Applying Csikszentmihalyi's psychology of flow to the writing of technical documentation
In my previous post, How to move from focus sessions to flow sessions, I explained that while 90-minute focus sessions led to a significant productivity boost with my writing projects, focusing my attention for that amount of time on a single task was a bit exhausting and demotivating. I then turned to the theory of flow by Csikszentmihalyi as a way to make these focus sessions more enjoyable. (Csikszentmihalyi is pronounced “Chick-sent-me-high.”)
Flow refers to a mental state that comes when you get into the zone, completely engrossed in a task, such that time seems to disappear and all outside stimuli fade away.
More importantly, flow states are pleasing to us because, as they elicit our full array of skills at a complex task, the activity orders our consciousness, Csikszentmihalyi says. We feel that all cylinders are firing in unison harmoniously directed at the task, and this absorption with the activity puts us in the moment. In this state, we’re not fretting about random worries and concerns. We’re fully focused on the activity, and our brain likes this state.
Flow as the foundation of happiness
As a researcher whose primary concern is happiness (not productivity), Csikszentmihalyi believes that unless we absorb our minds in an engrossing activity, our mental state trends toward psychic entropy, or random, diffuse thinking. Csikszentmihalyi says, “Each person allocates his or her limited attention either by focusing it intentionally like a beam of energy… or by diffusing it in desultory, random movements” (33). States of idleness that don’t focus our psychic entropy become moments of rabbit-hole thinking, full of worry, regret, anxiety, and cyclical thinking. Csikszentmihalyi explains:
In normal everyday existence, we are the prey of thoughts and worries intruding unwanted in consciousness. Because most jobs, and home life in general, lack the pressing demands of flow experiences, concentration is rarely so intense that preoccupations and anxieties can be automatically ruled out. Consequently the ordinary state of mind involves unexpected and frequent episodes of entropy interfering with the smooth run of psychic energy. This is one reason why flow improves the quality of experience: the clearly structured demands of the activity impose order, and exclude the interference of disorder in consciousness (58).
In other words, flow counters the entropy that naturally takes place in our conscious minds.
Csikszentmihalyi says people tend to experience their most negative experiences when alone, in part because their minds are more free to dart about in random, unfocused ways. For those enduring long-term solitude, this time to be alone with their thoughts can be agonizing:
Why is solitude such a negative experience? The bottom-line answer is that keeping order in the mind from within is very difficult. We need external goals, external stimulation, external feedback to keep attention directed. And when external input is lacking, attention begins to wander, and thoughts become chaotic — resulting in the state we have called “psychic entropy” in chapter 2. (168-69)
As you sustain focus on a complex activity that consumes your full attention and skills, this focused state organizes the “psychic energy” of your mind in pleasing ways. One reason we find flow-producing activities so rewarding is because of the way they give order (psychic negentropy) to what otherwise tends to be fickle, flighty thoughts (psychic entropy).
Although other authors like Cal Newport praised moments of mental wandering (disconnected from social media), and even argued that this freeform thinking leads people to make unexpected connections or realizations, it is hard to sustain freeform thinking in productive ways.
Csikszentmihalyi is enamored with the idea of flow that he explored its application in seemingly every aspect of life, from hobbies to career to family and more. But my interests here will focus specifically on writing technical documentation and flow.
This is an odd combination because usually one associates flow with fiction writing, not writing technical documentation. Hence, I have my work cut out for me to make flow fit, but I’m confident that it does. Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates time and again that the activity itself is irrelevant; from factory workers to mountain climbers, people can find flow in whatever they’re doing. (Csikszentmihalyi specifically addresses the challenge of a worker performing a boring job in the chapter “Work as Flow,” p. 144).
I’m not so concerned with the larger merit of Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of psychology and happiness. In many ways, it suggests our consciousness is more of a train wreck than a marvel, which is an idea I’m still processing. I’m more interested in whether I can incorporate the dynamics of flow into everyday documentation-writing projects to transform them from dullness to enjoyment.
Conditions that give rise to flow
Csikszentmihalyi identifies about eight traits that form common patterns when people are in states of flow. I’ll explain the most salient, applicable traits and relate them to the task of writing documentation.
For his research on flow, Csikszentmihalyi asked thousands of people to describe how they felt at various points throughout the day. They found that they felt best during moments that involve these traits, which Csikszentmihalyi later termed “flow.” Summarizing these traits, Csikszentmihalyi explains:
First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expanding a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it (49).
There’s a lot to unpack there, and Csikszentmihalyi elaborates on these traits throughout his book. They are never outlined in any clear-cut formula to follow, as I believe life is too messy for that. But I’ll proceed through the main traits below and discuss how they might apply to writing, specifically technical documentation. The following sections will cover skills balance, effortlessness, goals, feedback, and concentration.
This first trait involves striking a balance between tasks that aren’t too hard or easy for your skillset. If it’s too hard, the activity produces anxiety, which removes your flow. If it’s too easy, it doesn’t engage you enough and so you become bored. You have to strike a balance between anxiety and boredom such that the activity proves a good match for your skills.
Csikszentmihalyi says, “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act” (52). This balance is common sense: To enjoy almost any game (chess, basketball, tennis), you need people roughly your same level of skill.
In writing documentation, sometimes the information we’re asked to produce is beyond our understanding given that we’re usually generalists, not specialists. As we struggle to understand terms, techniques, and other approaches, the task can induce the anxiety that Csikszentmihalyi talks about. Trying to explain to a Java engineer how to do an advanced task when you don’t understand Java is like telling someone to give directions in Japanese when you only speak English — good luck.
On the flip side, if your task just involves publishing content that engineers write, maybe cleaning up the grammar a bit and incorporating Markdown syntax as you publish it on the site, this task will likely create a sense of boredom. Publishing tasks are usually easy (or they should be, ideally, once systems are in place). The other day I had to publish a long document on a site, and I admit I had to open up a Mariners game in another window because I found the task too boring. It didn’t engage my mind like writing raw content does. Finding grammar errors in sentences is also fairly trivial, if you have a strong command of the language.
Finding a balance between anxiety and boredom is key to getting into states of flow. It’s why I think the high-level overview (a topic I’ve been exploring in my series on Trends to follow or forget) provides a good focus for tech writers. The high-level overview provides enough attention on conceptual documentation to move it away from the simple formatting or publishing task. You’re actually writing. You have to articulate complex concepts in readable, understandable ways.
At the same time, the focus on the high-level means you won’t be getting into the nitty-gritty details of code samples, authorization protocols, parameter data types, or other granular details. This won’t be like writing the reference documentation for a Javadoc, where you have to chase down field descriptions for each class and what data gets returned for the methods, and so on.
Another trait of flow that Csikszentmihalyi talks about is effortlessness. When you’re in a state of writing flow, your mind seems to pour words onto the page in effortless ways, as if a muse is speaking to you. Compare the experience to an ice skater who flows about effortlessly along the ice, almost like the wind moving across the landscape.
The effortless and apparent ease may actually be a mirage. Csikszentmihalyi says:
Although the flow experience appears to be effortless, it is far from being so. It often requires strenuous physical exertion, or highly disciplined mental activity. It does not happen without the application of skilled performance. Any lapse in concentration will erase it. (54)
Writing tends to be a strenuous activity for most people, requiring “disciplined mental activity.” Few can sustain writing modes for more than a few hours a day. No matter what you’re writing, when you have a blank page, filling it can introduce a lot of frustration. Especially when you’re writing documentation, chances are you’re writing about things so complicated that you can barely keep your head above water. You might be drowning in acronyms, just catching glimpses of understanding every now and then. Writing documentation isn’t similar at all to the creative writer who inhabits a character’s mind and allows that character-driven empathy to direct the flow of content.
Most tech writers will struggle with effortlessness and hence will not enter states of flow. You can’t just force your mind to articulate an understanding you don’t possess. That attempt to produce clarity from confusion might only result in mental anguish (and the desire to switch to easier tasks, like interacting on Slack). You might not know what to say because the topic is too complex and unfamiliar to you in the first place. This is why writing is hard.
But it doesn’t have to be. With the right technique, you can get past these hurdles and enter the state of flow Csikszentmihalyi describes. As I was writing a longer documentation narrative the other week, which I described in Attempting to write a Life of a [something] narrative, I noticed a pattern that emerged that made writing almost effortless.
I was writing about a subject that was outside my specific stewardship. As such, I had to read widely and try to build up details about topics I knew little about. My approach involved a pattern of alternating between reading and writing modes. More specifically, I would read product design documents and other information about a topic, copying and pasting from the material I read whenever I found relevant nuggets of information.
After I gathered enough information nuggets into a document, I organized them into a logical order (in this case, arranged by steps in a workflow). This phase was the information-gathering phase. Reading leads to information discovery.
After accumulating enough nuggets, I would go through that content and summarize, distill, or otherwise incorporate the information into my own words and narrative. In other words, I transitioned into a writing phase. If the information nugget didn’t need to be paraphrased or summarized, great, I could just weave it into the content as is (because the content all belongs to the company anyway). But usually, I had to identify a key point in a larger paragraph and paraphrase the idea in my own words. I would also stitch it together with the other nuggets in that section until the content seemed to fit seamlessly together.
After running out of detail, I would then revert to the information-gathering phase again (usually reading), in which I would uncover yet more details (finding more nuggets). After weaving the newly discovered information into various sections of my draft (wherever the gaps were), I would then return to my writing mode and smooth the information in, like a builder might smooth large rocks into a concrete wall through masonry. I continued alternating between reading and writing until I felt I had enough detail in my document.
I realize that I have been following this same pattern on my blog. I’ve been writing two main essay series this year: Trends to follow or forget and Journey away from smartphones. Both series have about 15+ posts in them. When I run out of things to say, I start reading a new book or article about the topic, and it fills me with more ideas and thoughts. I start quoting from these authors and responding to their arguments and experiences. In other words, I start having conversations with authors.
This technique isn’t revelatory. Even Csikszentmihalyi notes, “As in all other branches of learning, the first step after deciding what area one wants to pursue is to learn what others have thought about the matter” (139). But I didn’t realize how important reading was in the writing process until approaching these series. Essentially, writing is just a conversation you’re having with the authors you’re reading. As such, reading and writing go hand in hand. Reading leads you to discover new information, and writing is your way of responding to that information. It’s like a see-saw — read a bit, then write, then read some more, then write. The two activities feed off each other.
And in the books I read, it’s clear that the authors themselves are having conversations with the sources they’re reading. Writing is thus a conversation about a conversation.
It’s not that simple, of course. Sometimes information doesn’t exist to read. In that case, you might have to gather information by interviewing engineers and product managers. And you might discover other information through experimentation with the product. But by and large, the thrust of the information comes from reading.
Seeing this pattern in my content generation process, even for the technical documentation I was writing, made my focus sessions process less strenuous. I no longer felt like I was banging my head against a blank wall. If I didn’t have content, I would look for some relevant material to read, copying and pasting highlights as I ran across them. Then from these nuggets, I would add to my existing draft and keep going. If I ran out of content, I just needed to read some more.
Understanding the balance between reading and writing helped convert the focus sessions from a slog to more of a journey. Part of the struggle of writing is often trying to explain something that we ourselves don’t fully understand. As we tax our brains to articulate an idea, process, or description that we can’t fully grasp ourselves, this puts our mental wheels into overdrive. Trying to crystalize the words in our minds into some coherent, organized explanation is difficult. But by balancing this activity with more reading, it reduced the strain. It seemed almost effortless.
Another point Csikszentmihalyi mentions as a trait of flow is goals: “To be able to experience flow, one must have clear goals to strive for” (209). On the surface, goals might seem like a straightforward box that’s already checked with the documentation-writing activity. Work facilitates the goals criteria in a much easier way than when we have free time and leisure at home. Not only do we have tickets in issue tracking systems that establish the work (providing a “goal”), but managers usually require us to formulate goals we’re working to achieve (for example, OKRs).
However, trying to complete a ticket or achieve your OKRs isn’t likely going to get you into a state of flow. I’ve never met anyone who enjoys corporate goal planning and reporting. Instead, try focusing on the goals related to your immediate activity: writing.
With writing, the goal could be to unlock understanding about a complex topic. Usually when I’m writing documentation about something, at the start of the project, my understanding is minimal. Much of the product is confusing. But at some point, a light bulb goes on and I suddenly get it. I get the point of the API, or I finally make it work, or something else clicks. Compare this with the sense of discovery you make when you’re writing a more creative essay or post. Good writing usually yields some surprising realization during the writing process. (If you think about it, a good story almost invariably involves the main character changing through some realization or epiphany.)
Csikszentmihalyi says that this information discovery often becomes the goal of writing that leads to enjoyment of the task. The goal of writing is not to write down what you already know but to discover what you don’t know:
In today’s world we have come to neglect the habit of writing because so many other media of communication have taken its place. Telephones and tape recorders, computers and fax machines are more efficient in conveying news. If the only point to writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along. In the past, educated persons used journals and personal correspondence to put their experiences into words, which allowed them to reflect on what had happened during the day. The prodigiously detailed letters so many Victorians wrote are an example of how people created patterns of order out of the mainly random events impinging on their consciousness. The kind of material we write in diaries and letters does not exist before it is written down. It is the slow, organically growing process of thought involved in writing that lets the ideas emerge in the first place. (131)
In other words, if you’re writing a letter or essay, much of the enjoyment comes from discovering some new realization or thought about the topics or events. It’s no fun simply regurgitating what you already know. A good post leads you to discover new ideas. That’s always been what captivated me about blogging, and why I feel I will never run out of ideas. When I’m writing a blog post, I’m exploring unfamiliar territory, curious to see what I will find.
Another trait correlated with states of flow is feedback. Csikszentmihalyi says, “… receiving clear feedback [is] a condition for enjoying whatever they were doing” (58). Csikszentmihalyi provides the example of a surgeon performing an operation and knowing immediately whether he or she is successful (such as by assessing whether there’s blood flowing into the cavity). Unfortunately, writing doesn’t tend to provide immediate feedback from an external reader. You’re still drafting and shaping the content for many days before sending it to others to review.
However, writing can provide elements of feedback as you read what you’ve written. Maybe you read over a draft and see that it’s taking shape and starting to feel like an interesting piece. Or maybe you read it and decide that it’s confusing and scattered. You could even use a rubric to score your draft against various criteria. Consider the analogy to shaping clay on a pottery wheel: as the artist sees the previously formless clay taking on the shape of a pot, that developing shape provides feedback to the artist about their work.
I’m usually pleased when I read over drafts of what I’ve written. I begin to see that I’ve created something out of nothing. Where there was previously a blank page, now there is a body of knowledge, a story, or some other interesting form. Just because you’re the reader, it doesn’t mean you’re not receiving feedback as you read the draft. The most engaging feedback comes from reading your own content.
Another trait of flow is concentration. Csikszentmihalyi says, “After choosing a system of action, a person with an autotelic personality grows deeply involved with whatever he is doing…. he invests attention in the task at hand” (210). I’ve spent many posts in this series already arguing for concentration modes. Turning off email, chat notifications, and other disruptions helps you maintain context and velocity in the task.
In contrast, if you’re constantly disrupted (either from colleagues, social media, or news sites), you probably won’t get into a flow state.
Tuning out all disruptions is much easier to say than do, especially in a busy office environment where you’re always connected. So how can you do it? One technique Csikszentmihalyi says is to pay close attention to the details of your activity. He writes:
The traits that mark an autotelic personality [one who enjoys the activity for itself] are most clearly revealed by people who seem to enjoy situations that ordinary persons would find unbearable…. First, they paid close attention to the most minute details of their environment, discovering in it hidden opportunities for action that matched what little they were capable of doing, given the circumstances.” (90)
By focusing on minute details, our concentration deepens. Close observation is something you can do in almost any task. For example, the other week I was riding my bike through the same 5-mile downtown Seattle stretch that I’ve ridden for nearly a year. But this time, I tried to notice 20 things that I’ve never noticed before. It didn’t take long before I reached 20, and in the process I was engrossed in the ride, not even listening to a podcast. I couldn’t believe all the things I’d been casually passing by. For example, I decided to take a closer look at this hole in the fence. Holy smokes, I didn’t realize the construction pit was so large that the workers resembled ants at the bottom.
With writing, you might pay closer attention to words. Csikszentmihalyi says that word play and investigation can be a source of enjoyment that leads to flow. By examining the word choice in your sentences, maybe looking up words and finding more precise diction, this will pull you deeper into the task.
But the effort to concentrate for extended periods of time on a topic depends more on our ability to re-order our consciousness. If we’ve built a habit of TV-watching, smartphone addiction, and other ways of using external stimuli to order our conscious mind, our concentration muscles are probably weak and need more training. Csikszentmihalyi says:
People without an internalized symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated…. If we have become dependent on television…., it is because we have so little to fall back on, it is because we have so little to fall back on, so few internal rules to keep our mind from being taken over by those who claim to have the answers. Without the capacity to provide its own information, the mind drifts into randomness. It is within each person’s power to decide whether its order will be restored from the outside, in ways over which we have no control, or whether the order will be the result of an internal pattern that grows organically from our skills and knowledge. (128)
Csikszentmihalyi’s point here gets into a larger topic, that of developing your mind in such a way that you can control your thinking and consciousness. Focusing on a topic without wandering into randomness is hard. Controlling conscious thought connects more with meditation and yoga.
I mentioned in previous posts that after getting rid of my smartphone, I basically substituted TV for it (see From smartphones to Netflix). I searched for reasons why I seemed drawn to distraction. Csikszentmihalyi’s answer is that TV alleviates our psychic entropy. TV helps produce an ordered consciousness, taking us away from worries and anxieties of our own lives. Csikszentmihalyi writes:
Worries about one’s love life, health, investments, family, and job are always hovering at the periphery of attention, waiting until there is nothing pressing that demands concentration. As soon as the mind is ready to relax, zap! the potential problems that were waiting in the wings take over.
It is for this reason that television provides such a boon to so many people. Although watching TV is far from being a positive experience — generally people report feeling passive, weak, rather irritable, and sad when doing it — at least the flickering screen brings a certain amount of order to consciousness. The predictable plots, familiar characters, and even the redundant commercials provide a reassuring pattern of stimulation. The screen invites attention to itself as a manageable, restricted aspect of the environment. While interacting with television, the mind is protected from personal worries. The information passing across the screen keeps unpleasant concerns out of the mind. (169)
There is an urge, when you attempt to concentrate on a task, to seek out distraction, whether from the TV or smartphone or light tasks. The urge comes from the psychic entropy that flitters about in our heads. Csikszentmihalyi calls this “the dark side of the emergence of consciousness” (227).
As thinking, reflective humans, we tend to celebrate our consciousness and fear the day when robots will turn sentient. But Csikszentmihalyi brings up the flip side of consciousness: “The forms of psychic entropy that currently cause us so much anguish — unfulfilled wants, dashed expectations, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, guilt — are all likely to have been recent invaders of the mind. They are by-products of the tremendous increase in complexity of the cerebral cortex and of the symbolic enrichment to culture” (227). It is this dark side of consciousness that the state of flow counteracts. When you’re in a state of flow, you aren’t thinking about your “unfulfilled wants, dashed expectations, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, guilt.”
If I have any critique of Csikszentmihalyi’s arguments, he doesn’t give enough attention to dealing with underlying issues. There might be merit to actually addressing serious issues head-on. Engaging with the issues might reduce their power to overtake your mind and distract you from efforts to get into states of flow. Some disruptions can be so powerful that you can’t ignore them — and probably shouldn’t.
For example, suppose you have baggage from childhood that continually encroaches on your thoughts, making it difficult to concentrate without moving back to the issue. Surely dealing with the issue, perhaps through therapy, would help your ability to concentrate. Even more trivial issues can prove distracting. At Amazon, I once had a disagreement with a product manager (PM) about a documentation-related issue, specifically the degree of transparency around the product’s obvious limitations. As I biked to and from work, my mind couldn’t stop circulating on the topic. Even as I tried to listen to podcasts or audiobooks, I couldn’t stay focused because I kept thinking about the issue (and wrote about it in Transparency in documentation: dealing with limits about what you can and cannot say).
Rather than trying to forget about the issue, I could have set up a meeting with the PM to hash out the issue with pros and cons. But I could have also started exploring why transparency was so important to me, what personal experiences made this quality so essential. Rather than directly dealing with the topic, the issue just slowly fizzled, as the product flopped anyway and became a non-issue.
Perhaps one simple way to deal with these urges toward distraction is to write the thoughts down on paper as they come to you. Once on paper, you can approach them more strategically. Then when you’re done with your focus session, figure out how to address the issues. Make a plan. For example, if you’re worried about how your teenage child will transition to college, write down all the steps that must be completed and work towards completing them. This will likely put your mind at ease about the subject and increase your ability to concentrate.
Other traits of flow
There are a few more traits of flow I haven’t covered here — time distortion, the feeling of control, and a disappearing concern for the self. However, these are more the consequences of flow rather than the conditions leading to it, so I’ll omit discussion of them here.
Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I resonated with a lot of points. As I’ve experimented with the techniques I described here, I have found my focus sessions to be more enjoyable and durable. At times, the time does pass by without my noticing. But developing these traits isn’t something one achieves overnight. It will take many months and potentially years of practice to get to more immersive states of flow.
Here’s a summary of my suggestions for each of the traits of flow:
- Focus on conceptual, high-level overview docs
- Alternate between reading and writing modes
- Seek to discover new realizations through the writing process
- Read your drafts and look for signs of developing shape and story
- Write distractions on paper
- Avoid idle activities that weaken your mental concentration muscles
- Make plans to address overwhelming issues that keep encroaching on your thoughts
As you embrace each of these conditions and traits, you’ll be on your way to experiencing flow.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
Newport, Cal. Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette UK, 2016.
Continue to the next post in this series: From monkey mind to calm, ordered consciousness?.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.