In 1990, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow”—the state of happiness we reach when wholly absorbed in an activity. Like a cook chopping onions or a painter filling a blank canvas, time and place drift away. Our internal reel of anxieties slows to a halt. We might even forget to eat lunch.
If your flow state feels increasingly hard to achieve, take heart: you’re not alone. With news updates and message pings jockeying for our attention, the idea of concentrating on just one thing seems overambitious at best. But just as the most delicious meals usually require some forethought, the path to flow is smoother with a game plan—a few ideas for getting into your creative zone.
For Candace Rivela, a Catskills-based creative arts therapist, finding flow these days means a mix of indoor and outdoor activities. When she’s not working from home, as lead teaching artist for the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, she’s cooking, squeezing in some exercise or caring for her new plantings. Says Candace, “Tending to my plants—watering, pruning, repotting, rearranging—is probably my favorite activity. I get completely lost in it. I feel refreshed and productive at the same time, and it helps beautify my space.”
Here, Candace shares some crafty, flow-promoting projects that anyone can try at home.
Make an Altered Book
Bibliophiles may shudder, but transforming an old book into a mixed-media piece of art is a great way to find your flow.
Wondering where to begin?
“Cut, draw, paint or collage on the pages. Blackout or highlight words in the text to create your own prose and poetry. Alter the illustrations to make them your own,” says Candace. “Each page is a new opportunity to express yourself.” Plus, the end result just might be the perfect display for your mantelpiece or bookshelf.
Try your hand at a mandala
“Drawing a mandala, the Sanskrit word for circle, is a creative and effective way to cultivate greater self-awareness and a sense of calm,” says Candace. Representing wholeness, unity, or the "full-circle" nature of life, they’re used for focal points in meditation or spiritual practices in cultures around the world.
To get started, all you need is a pen or fine-tip marker and a plate. Trace a circle around the edge of your plate and begin drawing from the center.
“Use any lines, shapes, or colors, and work your way out until the circle is filled.” Maybe you want to use geometric shapes. Maybe you prefer abstract. There’s no wrong way to create your mandala.
Decorate your wall with nature
Sometimes, the best (and cheapest) design ideas are just outside our doors. “Nature is always accessible and can serve as great inspiration for creative projects,” says Candace. “Connecting with nature provides a grounding, sensory experience that helps us slow down and feel more connected to both our outer and inner worlds.”
To find your materials, all you need is a quick stroll and attention to the surrounding natural elements—like sticks, stones, wildflowers, herbs, feathers, and leaves. Back home, you can play around with different ways to arrange and hang these foraged objects, using string or twine.
Mix and mold homemade playdough
What do you get when you combine flour, salt, water, a touch of oil, and a few drops of food coloring (optional)? A de-stressing activity that my toddler can dig her chubby hands into. Count me in, too.
Explains Candace: “Not only is clay or play dough a great expressive medium, it also promotes mindfulness and stress reduction through the physical act of feeling, squeezing, and manipulating the material. Sculptures can be representational or abstract, or even functional—for example, a container.”
She also recommends adding a few drops of essential oil, like lavender, to heighten the sensory experience and boost the relaxation factor.
Homemade playdough recipe via BBC GoodFood:
8 tbsp plain flour
2 tbsp table salt
60ml warm water
food coloring (optional)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Give vision boarding a chance
The law of attraction says that positive and negative thoughts manifest positive and negative experiences in our lives. Vision boards—collections of images, words, symbols, and inspirational quotes—draw on that concept to help materialize our hopes for the future. If you’re already rolling your eyes, just think of it as your real-life Pinterest board, except that the tactile process (i.e., taking a break from your devices) can have an added stress-relieving effect. It may even charge your motivation. “The mind responds very strongly to visual cues,” Candace explains.
Can your vision board have a focus? Sure: career objectives, dream travel destinations, or even stylish kitchen designs are all fair game. But it can also be a general collection of your intentions.
First step: Gather your tools—scissors, glue, drawing materials, old magazines, and photos. Then, start with the images. Candace says, “You don’t choose the images, the images choose you,” meaning don’t think too hard—just cut out anything that resonates with you. You’ll narrow them down later.
Arrange your items on a board and leave some space for adding more in the future. To the extent you feel inspired by any relevant quotes, symbols, or even drawings, add those, too. Then, to invoke the law of attraction, make sure to display your vision board in a place where you’ll see it often.
Do some zendoodling
You might be asking yourself (as did I!): What in the world is a zendoodle?
Our creative expert explains that “a zendoodle is a mindfulness-based, abstract drawing that allows the doodler to enter into a focused and relaxed state of flow without worrying about creating a representational piece of art.” In other words: your penchant for portraiture makes no difference here—it’s just about fun, free-form doodling.
Candace sets the mood by cueing up some relaxing music, “to deepen the mind-body awareness and connection.” Next, she says, “Draw a square, then draw random lines (straight or squiggles) inside the square in any direction to divide the space into sections. Work on filling in each section with more lines, shapes, and colors until the entire square is filled.”
By the time you finish, chances are you won’t even realize the time that’s passed. Just a friendly reminder to have some lunch.
Breathe in & Out with Block Printing
It comes as no surprise that the rhythmic and repeated motions of block printing are incredibly soothing, whether you’ve got the professional supplies or you’re printing with a chunk of cut potato. Cloth napkins, pillow cases, and wall hangings are all fair game for a new block-printed life.
Take a Stab at Punch Needling
If you’ve tried your hand at embroidery but found it too painstaking to be relaxing, then punch needling might be the happy medium for you. It uses much thicker pieces of yarn, so the results are quicker—and more satisfying. There are a ton, and we mean a ton, of kits available on Etsy for pillows, framed art, and more.
Get a Head Start on Holiday Ornaments
If you're one to gift handmade ornaments, now's the time to get your workshop going. If you're not traditionally an ornament DIYer, these adorable ideas include gentle clay-rolling, easy salt dough, and drawn geometric patterns that are perfect for an introductory skill level—and maximum relaxation.