by Susie Salmon THE LEGAL WORD
Susie Salmon is Assistant Director
Ride the Flow
of Legal Writing and Associate Clinical
Professor of Law at The University of
Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law.
Before joining Arizona Law, she spent
nine years as a commercial litigator at
large firms in Tucson and Los Angeles.
Flow resides at the
intersection of challenge
and peak ability.
Have you ever been so immersed in a task
that it seems joyful and almost effortless? Have your fingers flown over
the keys, words seeming to course directly from your brain onto the
screen? You’re not thinking about lunch. You’re not checking email or
cataloging the rest of your to-do list in your head. You’re not pausing
every half-hour to surf the Internet in the interest of “research.”
If you’ve been in this state, you’ve experienced what psychologists
call flow (or being in the zone). First given the name flow by Hungarian
psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, this state of intense, seemingly
effortless concentration seems to contribute significantly to productivity
and overall happiness.
People generally experience flow
while doing something they enjoy. It’s
that feeling of becoming so immersed
in a task that you lose track of time,
looking up hours later and being surprised at both the length of time that
has passed and how much you’ve
accomplished. In this state, you experience not just intense focus but also
intense satisfaction. In flow, the activity is its own reward.
Flow—and the sense of satisfaction that comes along with it—
generally does not occur when we are doing something passive, like watching television. It requires effort, engagement, and a level of difficulty.
Csíkszentmihályi and others observe that flow resides at the intersection of challenge and peak ability. The task must be difficult enough to
require effort, but it must be within your capacity to accomplish.
As a result, it’s no real surprise that studies show that people experience flow more often at work than in their leisure time. Work requires
effort. It often has clear objectives. If you’re lucky—and lawyers, in general, are lucky in this respect—your job is a good match for your
So how do you achieve flow in your law practice, and, in
particular, in your legal writing?
Research psychologists tell us that the human mind can only
attend to a certain amount of information at any given time
(in his 2004 TED talk, Csíkszentmihályi says that the precise
amount is 110 bits of information per second. For reference,
just listening to one person speak consumes 60 bits.) The more
that you can eliminate distractions during a challenging task,
the more likely it is that you can nudge yourself toward a flow
Before you start work on a writing project, close all nonessential windows on your computer, including all email and
social media. Mute your office phone, and, if you can, forward
your number to an assistant with instructions not to interrupt
you absent a true emergency. Silence your mobile phone (turn
off your ringer and any notifications for text or Facebook).
Close your door. Make sure that you have
everything you need right in front of you:
books, printouts of key cases or other
sources, and water. If you’re at all like me,
a looming lunchtime is a distraction, so
make sure that you’ve eaten enough to
stave off hunger until it’s time for a scheduled break.
You also can increase your capacity for
concentration through practice. Some research suggests that meditation and mindfulness techniques can help us learn to
achieve flow. I find “being in the moment”
challenging. I worry about what happened
in the past or what comes next. Forcing
myself to focus only on my breathing for
20 slow, deep breaths—deliberately chasing
away all distractions—does seem to build
my ability to concentrate on later tasks.
Research shows that we achieve flow when
we find meaning in the work we do, when
we feel that our work makes a difference.
For many lawyers, this can be true on a daily
basis: Our work affects lives, liberties, and
livelihoods. Even if you find yourself working on a project for a client whose objectives are less inspiring, you can see value in
writing an effective motion or in crafting
a masterful cross-examination. Spend a few
moments at the beginning of the project
reflecting on audience and purpose, including the larger purpose of the litigation or
the matter. Think about how you can add
value to the project. Can you draft the most
accurate, brief, clear motion possible? Can
you employ a particular rhetorical technique or apt analogy? Is there a narrative
that makes the result you urge seem most
Generally, we do not achieve flow in plodding through rote tasks. Rather, flow comes
from a match between task and peak skill.
Challenge yourself. Set high standards. Volunteer for projects that test your abilities.
Flow is not just about productivity. Flow
is about finding satisfaction in your career.
Find flow more often and be a happier law-
yer? Try it, and let me know.