burnout are also dopamine deficient. “Fogginess” leads to poor decision making, while low levels of dopamine make us feel tired, moody, unmotivated, and could cause severe mental and physical health problems over time [Cleveland Clinic, “Dopamine Deficiency”].
In the book industry, hard work does not always create equal rewards. The writing business, like any other business, requires an ROI— a return on investment. ROI can act as a compass when choosing which direction a business should move. Proper marketing produces an ROI but can quickly become a full-time job, detracting from precious writing time. The less we write, the lower our dopamine drops, decreasing our motivation and increasing the likelihood of burnout. And therein lies the problem.
Success and happiness are not linear destinations. Rather, they create an overall sense of wholeness. False promises, such as “Life will be different when X, Y, and Z occur,” postpone improvement gained by regular and honest feedback, as well as cause problems down the line. When we set a goal, execute a plan of action, and barrel full speed ahead with single-minded focus, doing whatever it takes at whatever cost necessary to reach a goal, we often neglect other areas of life, inviting symptoms of burnout.
Burnout is a systemic problem within the author community that negatively impacts a multitude of areas. Seventy-seven percent of authors are suffering or have suffered from burnout—myself included. While some of the negative consequences of burnout can be lethal, small changes can make big differences. Initially, burnout begins with an imbalance and feels like a time shortage, but after a while it hits like depression, leaving us discouraged and overwhelmed, distorting our sense of satisfaction and diminishing our quality of life over time. Burnout is toxic to success, and should be addressed the moment symptoms are identified [Michaels, Lydia. Write 10K in a Day].
As a transformative speaker and certified life coach, I advocate for work-play balance. The most empowered professionals live in full alignment and acquire success without sacrificing happiness or fun. For success to be both gratifying and sustainable, there must be balance. We must also consider the ROJ—return on joy.
It’s difficult to envision a job that values joy as much as capital. But it’s my experience that a lifestyle rich in pleasure can greatly improve one’s overall sense of satisfaction and increase productivity so that we work at optimum performance levels. The higher value we place on happiness, the less stress impedes, and the more open we become for success.
True contentment relies on the alignment of our core values and basic needs. When we are fulfilled, we experience lower levels of stress, greater happiness, higher self-esteem, and longer lifespans. Regardless of income, overworking will never lead to contentment because it is depriving other areas of our life. Fulfillment focuses on wholeness, balancing all areas of life.
If we can trigger a writing-like response in the brain from less pleasant activities, we could tap into limitless contentment. So how do we do it? Is it possible to stir the same focused contentment and dopamine rush we experience when writing during other less-pleasant activities? The answer is yes! Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian American psychologist, referred to this as flow. The more frequently we exist in flow, the more fulfilled we become with life [Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience].
Csikszentmihalyi viewed life in three parts: work, leisure, and maintenance. Maintenance includes basic tasks such as cleaning and grooming, behaviors we typically conduct on autopilot. By not embracing these maintenance activities as opportunities for flow, we are essentially losing one-third of our lives and missing opportunities to increase our overall sense of happiness. By only focusing on work, we lose years of awareness, decreasing our satisfaction with life, and thereby hindering our overall sense of success.
What worked for authors last century no longer applies since the revolution of digital media. Today, success and happiness are easiest to achieve when using a holistic approach. Balanced success is organic, perennial, and sustainable in even the most saturated book market. Because balanced success can endure any climate and self-sustain over time, burnout is less likely to occur. But such organic success takes time to grow.
The flawed ideology behind speedy author success relies on quick-fix propaganda that ties authors to unrewarding cycles of low-yielding returns. Authors must be judicious when choosing which advice to follow. Recommendations like rapid-release publishing take a mental, emotional, and physical toll on the creator. Such exhaustive author practices reduce our quality of life. When authors become dependent on drips of success, they fear slowing down at the risk of losing relevance. After months or years of running ragged on the same rinse-and-repeat hamster wheel, they don’t get very far. Some even fall off the wheel, too fatigued and discouraged to continue. Time wasted far exceeds actual progress when we race full-speed ahead on a wheel. Psychologists refer to this as “learned helplessness.”
As entrepreneurs, we choose our own business model. Our companies are based on our personal vision. When we set intentions from a place of love and gratitude rather than a caged wheel of obligation determined by others, our goals hold a greater purpose and carry a greater reward. We are set free by our personal choice to decide what is best for us and our business. When we align our plans with our core values, appreciating ROJ as much as ROI, we become empowered by passion. Such clarity comes from a deeper satisfaction with our entire life, not the one-third of life focused on work.
The more we increase our enjoyment and pleasure in everyday life, the more our confidence and overall sense of satisfaction improve, thereby increasing our self-esteem and likelihood for more success. It’s that simple. Stop repeating what isn’t working by overworking, and get off the wheel and go have some fun. Set the intention to enjoy all areas of life as much as possible while challenging yourself at your highest skill level—mentally, socially, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Say yes to joy and no to the unnecessary sources of stress. Live in flow.
The Benefits of Flow
The benefits of flow are fast acting and effective and can exist in all areas of life, not just leisure. Make flow a part of your daily devotion, and begin small. You can practice flow while waiting in line at a café, sitting in traffic, or doing the dishes.
Flow not only produces dopamine (a known skill booster), it also triggers norepinephrine (an energy stimulant), endorphins (a natural pain reliever and pleasure source), anandamide (a natural mood elevator), and serotonin (for that stunning afterglow). The more control we learn, the easier flow is to trigger, and the tasks we once dreaded become less unpleasant. Quality of life and self-esteem will effectively improve the more we incorporate flow into our lives.
Tap into the Flow
So how do we tap into the all-powerful flow? Start by actively incorporating self-care into your day-to-day life. Try starting a gratitude journal and listing three items that stir appreciation each morning.
Next, start building better habits that help trigger flow by approaching everyday tasks with the strategy below:
- Be clear about your intentions. Identify a clear goal, and once it’s defined, go deeper. Keep refining and defining that goal until you are 100 percent sure of not just what you want, but why you want it.
- Accept feedback and adapt quickly, so that you can realistically measure your progress and steadily improve.
- Stress and boredom inhibit flow, so work at a challenging skill level, not an overwhelming one. That's the sweet spot of flow.
- Flow is an escape, so it’s essential that distractions are blocked. Work in the right environment.
- Trust your skill and fall into effortless concentration. Imagine the ease felt when driving home on a route traveled a hundred times before. Somehow, we make it home on autopilot, subconsciously navigating while enjoying the ride. That’s flow.
- Let go. Put all self-conscious thought aside, and let the ego take a nap. Become a part of the activity and disconnect from yourself.
- Enjoy an altered state of consciousness where you are so harmonized with a task that time transforms. Flow is evident when we lose track of time and hours pass like minutes.
- Stay in control. Above all, remember that you have a choice. Embrace every challenge as a gift that will ultimately help you grow and succeed. Be present for all of it — work, play, and maintenance -- and watch your satisfaction with life grow.
To learn more about finding sustainable success in a saturated book market while avoiding burnout, check out Write 10K in a Day by Lydia Michaels. For more motivational content from Lydia Michaels, visit www.LydiaMichaelsBooks.com and follow her on social media (IG @lydia_michaels_books | FB @LydiaMichaels | Twitter @Lydia_Michaels)