In ancient times, the Greeks believed that all inspiration for art and science was delivered to mankind via The Nine Muses. These Muses were the notoriously fickle daughters of Zeus who presided over creativity. They had to be enticed in order to deliver inspiration, or nothing new could be created.
In modern times, most creatives no longer believe in the Muses, but many successful artists, writers, composers, and scientists describe common phenomenon of ideas seemingly arriving fully shaped, as if from outside of themselves. In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King describes how he often feels he is just a conduit through which characters reveal themselves, and he even claims to not know the ending to stories until they arrived. King was not alone. Mason Currey details many examples in Daily Rituals, How Artists Work of almost the exact same phenomenon across creative disciplines. It seems, almost, that this notion is more of a rule than it is an exception.
Thousands of years after the Muses reigned, science has helped us develop a clearer picture of what goes on in the mind when it is creating something new, or making a new connection to an old idea. Your mind is a complex biological computer, Scott Adams of Dilbert fame so eloquently describes as a “moist machine.” What we have learned about the mind is that by using it you strengthen and focus it. In other words, creativity is derived more from muscle than a muse. Much like lifting weights, where you become progressively stronger by lifting more weight, you become more creative through the effort of creation. The more you create, the more you CAN create. If you are a writer, write! If you are an artist, practice your art. How much is enough or too much? The sweet spot seems to be 1-4 hours a day. To my knowledge, there have been no credible scientific studies on optimal time spent to trigger peak creativity, but some clues can be found from those successful creatives who self reported what worked for them, as well as through my own experience as a creative and manager of other creative types.
For our purposes, I will focus on writers as it is where I have the majority of my experience, although there is reason to believe these tips will apply to any type of creative pursuit.
- Write Everyday, Seven Days a Week, 365 Days a Year
If you miss a day or two, don’t beat yourself up about it, just get back to writing. Some days will be harder than others and output will vary wildly, but the effort of exercising your creative mind daily will help you unleash your inner muse, focus your thoughts and sharpen your insight.
- Write Everyday at Approximately the Same Time During Your Peak Mental Time
The human mind develops habits in a well-documented psychological sequence: a cue or trigger à followed by a routine à followed by a reward of some type. Cue, action, reward—repeat! That is the habit formula. With repetition, you can create your own creative cues that signal your mind to action. For instance for many years, I have used Sarah McLachlan’s album Surfacing as a trigger to signal my mind it is time to write. Peak mental time seems to vary from person to person, but they generally cluster around early morning (4-9 AM) or late at night (10 PM – 3 AM). I am personally at my best early in the morning and have done all of my best writing before 8 am. When I am at my best, I am up at 4:00 or 4:30. You will need to experiment with what works for you best. If you do not have control of your schedule due to work or family circumstances, then do the best you can to write daily during every available moment. Your mind will adapt as best suits your case.
Nearly every creative person I have studied or who self reported in a memoir or biography used aerobic exercise, most commonly in the form of walking. Mark Twain, Henry Thoreau, Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou, and Stephen King just to name a few were all well known walkers. I myself have noticed a direct correlation between my volume and quantity of writing to how much exercise I get. I used to be an avid runner, but as age and injury caught up with my joints I have felt similar benefits from Jiu-Jitsu, swimming, weight lifting, and of course, long walks in the country. On days where I miss work outs, my writing is almost always stunted either that day or the day after the missed work out.
The mind is a complex machine and scientists have only begun to tap into its mysteries. Sleep is well-documented performance enhancer. Not only will it make you more productive, you will be more creative. The mental improvements after a solid 6-9 hours of sleep are well-documented. Everyone is different in exactly how much sleep is optimal for him or her. I have experimented with polyphasic sleep, sleeping in short segments, and with just brute force sleep restriction of 3-5 hours. Through all of this, I have found that I am at my absolute best when I get 7 or 7.5 hours of sleep. If I only get 6 hours of sleep, I am noticeably less productive and my performance with 5 or less hours is greatly decreased. For some reason, I am rarely able to sleep longer than 8 hours at a time, or after 7:30 am. If I stay up late—like 1 am, my body clock still wakes up at 6 am. I have to go to bed early! One trick that has worked for me is taking a short 25-minute nap during the day. I set an alarm for 30 minutes, (5 minutes to fall asleep and 25 minutes asleep) and I usually wake up refreshed and recharged.
- Be Aware of Your Subconscious Mind
Your conscious mind is only one level of your awareness. Below the surface, your mind processes ideas and searches for solutions to problems in a process that your conscious mind is unaware of while you are awake. While you are sleeping, your subconscious mind continues working on problems. Have you ever woken up with the answer to a problem you were working on during the day, or find that a puzzle or algebra problem is suddenly easier? That is the work of your subconscious. A trick you can use to increase your productivity is to think intensely about something you are working on, or need an answer to while you are getting ready for bed. Review your notes and ask yourself the questions about the problem. The questions and intense thought will signal your subconscious to continue working, and when you wake up, your work will be easier and more insightful
- Avoid Narcotics
The creative world is full of myths of drugs and/or alcohol being well springs of inspiration. Many creatives believe that somehow the chemicals present within these things put them in better touch with their true selves, allowing them to release their inhibitions of thinking. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his famous poem Kubla Khan comes to mind as one of the starkest examples of this myth. Coleridge wrote his masterwork while coming out of an opium dream. He was never quite able to finish the poem as the dream faded and he lost the vision. It is a correlation error. Neither drugs nor alcohol increase performance. Because the creatives used drugs and alcohol, they mistakenly attributed their creativity to the substances rather than to themselves. I argue they were creative despite their substance abuse. Most likely the drugs and alcohol were a symptom of individuals succumbing to The Resistance. First described by Steve Pressfield in his book, The War of Art and popularized by Seth Godin, the idea of The Resistance is that everything that prevents you from practicing your art begins with some type of fear. That fear which manifests itself as thousands of different obstacles to keep you from your art is the resistance. There are many examples of creatives who were able to overcome their addictions and go on to produce prolific and perhaps their greatest work. I have often wondered what Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, and a multitude of others would have produced had they lived beyond their addictions. Stephen King managed to kick both cocaine and alcohol and went on to win numerous writing awards and accolades for later works. See what I mean?
Feeding your mind with new ideas will help you expand your ability to form connections and create insight. The more you exercise your mind as an idea machine, the better it will work. And as you are reading, pay close attention to the language other writer uses. There are many different styles and ways to present ideas. I recently read an English translation of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and I was astounded by his expansive use of language and distinct style. He reminded me of how much I have to learn and what a true master can do—I have such a long way to go!
It is also preferable to mix fiction and non-fiction within your reading repertoire. I used to make the mistake of only reading non-fiction while trying to learn something new until I realized that well written fiction can be even more powerful of a learning tool. Even in fiction, a writer weaves a story of lessons in a unique universe; it is not at all completely unlike our own.
Creativity is as much a skill as it is a process. The more you practice it, the more success you will have with it. Never stop trying. Go out and make art!
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