Proven Methods to be More Creative and Productive
Scientific data on creativity tends to be accidental. The creation of art is seen as esoteric and mysterious, and many would object to having it quantified. While it is vulgar to think of artists as idea factories and concern ourselves with the bottomline of productivity or output, we would all like to be more creative. Creativity and energy were the first and only advantages over adults we had as children, and remain the artist’s chief advantage in society. Creativity should be cultivated, especially in a world that seems to be running out of ideas.
In his classic The War of Art, Steven Pressfield made the observation that Hitler was a failed artists. It was easier to conquer Europe than to overcome resistance to his own art, and thereby get into the Austrian art academy. This observation served a greater point: the art that could save the world remains bottled up inside artists without hope of escape. Distractions, discouragement, and the simple refusal to sit and create bedevils the creative mind. Pressfield calls these forces ‘Resistance” and uses the terms as a catch-all for the paralysis artists feel.
The more common term used this phenomena is procrastination, though artists find this term banal as it could be applied to anything. The advantage of thinking of Resistance as procrastination is that real research has been done on it. The profit motive of increasing productivity has create a cottage industry of self-help gurus and efficiency experts that have been quiet creative themselves in finding lifehacks and mental techniques for bypassing the less than cooperative parts of psyche.
A research team of Carlton University has published findings on how to change into a more productive mindset. The Wall Street Journal summarizes them thusly:
Break a long-term project down into specific sub-goals. State the exact start time and how long (not just “tomorrow”) you plan to work on the task.
Just get started. It isn’t necessary to write a long list of tasks, or each intermediate step.
Remind yourself that finishing the task now helps you in the future. Putting off the task won’t make it more enjoyable.
Implement “microcosts,” or mini-delays, that require you to make a small effort to procrastinate, such as having to log on to a separate computer account for games.
Reward yourself not only for completing the entire project but also the sub-goals.
These tips are useful if obvious, but do they change how our mind behaves in the long term? No, but the team found that meditation does. There are several benefits to meditation, but breaking down impediments to creativity is one still being researched. For the insights of a successful artists that has dedicated a large part of his life to promoting the practice, watch this presentation focusing on David Lynch. Or, should you need a shorter video by a another weirdo, Miranda July demonstrates a meditation-free, hands on method here.
There is a growing body of research that suggests busy minds in high stress environments become less contemplative, which is to say, less original and less creative. You don’t have to be a mental environment guru to figure out that instant email responses and social media presence are toxic to deep thinking and quality work. Yet it is exactly these behaviors that are rewarded by friends and employers. Always being available, always being present, is a favor done for others that comes at an unacceptable cost to anyone who needs to do quality work. Waiting for the phone to ring should be reserved for characters in poorly written short stories.
So how long should you unplug? At least a day. You heard me, a whole damn day. There are thoughts that take an hour to form, and thoughts that take several, and a few that takes several days. (Einstein would stay up for days if he was working on something.) If you limit yourself to a few hours, you limit yourself to only those thoughts that amount of time can formulate. This is why there are so few amature artists. The horrid advice so many prospective artists receive is to work part time, or practice an hour a day. The best advice seems to be to reserve time to practice all day, then schedule myriad other tasks for another time. A space for playtime, where less is expected of you, is the place where you can be creative. Take it from this man who walks funny:
Take a Walk, Then Take A Shower
A study done by researchers at Stanford suggest what writers and philosophers have long known: walking gets you thinkin.
They found that those who walked instead of sitting or being pushed in a wheelchair consistently gave more creative responses on tests commonly used to measure creative thinking, such as thinking of alternate uses for common objects and coming up with original analogies to capture complex ideas. When asked to solve problems with a single answer, however, the walkers fell slightly behind those who responded while sitting, according to the study published in APA’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition®.
Then it may be time to hit the showers. The combination of relaxation with monotony puts you into the creative mindset.
Fasting is part of nearly every religion, and the founders of those religions often practiced it themselves. Philosophers and intellectuals practiced it as well, but you don’t have to be an ascetic to understand its benefits. A body of evidence is accumulating that fasting helps prevent cognitive decline as we age, but artists often included some form of fasting in their routines. From Slate:
The pianist Glenn Gould, for instance, would only eat one meal a day—or, rather, since he preferred a nocturnal schedule, one meal a night…On recording days he didn’t eat at all; fasting, he said, makes the mind sharper.
Marcel Proust seemed to share this view. His longtime housekeeper Celeste served him coffee and one or two croissants after he woke in the late afternoon. This was sometimes Proust’s only sustenance for the entire day.
Take Yourself Seriously
The artistic process, and any process of adequate length and complexity, will conjure a variety of human emotions. amongst these will be doubt, despair, joy, exuberance, disdain, and to use a word coined by a writing professor of mine. “Thwartment.” The successful artist, therefore, is the one that can experience despair, but not become so despondent that they stop working. Emerson said we recognize genius when we see in their ideas our own neglected thoughts. The genius is who has the confidence to develop their own ideas. This is why so many artists are seen as conceited; to believe that we can make a contribution, that we have special insight the teeming billions other humans beings lack, is both incredible and necessary to create anything of value.