Flowstate is billed as the "most dangerous app." It’s hyperbole, of course, but there’s a grain of truth to it. The software is a writing and note-taking tool, and it’s a super clean, minimal, and beautiful way to jot down your thoughts, especially on mobile. But its key feature is the ability to set timed writing sessions in which any text you’ve put to the page will disappear if you stop writing for more than seven seconds. Yes, really.
You can pick from one of one of five fonts, including graphic design-friendly favorites like Futura and Apple’s new San Francisco. You then set a timer between five and 180 minutes. As soon your fingers stop producing keystrokes of any kind, the text will begin to disappear. After seven seconds, so long as you don’t hit a single key to bring the text back, your page goes blank and the timer resets. The app is available today on the Mac App Store for $15, and on iOS for $10.
If you stop producing keystrokes, the text begins to disappear
Surprisingly, the makers of Flowstate are onto something. I would know, too, considering I’ve used the app to write parts of this article. (There was some heavy editing afterward.) The software induces a constant terror, but with each passing second you feel a strange weight lift off your shoulders. There’s something oddly relaxing about the idea of just writing for writing’s sake and letting go of any self-imposed need to stop and carefully repair your word choice or painstakingly reconstruct a sentence. For people who are easily distracted, Flowstate could be a godsend. If you have what you would consider a normal and healthy workflow for your professional or personal writing, the app could seem pointless, stupid, and needlessly risky.
Filmmaker and screenwriter Caleb Slain, who co-created the app with software developer Blaine Cronn, thinks Flowsate is capable of straddling those two ideas. He wants the app to become both a way to journal your stream of consciousness and a tool to help writers of all kinds find an untapped source of inspiration.
Slain and Cronn designed their writing software to induce what’s called flow, a psychology term for a state of mind in which you disconnect from your sense of self and enter an ultra-focused mode of being. The goal is achieve a milestone or produce something remarkable by preventing your own thoughts from weighing you down. It’s a well studied phenomenon, especially in areas like sports and music, but it’s also been employed as a game design mechanic.
The term flow was coined in the 1970s by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who described the feeling in a 1996 interview with Wired magazine by saying, "The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
There are a number of conditions for achieving flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, like a clear task at hand and an environment devoid of distraction. It’s also not restricted to spiritual types. If you’ve ever felt "on fire" or "in the zone," even doing simple tasks like cooking, ironing, or cleaning, you’ve been in a flow state. Above all, the most important condition for flow is the presence of a formidable — but not impossible — challenge. Slain wants you to think of each timed writing session in Flowstate as a personal contest to overcome.
"At a certain point, you think you have a pretty good idea how to write."
As a longtime writer, Slain said he was positive he’d understood his own creative process. "At a certain point, you think you have a pretty good idea how to write. You’re effective at it," he says. "When you run into something that affects you differently, you realize, ‘I don’t know all there is to know about this.’ It really changed what I thought writing was supposed to be or could be."
Timed writing prompts are a staple of creative writing education, and committing yourself to set amounts of writing time each and every day is a technique employed by the world’s most prolific and accomplished writers. Slain was introduced to a new twist, however, In a class at the Sundance Institute taught by screenwriter Stewart Stern, the man behind classics like Rebel Without A Cause and Ugly American. The idea was a competitive timed writing session to turn the activity of writing nonstop into a kind of endurance test against your peers. "My pen doesn’t stop moving because my neighbor doesn’t stop writing. So we keep going," Slain says. "In the past, this has only worked because of social pressure. But in a digital realm, you could find a way to trigger those same things."
After a certain amount of time, Slain says the psychology of flow kicks in and you start writing without thinking, almost as if you’re watching someone else perform the task. "We call it a drug that takes 15 minutes to kick in," he says. It’s a unique effect he and Cronn felt they could translate from a competitive classroom setting to an app only with an erasure mechanism. The duo have tinkered for about three years now on the project, self-funding it save for a $5,000 seed investment from a friend in venture capital.
In my experience with Flowstate, the app is a remarkable way to produce random but insightful thoughts and discover any suppressed feelings or anxieties, like squeezing water out of a sponge for the first time in a long while. It’s also great litmus test for your state of mind at the time; just set a five-minute timer and you won’t be disappointed with what you produce. Even if it reads like nonsense, it can still be enjoyable to get it out. Also, Flowstate is among the cleanest and best designed note-taking apps I've ever used on iOS. It may be worth it for that alone, although $10 is expensive compared with free software like Evernote.
Even if it reads like nonsense, it can still be enjoyable to get it out
As an efficient and reliable writing tool for professionals, I’m not sold on Flowstate. It takes a significant amount of practice and patience to get fully in sync with the app’s deletion feature, and any fear of losing valuable work will likely keep users stuck on shorter sessions until they build up enough confidence to tackle a 30-minute one. Even then, Flowstate may come off as extreme for most people, especially when you can fire up a Mac app like Byword in fullscreen mode and put on some headphones for distraction-free writing.
Still, Slain’s commitment to the idea — and my personal experience using the app — proves Flowstate’s signature feature is not a simple gimmick. It is a gamble, but one with a payoff you may find valuable enough to place a wager. Slain thinks the true challenge isn’t the fear of losing progress, but what your mind might produce when it's put to the test. That’s what makes Flowstate a "scary thing," he says.
"It never stops being a little bit scary because you’re afraid of the capacity of what can come out you. That’s why the blank page is intimidating," Slain adds. "The fact is if you press a button, you might figure that out."