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How to Unlock your Full Creative Potential (Flow)

The 2015 Indie Game Maker Contest is well underway! I hope everyone is making good progress on their entries.

I’ve noticed some members have banded together to share productivity tips and tricks. Productivity is sort of a fascination of mine. I’m always looking for “productivity hacks” that allow me to get more done in less time. My biggest breakthrough was when I discovered that I was exponentially more productive during certain phases of development. These were times of great creativity and happiness. Naturally, I wanted to learn more about how to tap into this great source of productivity.

Fortunately, there’s been much scientific study on this “mind state” in the positive psychology fields. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the leader in this field, refers to this state of consciousness simply as Flow.



You know when you’re SO focused on something that your actions and awareness mold into one and time seems to dilate? That’s Flow: an optimal state of consciousness where you feel your best and perform your best. When you’re in flow, tasks seem effortless and your productivity skyrockets. It’s reported that people in flow are 500% more productive than their peers who are not in flow.

But how does one achieve this elusive state regularly? Personally, I most often find myself in the Struggle phase where I’m uncertain of what I’m doing. The Struggle phase precedes the Flow phase though, so if you’re struggling with your contest entry right now that probably means you’re in a good place!

Conditions need to be correct for you to move into the Flow phase. Based off Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, the following factors are required to achieve flow:


You can’t be in flow if you’re constantly being distracted by digital bells and whistles. If you want to get serious work done, close all distractions on your computer. Close all your chat clients. Refrain from checking Facebook or email. Turn off all desktop notifications (this goes for phones too!). If you live with other people, let them know not to disturb you while you’re working on your project. Might want to invest in noise-cancelling headphones as well.

The idea is your setting up an environment where you won’t have to worry about being interrupted. Without this, achieving flow will be near impossible. If you’re a early riser, you can work on your project first in the morning. I find this time entirely devoid of distraction, which allows me to focus intently on my work. Night owls can also work late into the night to the same ends. If you can, block off this time where you’re least likely to be interrupted and make it your “game dev” time.


It’s important when starting a game dev session to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it beforehand. The what is so you’re not wondering what to do next. The why is so your actions have purpose; otherwise you’ll start to question what you’re doing. Knowing these will keep your mind focused on the task at hand.

Clarity is more important than the goal itself. If you sit down with a goal to finish 2 maps in your game, that’s not very clear. With a vague goal like that, it’s more likely your attention will wonder and you won’t get much done. If instead, you sat down with the goal to complete the Weapon and Armor Shop maps of your fantasy Town, you now have a much more clear goal. It’s less likely you’ll become distracted by other tasks.


This refers to cause and effect. The smaller the gap between input and output, the more we know how we’re doing and how to do it better. When feedback is immediate, the information we require is always available; meaning attention doesn’t have to wonder.

Visual editors like RPG Maker VX Ace are great for immediate feedback. When you place a tile on the Map Editor in Ace, you can see the change on the map itself instantly. There is also Test Play mode so you can test your code in-game without leaving the confines of the editor. These tight feedback loops make working in RPG Maker and similar engines much easier.

Challenge to Skill Ratio


Flow exists in a range between anxiety and boredom.  If a task is too hard, you’ll become frustrated and your stress levels will go up. You’ll be more likely to look for a distraction  to extricate yourself from the task at hand.  If the task is too easy, your attention disengages, so that action and awareness cannot merge.

It’s best to determine ahead of time what your skills are before going into a project. If you’ve never coded in your life and you plan on scripting a custom combat system, you’re probably setting yourself up for a world of pain. It’s more common that developers overestimate their skill set when going into a project than vice versa. When working in a short time-frame, it’s best to leverage the talents you’re most confident in.

Challenge needs to be slightly greater than the skills we bring to the table to keep ourselves fully engaged. Keep yourself in the sweet spot aka The Flow Zone!

Did you notice the similarity between the conditions for Flow and video games? This isn’t a coincidence. Many video games, particularly games that have real-time control and simulated environments, meet all these conditions to deliver a satisfying gameplay experience. If you follow these guidelines, you can work Flow into making your game as well!

Have you experienced Flow lately? Maybe you have your own tricks for getting into this creative state. Let us know in the comments!

2 comments… add one

  • Zach Jones July 18, 2015, 2:24 am

    I’ve decided to apply a few rules that I found useful for writing.

    First, never leave a blank page. Nothing is more daunting than looking at a blank page or scene and trying to remember where you were. I’ll leave a note, write a paragraph into the next scene, or add a few objects into the editor so that I have an idea of what’s going on when I come back. This helps me get right into the s***. (The military has left my vocab very limited.)

    Second off, start fresh with your blood flowing. A few minutes of jumping jacks never hurt anyone, (unless it did, then it totally did.) and the extra oxygen to your brain in the rest period afterward are a good way to get in.

    Third, watch your substance intake, before, after and during work sessions. I know we’re all tempted to drink a gallon of Red Bull while snorting pre-workout (don’t do that, it’s bad for you.) but try to play it smart. Avoid the energy drinks. The extra sugar is just psyching you out and making you think that you’re more energetic than you actually are. If you’re going to use coffee as a source of mental acuity, start slowly sipping a cup of your favorite brew almost 30 minutes before your work session. This will allow plenty of time for it to hit your brain, and the study influx with give you a more maintainable “buzz.”

    To add to this point…. Nicotine and caffeine are both stimulants. They elevate heart rate and blood pressure, and in some cases can add to anxiety. If you suffer from anxiety, you might want to consider forgoing the coffee step until further into your session.

    • Mark Conforti July 20, 2015, 12:17 pm

      These are some great tips! Thanks for sharing these.

      I find most of the productivity tips I read are from writers. But they work amazingly well across disciplines!

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