Block and Flow

If you’re like me, art can be this wonderful experience in which hours of time just melt away, and by the end of it you’re looking at something, pinching yourself and wondering if you really just made it. I chose art as a career path because art was consistent in its ability to make me forget about time, and I was pretty good at it. A psychologist named Mihály Csíkszentmihályi named this concept “flow” way back in 1975, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this recently. According to Csikszentmihalyi, A flow state involves two or more of the following factors: - Intense and focused concentration on the present moment - Merging of action and awareness - A loss of reflective self-consciousness - A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity - A distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered - Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience - Feeling you have the potential to succeed - Feeling so engrossed in the experience that the other needs become negligible I’ve felt this flow state in a number of areas of life; most notably in video games, as well as once or twice in card games, and a few times in sports. My first realization of the condition, though I didn’t know it at the time was during a badminton tournament in my freshman year of high school. It felt like time slowed down, that my body and mind were totally united, and that everything outside of the court didn’t exist. It was exhilarating and possibly one of the most notable experiences in my high school memories. In creative endeavors flow is a bit different but no less impactful; and every time I sit down to create something it’s sort of like I’m chasing the dragon of flow. Up until recently I’ve thought of this state as sort of automatic or at least autonomous of my own desires. Some days I either find it, other days I don’t. Sometimes it’s like the universe fights me every step of the way. Lately I’ve begun to think that flow is the extreme of a spectrum, with artist’s block being at the other end. I spent a whole day fighting creative block the other week. I had much of the day to get some stuff done, and if I’m being honest with myself I spent most of it watching a TV show. I tried, several times, to get started on something, but every time I did it was like every fiber of my body fought this lofty goal of “just draw something.” I think we’ve all experienced it at some point. From a purely etymological perspective artist’s block is pretty much the antonym to flow, so I suppose I’m not being particularly revelatory here, but I think there are some interesting points to make so I’m gonna go with it. First let’s lock down some attributes of block: - Focus on the past or future, awareness of the passing of time - Intense self-awareness of lethargy or lack of action “Wow. I’m just sitting here doing nothing but pissing away my time on youtube.” [proceeds to continue to watch youtube] - A sense of futility; a lack of control over one’s abilities - A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time retards. - Paradoxically, time also seems to melt away and the urgency for productivity increases - Reward is replaced by frustration, feeling as though you cannot succeed even if you try - Feeling you are way over your head, and overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done. Focus is too broad. - Putting off action in favor of irrelevant adjustments and distractions; Feeling like you can’t take action until things are ‘just right,’ procrastination. I think many of these are essentially opposites of flow traits, and like flow traits you need two at the same time to really enter block state.

The question then becomes, how do you move from block to flow? Back before trucking, skidding, and other logging practices, rivers were used extensively for logging. Since wood floated, an easy solution for moving the thousands of pounds of wood a tree contained was to simply throw it in the river and move it downstream to a lumber mill, which conveniently utilized the water as power to saw the logs down. Frequently though these logs would get caught on something and then become themselves a thing for others to get trapped around, forming “logjams” that would stop up the flow of lumber and even the flow of the river. Apparently skilled lumberjacks would be able to walk over these logjams and pick out the “key logs” that would be responsible for holding up the whole mass, and shortly after removing these the rest would flow freely down the stream. I think the process for moving from block to flow is similar in nature. As with depression there’s no easy way (short of drugs I wouldn’t recommend) to move from the negative to the positive; its a bit of a process that starts with becoming aware of the fact that you’re in the state and then taking steps to escape it. This is a working theory that I’m still developing. But my experiences with beating depression in the past have been mostly successful, so I’m optimistic. Like any binaristic system you’re going to swing from one extreme from the other, from block to flow and back. Realizing that you’re at one end of the extreme is important. As the venerable Frank Herbert wrote: “Knowing where the trap is - that's the first step in evading it.” In this case, it’s more along the lines of knowing you’re in a trap is the first step in getting out of it. Once you identify that you’re blocked, then you can begin to assess how to unblock yourself. In this moment, the goal changes from trying to produce to getting to a state where you can produce. If your river is full of logs, cutting down more trees probably won’t help. Instead, figure out what the key logs are in your block and work to remove them. If being in block requires at least two of the negative traits I identified above, then I wager the next step is to remove the traits until you’re at one or less - find your way back to neutral. Figuring these logs out may be as simple as asking yourself how to do it. Sit back, and say aloud “I’m blocked. What should I do to fix it?” Then pay attention to what comes into your thoughts, and most importantly, do those things. This concept is borrowed from psychologist Jordan Peterson, who uses this idea prominently for cleaning one’s room. You ask yourself, “What could I do to make this room better?” and then do the first thing that comes to mind. It’s a little brain-hack that I’ve found works astonishingly well, across disciplines beyond cleaning a room. Even looking at the artwork you make and asking what you could do to make it better is enough to help you through those moments when you’re frustrated with your work. But, if you don’t do the things that pop into mind then obviously nothing happens. Anyway, like I said, this is a working theory, and I’ll likely update it and expand on it further. In the meantime, here’s some work that I’ve done lately.





Bryce Homick is a freelance concept artist with over 10 years of experience in the videogame industry. For business inquiries please click here.