Tech Life Weaponized Inspiration Generation

Anti-Flow

Being in the Zone is such an essential concept to me, I did a shirt. The Zone is a place, and Flow is an activity that occurs within this precious mental place. Flow is the ability to consider a project or a problem deeply. In Flow, you can keep a superhuman amount of context in your head and can traverse that context with ease. With Flow, you can produce extraordinary value. Flow is writing this article right now, but this article needs another action and, oddly, it’s yet another activity within the Zone, I’ve started to call this activity Anti-Flow.

Anti-Flow is shower thoughts. They are the random connections your brain makes on a problem, a thought, or an opportunity when you aren’t thinking about that problem, thought or opportunity. The unexpected magical quality of these discoveries might give you the impression that the summoning exercise is equally magical, but I’ve discovered a simple process to create hours of fertile Anti-Flow.

Applied Anti-Flow

This article is currently 257 words. Six paragraphs. I think I’ve got the title and I can see in my head the arc of the piece. I don’t have an ending yet, but it’s likely going to repeat a mid-article point about the importance of Anti-Flow to your daily working life. Something about how the non-obvious work is as important as the obvious work. Yeah, that’s good. Gosh, I love Flow.

In about a half-hour, I’m going to stop writing this piece, and I’m going to jump on Isabelle, and we’re going on a long ride. Three hours. Almost forty miles.

Once I’m on my ride, and since I was recently writing this piece, it is likely my brain will think about this article automatically. Good title? Yeah. Meaningful arc? Sure. Anti-flow has a negative connotation. Is that a problem? Maybe I should research usage of the term? Good idea.

Predicting what might pop up during the ride is impossible because Anti-Flow, by definition, is about discovering hidden potential in the strange mental crevices of your mind. If applied Flow is directing the creative process, Anti-Flow is about lack of direction to achieve an even more ambitiously creative end. An example: It is equally likely that once I start riding that Anti-Flow will percolate a random idea about a meeting I had two weeks ago that ended badly. I haven’t thought about this meeting since it ended, but my brain knows there is an open thread there and the legit magic of Anti-Flow is that BAM here’s a random thought on how to fix a problem I’d forgotten I had. Gosh, I love Anti-Flow.

My weekend morning process, I’ve discovered, is about creating Anti-Flow. No calendar staring at me, a quiet morning, coffee, and a blank browser page. No guardrails. Starting stumbling around the Internet and see what strikes. High creative entropy means I am in Anti-Flow. However, there is an equal chance that I’ll head down a Wikipedia rabbit hole for an hour, continue writing an in-flight piece, or write something brand new. The moment I start building, I leave Anti-Flow and enter Flow.

On a long ride, there are no rabbit holes or keyboards. I can’t engage a random idea because I’m sitting on a bike which means the high entropy state of Anti-Flow persists. My biggest challenge is remembering the random ideas that show up, so I’ve developed a simple system. As an idea shows up and I deem it worth further investigation, (Yes, there are truly dumb ideas that show up that I briefly consider and then dump) I remember the one word that encompasses the idea and start making a memorable sentence. The sentence from a recent ride was, “Larry stats offsite in London.” Gibberish, right? Two of those words were absolute gold.1

Weaponized Inspiration Generation

As I look at my calendar, I see comfortable boxes of time designed to chunk my week into knowable bits of time. Those bits of time are meetings where humans I care about have structured our time with agendas. Crafted to focus on the problems at hand, agendas are run by humans who keep us on topic and within time. These boxes are valuable. Decisions are made. Work that matters progresses.

By design and with a lot of help, my week and my mind are on rails. There is essential unmeasurable work that needs to happen on a regular basis that should not just happen in the shower.

Anti-Flow is the weaponized generation of inspiration. Anything can show up during deep sessions of Anti-Flow from the mundane to the magical. The title of the third book showed up on a ride last summer. The single most important line for a talk arrived two weeks ago. The correct order of operation on telling a human very bad news arrived three weeks ago. One week later, I discovered the words that I needed to say.

Not knowing the source of this inspiration makes the concept of Anti-Flow at odds with a working day which perhaps makes a bike ride a better place to Anti-Flow. It’s one of the reasons when my wife asks me, “Do you get bored on three-hour rides?” I respond honestly, “It’s when I do my most important work.”


  1. Wondering what I found during Anti-Flow on the ride? Well, I did edit this piece, but I was mid-mental edit when found this beautiful vintage 1966 Toyota Stout 1900 and complimented the owner who ended up buying my coffee and jelly beans. After that, I thought about the power of compliments combined with the appreciation vintage things we’ve built with our hands. There’s an article there. Speaking of articles, I also started a piece in my head that I’m currently calling the Rands Information Diet™. I worked on a secret project. And I decided to remove every single thing from my bedside table except for the current thing I am reading. The sentence: Watch independence Toyota music ledger stack. 

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7 Responses

  1. Your description sounds like ‘Idea Composting’: Loading your head up with data, then distracting the foreground brain while letting the background brain make connections.

    BTW, there a trick. If you find a quiet place and visualize being in a warm shower all soaped up and your eyes closed, sometimes the shower thoughts can be tricked into arriving early.

  2. Cyranix 5 months ago

    Have you seen Rich Hickey’s talk “Hammock Driven Development”? Sounds like there’s some overlap of ideas.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f84n5oFoZBc

  3. Yes! Jonathan Blow’s talk on this is great too. Beautifully eloquent. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0m0jIzJfiQ

    NPR’s Bored and Brilliant project was a really fun, week long guided interactive tour of different variations on this: https://www.wnyc.org/series/bored-and-brilliant

    I also notice an opposite effect, a cramped, bloated feeling in the back of my head when I don’t carve out enough time to decompress like this: https://snarfed.org/2012-01-16_coffee_breaks_for_the_brain

  4. Allen Baranov 4 months ago

    You may want to take a look at:

    http://www.manoushz.com/book/

    I haven’t read the book but I have enjoyed Manoush’s podcast which covers similar information to your blog post.

  5. Rick Lobrecht 4 months ago

    A way to capture audio (i.e. a spoken reminder) that goes into an Inbox during your rides sounds invaluable.

    Great article.

  6. I’ve found “Incubation” as a helpful way to describe this. The key is valuing the work of unconscious mental processes to make connections and perform pattern recognition.

    Here’s a nice framework: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/08/28/the-art-of-thought-graham-wallas-stages/

    See also: http://www.creativeblockandflow.com/incubation-important-for-new-ideas/