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How to Keep the Creativity Train Running on Time

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Some days you feel like absolutely nothing can go wrong.  You’re on fire, unstoppable.  Ideas are flowing, confidence is high, and you’re walking around with your chin up and your back straight.  There’s no better feeling than knowing you’re at the top of your game.  The world is your oyster.  Everything you touch seems to turn to gold and you wonder how you were ever stagnant before.

Until the past few years, I had really only been able to identify these times when looking back.  Now I’m acutely aware of them when I’m in them and I grab onto them and try not to let go when that train is rolling.

But these feelings never last long. Maybe a day or two, maybe a little more. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a full week of this superhuman ability to create things out of nothing without obstruction.  Sooner or later things will return to normal and there’s no explanation why this happens.  You just can’t self-motivate like you were able to the day before.  Ideas are at a distance, just out of reach.  You aren’t feeling flow and a day’s worth of work is taking two full days instead of just three hours.

It’s crazy frustrating when this happens. You try and recreate the environment, the feeling you had, and you just can’t. Your mind has moved on, your thoughts are elsewhere, and your current experience has been altered in some inexplicable way. And you don’t like it at all.

What happened?  Well, nothing at all.  It’s perfectly normal for creativity to ebb and flow like this.  It happens to every single creative person dozens – even hundreds – of times throughout a year. It’s just not possible to keep anything running at its highest capacity all the time.

But are there ways to keep it running for as long as you can?  Maybe.  There are things you can do that will help but only in the sense that they may be able to prolong that window.  There’s no guarantee that these things will work every time, but if they buy you an extra few days or a shorter period in the downswing, it could be worth it.

First you need to realize that any extended period of creativity comes down to the amount of energy you have and are able to apply to your task at hand. Remember that life is the sum of what you focus on, and in order to focus you need to have the energy (and the skill) to be able to do it. Energy is one of our most important assets.  If we have appropriate energy, that foundation will at a very minimum keep us going through the inevitable dry spells – and could even make peak creative output sustainable over the long run.

imageTony Schwartz, speaker and author, says in his epic and highly recommended book, Be Excellent at Anything, “human beings are not designed to run like computers—at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. When we try to mimic the machines we’re meant to run, they end up running us.”

He recommends a ‘pulse’ approach.

See, our bodies themselves are pulsing all the time. Our blood flow, our brains, our muscles. Virtually every part of the immensely complex human system is pulsing between times of increased output and decreased output, and it’s because of this rhythm that our bodies and minds are able to perform at their best when they need to. This, of course, is assuming you’re working with your body and mind on its natural rhythm and not sabotaging it!

So how does this relate to creativity? Creativity comes down to maintaining energy, and energy comes down to effective “pulsing” – balancing renewal with hard work and making sure to keep some fuel in the tank for later. If you can do this, chances are you’ll be able to eek out a little more of that flow state when your creativity train starts to slow down (as it always will).

Here are three basic things you can do immediately that can work wonders.

Train for your brain every day.

Move your body every single day in some way. This can be through basic movement – stretches or light exercises you do at your desk every 30 minutes, it can be brisk outdoor walks, or more formal gym time. There’s so much research that shows the positive effects of exercise across the board, that it can be almost overwhelming to dig into it (don’t bother, just exercise instead).

Yet the thing that many people still don’t realize is just how important exercise is for your mind itself. Studies with lab mice have shown that brainpower improves when the mice are given the ability to run as freely as they would like. When the mice are pushed to their limits (think: lab technician as personal trainer of mice) the cognitive ability of the mice improved even more.

The same happens with us. We’re able to strongly improve our cognitive capacity – the range in which we’re able to flex our brain muscles – with daily exercise.  If you consider yourself a creative person and you’re not exercising every day, you really should try it.  Here are some specific suggestions to start with:

Exercise for 30 minutes each and every day with an alternating approach. Stretching, yoga, biking, strength training, boxing, gymnastics. They all have their benefits and they’re all worth doing. Remember, think of yourself as an athlete and look at how serious training translates directly to real life. Also, skip the slow-go cardio training and switch to interval training. As a proponent of using intervals for almost 15 years now, I can vouch that it’s the single best way to improve performance, health, and overall fitness when done with progressive resistance. You’ll be astounded at how fast your mind starts working after just 20 minutes of interval training.

Get up and move every 30 minutes. Stretch your arms, legs, and neck if you’re sitting at a desk for a prolonged period of time. Switch to a standing desk if you can, and try to use every opportunity to walk to work (or while at work). As I mentioned last year, I have lots of my 1:1 meetings outside while walking.

Eat small snacks of protein, low-glycemic carbs, and water every 3 hours. While its impact on bodyweight is debatable, this is something I’ve been doing for 15 years as well – and it’s hard to argue with its impact on energy. Maintaining blood glucose is critical to maintaining energy. If you’re subsisting on a muffin and a latte all day, you simply can’t expect to be performing at your best. You need to start treating your body like a high-performance vehicle and fueling it!  Here are some ideas.

Singletask every day.

multitaskingRemember that multitasking is a total joke, and that it’s impossible to apply real brainpower to two or more tasks at the same time.  What you’re really doing is just switching really fast so that it appears as if you’re doing more than one thing at a time.  And of course, if you’re like 99.9% of the population, both of the things you’re trying to do aren’t being done well.

As I wrote about in Multitasking vs. Background Processing:

We’re not really multitasking, we’re just context switching really fast. Think about the last time you were interrupted in your office as you were deep in thought. You stopped to pay attention to someone and your focus shifted. Then when the conversation was over, you went back to what you were doing. That’s quick context switching, not “multitasking”. Whatever it’s called though, it will impede your efficiency.

Here are some ways to get out of the habit of multitasking and start focusing on one thing at a time:

Harness the ultradian rhythm. A powerful concept discussed in Be Excellent at Anything, the ultradian rhythm is based on the principle that during the day we oscillate every 90 minutes or so from higher to lower alertness. Which means we should focus our energy on a single thing for 90 minutes, and then stop, take a break, and after some time refreshing, prep for another 90-minute sprint. I know that when I focus for 90 minutes on a single thing, I can get the equivalent of 3 or 4 hours worth of “normal” work finished!  That’s how I wrote this post.

Use RescueTime for a week or two to see just how much you’re switching between tasks every day. This service will literally track what you use on your computer, for how long, and you’ll quickly discover patterns for yourself that you may not like to see. You may think you only use Facebook for 15 minutes every day, but what would you change if you found out that it’s really an hour of usage every day? We fool ourselves – and data is reality.

Get the time wasters out of the way first. This is counter to lots of advice, but it works best for me. If you know you’re going to be “pulled” into email, RSS feeds, or Facebook – then just timebox your usage, allow yourself to do it for that set period of time, then get up, stretch, grab a cup of tea, and settle in for a 90-minute sprint of real work. This structured play time will keep your mind from wondering “what’s happened” in your many inboxes, and instead you’ll be able to focus immediately on your task.

Renew every day.

Pulsing between high levels of output and low levels of output effectively means you need to allow yourself to have low levels of output, even when you’re on a roll. Making sure you have some downtime means that you’ll be better equipped for times of flow when they make themselves available to you.

Meditate using mindfulness. Meditation comes up in virtually every book on happiness, wellness, or even leadership and productivity these days. There’s a reason for this: it’s a vital habit to form if you’d like to become more in touch with your thoughts, emotions, body, and train your brain to stay in the present moment. Just 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation every day is preparing your brain to pay attention to the present moment in a way that’s non-judgmental and non-reactive. It’s literally exercise for your brain.

After just a week or two of mindfulness meditation, you may find that your mood has improved, your energy levels are higher, your work is higher quality, and your relationships have more purpose. Seriously. Check out Mindfulness for Dummies for a crash course (yes, I realize it’s a ‘dummies’ book – but it’s good).

Take your micro-vacations. Creativity is restored with exposure to nature and with downtime. In Take Micro-vacations to Boost Focus, I defined a micro-vacation as “Daily activity lasting at least 15 minutes that can’t be considered “work” by any sane, rational human being; purpose of which is to recharge and increase overall focus for the next few hours”. Aim to take a few micro-vacations every single day, and really strive to get Downtime with Nature while doing so.

Give yourself a “tech-free” hour (or more!) Wow, is this a hard one for me. My time revolves around being connected; I have 6 PCs and Macs, an iPad, a Windows Phone, a Kindle, a Kindle Fire, and about a dozen more gadgets that connect me to the outside world (don’t judge, it’s part of my job!) Yet even I will admit that being attached to the web via a Matrix-like brain implant isn’t the healthiest thing. So every day, I make sure to have at least one tech-free hour. I never take my smartphone with me to the gym, so sometimes this qualifies – but most of the time, it’s the time I spend with my family that I prefer to be most present. This is an explicit goal for me to improve on for the new year.

And of course, I’ve covered sleep before on Refocuser and that’s indeed a big part of renewal. Get your sleep!

Tony Schwartz goes into a lot more detail (352 pages worth) on many of these concepts in his book, Be Excellent at Anything. I had the opportunity to chat with him briefly after a seminar a couple weeks ago and I came away impressed with his approach to human performance – you may too.

Let me know how things go!

  • One trick I use to keep creativity going, is to stop a task before my creative juice stops flowing. If I am writing, I take a break before I feel like I’ve run out of ideas or hit a word block. Then, when I return to the task, I find that I can start up easier. I also use this technique with most of my training, usually ending my workouts feeling stronger than when I started (not working my body into the ground – unless I am running an ultra!).

  • Sally

    Life changing despite its simplicity.  Learnt so much. Its interesting how by focusing for intense yet moderately short periods of time you managed to produce such a well-written, inspiring article.  Just shows to me that you dont need extended periods of time to produce good quality work (a myth I often fall into the trap of believing).
    Keep up the great writing!(though if it is possible to increase the frequency of your updates)
    Sally (Egypt)

    • Thanks Sally!  I know, I need to write more 😉