Finding Flow in Writing
By Tracy Steen, Ph.D.

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Devoted to practical steps for completing
your doctoral dissertation.

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1. Ben's Note
2. Finding Flow in Writing
By Tracy Steen, Ph.D.
3. Words of Wisdom
4. Inspirational Quote


In this issue, Dr. Tracy Steen shares some ideas on
finding flow in the writing of the dissertation.

We round it out with Words of Wisdom and an
inspirational quote.


Ben's Note

March 4, 2004

Dear ABD Survival Guide Reader,

Tracy Steen is an exceptional psychologist and writer.
In her graduate years in the clinical program at the
University of Michigan, she worked Chris Peterson,
one of the super stars in Positive Psychology.

She now works at the University of Pennsylvania
conducting research in Positive Psycholgy--often in
collaboration with Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.
the founder of the field of Positive Psychology
and a legendary psychologist.

She is the author of the Steen Happiness Test,
and the author of one of the key chapters in
the forthcoming Character Strengths and Virtues:
a Classification and Manual--destined to
be a classic in the field. (And informally
called the "UnDSM").

I have gotten to know Tracy over the last year
as we launched the Authentic Happiness Coaching Program.

She combines a sharp intellect with an unpretentious
personality that is immensely likable. Tracy is also
a fluent writer who knows well the research on
" flow".

Please take her essay to heart. It will serve you
well in your academic writing, especially in the
raw, first and second drafts--the drafts that are
most difficult for dissertation writers.

See you in two weeks!



Finding Flow in Writing
By Tracy Steen, Ph.D.

Have you ever heard someone talk about being
" in flow"? It is similar to being "in the zone"
(the mental state, not the diet!). Psychologist
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chik SENT
me high") was the first to describe flow as a
state of being. It occurs when we are completely
absorbed in a challenging task that is just slightly
beneath our skill level. We are challenged but not
to the point of frustration.

When people are asked to name an instance when they
experience flow, a common answer is "when I am writing."
Many of you have already experienced writing as a flow
experience. Have you ever been so caught up in writing
a friend an e-mail that you did not notice time passing?
Perhaps an intended "five minute e-mail break" stretched
into a 45 minute e-mail break because you were so absorbed
in what you were writing. You were in flow.

You may even have experienced a flow state while working on
your dissertation. If you have not, I will tell you why it
is worthwhile to transform writing into a flow-producing
activity and what you can do to make yourself more likely
to obtain this desirable state.


First, let me describe flow in more detail. As I mentioned
above, time seems to slow or stop when you are in flow.
Hours pass by like minutes. Think of a time when you were
so absorbed in conversation that you were shocked to find
how much time had elapsed since the conversation began.
You were likely in flow.

Another characteristic of flow is the tendency to be unaware
of little other than the task at hand--You don't pay attention
to background noises, and you tend to have few thoughts unrelated
to what you are doing.


Why would we want to be in flow? Does it make us feel happy?
Interestingly, Csikszentmihalyi suggests that we do not
experience happiness or any other emotions or inner state)
while in a flow state. Even chronic pain can be ignored while
in flow. This makes sense when you consider that flow is
characterized by total absorption in the task at hand. To
experience happiness or pain or any other internal state,
we would need to divert our attention from the flow activity.

It is only after we have stopped the activity that we can look
back on the experience with satisfaction, interest, awe, or

Consider those times when you were able to overcome procrastination
and anxiety and just WRITE for a page or two. It feels good,
doesn't it?


About halfway through my dissertation process, I found myself
yearning to do absolutely nothing.

I wanted nothing more than a completely unscheduled, unobligated,
and ultimately unproductive day in which I could just watch TV,
read a trashy book, or even stare at the wall.

Knowing what I do now about motivation, I most certainly would
have given myself permission to take a day or two off every now
and then to do absolutely nothing.

Passive leisure activities feel
the right dosage. However, as you probably
know from experience, too much television or internet surfing or
video game playing can leave you feeling restless or depressed.

Indeed, studies by Csikszentmihalyi and other positive psychology
researchers indicate that the happiest people are those who spend
most of their time in challenging, flow-producing activities
(and only some of their time watching talk shows or reading TV guide).


So why haven't you experienced flow more often when writing? I see
two primary obstacles to transforming the dissertation experience
into a flow playground: anxiety and impatience.

We know that flow occurs when our skills are just slightly greater
than what the task demands. Believe it or not, all of us who have
progressed this far in our doctoral programs have sufficient skills
to complete a dissertation. (Just accept it. You are not an
academic imposter waiting to be discovered at any moment; you did
not just slide through the cracks, etc.) It is up to you to take
ownership of the process and see to it that you are challenged
without being overwhelmed.

Anxiety occurs when we doubt our abilities or when we allow stress
related to committee members, roommates, spouses, and anyone or
anything else) to leave us frazzled and unable to focus.

Do whatever you can to leave your anxiety behind when you sit down
to write. Anxiety is a flow killer!

The second obstacle to flow concerns our attention. According to
Csikszentmihalyi, we cannot expect to turn on a switch and be in
flow. It takes some time to get into what we are doing.
Csikszentmihalyi calls this "activation energy" and it takes effort
and attention. If you give in to the temptation to check e-mail
every five minutes while writing, you cannot expect to find flow
in your work.

What if you find the work so tedious and boring that you cannot
possibly write for more than a few minutes before getting a snack,
making a phone call, doing some "research" on the internet, playing a
quick game of computer solitaire, or rechecking your e-mail?
Csikszentmihalyi made the observation that things cannot become
interesting unless we pay attention to them. (This falls into
the "It's-so-obvious-why-didn't-I-say-it-first-category.")

By focusing, really focusing, on the particular story we
are trying to tell or mechanism we are trying to explain or
point we are trying to argue, we seize control of our experience
and make flow (and a better quality of life) possible.


What follows is a summary of what you can do to transform your
dissertation into a flow activity.

a. For flow to occur, the task must be just within your abilities.
So whatever part of your dissertation you are working on, find your

b. Flow occurs when you are engaged, not anxious. Do what you
can to reduce your anxiety before sitting down to write. Go for a
run, listen to relaxing music, put your worries on paper and then
analyze them with a critical eye. Do whatever works best for you.
Several past issues of the "ABD Survival Guide" offer excellent
suggestions for dealing with anxiety (_

c. You need to allow some time to get into what you are doing
for flow to occur. Of course it is smart to rest and take breaks
while writing. Just don't take them at five minute intervals.

d. Flow happens when you are completely engaged in the task
at hand. Don't distract yourself by thinking about whether or not
you are in flow. Just write!


If you are interested in reading more about flow, I recommend
the following books by Csikszentmihalyi: Flow: The Psychology of
Optimal Experience and Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement
With Everyday Life.

About Tracy Steen, Ph.D.

Tracy Steen, Ph.D. , is a clinical psychologist and dissertation coach in
Philadelphia, PA. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan
and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in positive psychology at the
University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Steen draws on her research background
in positive psychology in her coaching work with writers, helping them to
remove internal obstacles so they can find more engagement and flow in
their work.

Dr. Steen can be reached
By Email:
On the web:

Words of Wisdom from New Ph.D.'s

"Set up a timeline to turn chapters or other writing in
on a regular basis. Turn in something at the deadline,
even if it's not finished. This will keep you on track and
break the cycle of missing deadlines, then feeling your
product has to be even better, so you miss the next
deadline, and so on. It was really helpful for me to
set small goals- like 10 pages at a time, and to turn these
in periodically along the way."

Inspirational Quote

Several recent graduates have suggested that
we offer an inspirational quote or two to
further motivate and support you. If you
have any quotes that you find really helpful,
please send them to

"There is no perfect time to write. There's only

~~Barbara Kingsolver

Your Own Coach

If you are considering whether to get your own coach
to help you reach your academic goals, send any email

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG

Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of
Texas at Austin. He is the founder of MentorCoach
(, a virtual university training accomplished
mental health professionals to become extraordinary coaches. With
Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., Ben is also the founder of
Authentic Happiness Coaching
(, a virtual
university training educators, consultants, trainers,
therapists, parents and other professionals to apply
the principles of Authentic Happiness in their own
lives and in the lives of their clients, students, and
children. Ben lives in suburban Maryland with
his wife and two young children, Walnut, their
hamster, and Rubin, their cocker spaniel.


I'm a dissertation coach and licensed psychologist
based in Maryland, with a doctorate from the
University of Denver. I'm the Editor of the
ABDSG, as well as the Author of "Get It Done!
A Coach's Guide to Dissertation Success"
If you'd like to learn more about me or my book, please
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I'm excited to be working with you to meet your academic
goals. You can do it!


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