Let me preface this by saying that people who work in creative fields are not necessarily any smarter, better, or harder working than people who work in non-creative fields. It’s just that the approach to work is an inherently different kind of beast and requires a wholly different manner of thinking. This is perhaps best explored through the ethereal concept of flow, which oftentimes doesn’t make much sense to anyone.

Around this time last year, I talked about flow in the context of the third shift. I was solo parenting that night and after putting the little one to bed, I parked myself in front of the computer to try and get some work done. One mostly menial and mindless task led to another before my daughter woke up and I had to attend to her.

Finding My Footing Again

After putting her back down to bed for a second time, I had a really hard time getting back into the “work” mindset to complete the task at hand. I had lost my flow. And as a sleep-deprived dad, regaining that flow is a remarkably difficult challenge.

“But you’ve got an hour or two to get this done!”

You see, but herein lies the struggle. It’s not just a matter of finding the time to get the work done. It’s a matter of finding the inspiration, of getting into a groove, of trying to catch the beat, as it were. And sometimes, the attempts to re-achieve a sense of flow can appear completely ridiculous to people who don’t work in creative fields.

Perhaps this is just an attempt at justifying the bottomless pit of distraction and procrastination. If I’ve got an hour or two to get some work done, why am I not being more productive? Why do I keep falling into the dark playground and feeling bad about it afterward?

Why Am I Playing Candy Crush Again?

There may be some truth to that, but at the same time, it’s not like I can just flip a switch and suddenly become wildly imaginative, creative and original. While I can’t simply sit around and wait for inspiration to strike — I’d quickly be out of house and home if I did — I can’t force the issue either. To this end, sometimes I do need to think about a caveman or bounce a ping-pong ball until I am struck with a glimmer of insight, a minor revelation.

Sometimes, this requires a very conscious choice with some very clear trade-offs.

A few nights ago, when I was solo parenting again, I was faced with an increasingly common conundrum. I had finally put my dear daughter to sleep and I was rather drained myself. I also recognized there was work to be done, even if it didn’t have to get done that night. What should I do?

I could take on the third shift, in my less than ideal state, recognizing that if I sat in front of the computer long enough, I would eventually establish a state of flow. Over a decade of professional experience has carried me through tougher scenarios before. What this meant, though, was that I’d necessarily be going to bed later (likely well past midnight) and I would be especially groggy the next morning. And it could impact the rest of the day too.

Alternatively, I could curl in bed with a book, read a little bit, and go to sleep early. I’d (hopefully) get a good night’s rest and would be able to tackle the world of work bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next day. This would mean sacrificing a few potential hours of work that night and there was no guarantee I’d really be all that refreshed the next morning anyhow.

Ain’t No Such Things as Halfway Crooks

I messaged my wife to ask what she thought I should do. She suggested that I take on “half of a third shift” and go to bed at a reasonable hour. This suggestion clearly illustrates the challenge of explaining the notion of “flow” to someone who doesn’t work in a creative field. While it may seem physically and logically possible to put in “half of a third shift,” it is not possible from a creative or mental standpoint.

Realistically, the first “half” of a third shift can be dominated solely with the task of achieving a sense of flow. And once I get into that groove, I can’t abandon it. I need to ride it out for all that it is worth. Otherwise, all the efforts leading up to that point would have been for naught.

This concept of flow is not restricted to writers. I can see how it can be dramatically potent for scientists and researchers, developers and coders, engineers and tradespeople too. Shifting mindsets is hard. Bouncing between tasks and roles is hard. After working so hard to achieve that sense of flow, don’t let it go to waste.

As a little green dude on Dagobah once told us, “Do or do not. There is no try.”