What do Neil Young, Stevie Wonder and Sting all have in common? Yes they’re great musicians and they’re all highly creative. According to Dr Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist, author and musician, they also have maximised their flow states to enable highly insightful creative outcomes.
When you’re engaged in any kind of creative pursuit, one of the goals is to organise your time to maximise your creativity. So how can we arrange our lives to maximise the possibility that flow periods will occur, as well as to enable us to stay in this flow state?
The singer and songwriter Neil Young says that where ever he is, no matter what he’s doing, if a song idea comes to him, he will stop and create a time to work on the song. If he’s driving, he pull over, if he’s at a gathering, he’ll excuse himself. He does what it takes to stay connected to the emerging idea to stay on task.
Stevie Wonder has a similar practice where he doesn’t allow himself to become distracted when a song idea comes along. He’ll also write the song in the moment, so he can fully immerse himself in the emotional state that will infuse the song’s form.
Finally while on tour, Sting organises his time to maximise creative engagement. His time is structured by others and allows a few hours of personal time everyday to enable creativity, as well as allow some restorative time. He also travels with a virtual room that recreates the same private space wherever he is, providing him with comfort and continuity across the different cities he visits. By combining self-disciple and focus amongst all the distractions enables him to use his time effectively while traveling, as well as a space to become absorbed in his creative pursuits.
So while we not all rock stars, we can still maximise our time for creativity and learn from the pros mentioned, as well as what neuroscience tells us.
We can help our creativity to flow by influencing our environments and scheduling in time to both facilitate and promote creative and imaginative inspiration. Our brains love novelty and can be easily distracted by new shiny diversions. So we can create spaces that prime our brains to relax and give it the cues to be creative. We can also undertake activities that let our minds wander from patting a dog, to repetitive activities like knitting.
Or we can reflect on the saying, if you need something done give it to a busy person, as they usually have systems in place for getting things done efficiently. In part its about not allowing distractions to get out of control and break the concentration required to overcome a challenging problem or task.
To successfully ignore distractions, it’s almost like we need to trick ourselves by creating systems that will encourage us to stick with the work at hand.
Our external distractions, like social media and email, can be managed with scheduling in time to check them, or just removing the apps and ping alerts entirely. Make it a policy to not respond to less important messages during your highly productive time.
To reduce internal distractions, give yourself a fighting chance by putting aside periods of 90 minutes in total to allow concentrated and sustained effort. Then stop, get up, take a break, go outside and let your brain step back. If you feel yourself being distracted during the 90 minutes then ensure you capture these random thoughts by writing them down so you can return to them later.
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that you can multitask. In multitasking we can enter an additive loop that rewards the brain’s novelty centre with shiny new stimuli at the cost of gaining the reward of sustained effort and attention.
The awareness that you have an unread email sitting in your inbox can effectively reduce your IQ by 10 points, and that multitasking can cause information that you want to learn to be directed to the wrong part of your brain.
While we want to make the connections between disparate things that lead to creativity, it’s a delicate balance between focus and a more expansive view.
Our major creative achievements have required induction rather than deduction, that is, they’ve required extrapolating from the known to the unknown. We can organise our time and our minds to leave time for creativity, for mind wandering as well as concentrated effort, for each of us to make our own unique contributions to what matters to us most.
Reference: The Organized Mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload by Dr Daniel Levitin (2016)