A few days ago I posted a blog about how daydreaming can help with creativity. As I was writing it I remembered a more in-depth article I wrote on this topic a few years ago. Here it is for anyone wanting more info (apologies if it is a little stilted in places – at the time I was so scared of writing I couldn’t even say the words “I am a writer”…Yup, possibly I had a few tinsy winsy issues back then):
Stephen King, author of a string of bestsellers including Carrie, The Shining and Misery, once had a severe case of writer’s block. He was working on The Stand, a novel about a man-made virus which sweeps across the world, wiping out the human race. Five hundred pages into the book, his writing wiped out too. For several anxious weeks his mind was blank; his plotlines were ‘gnarled’.
Then one day, whilst out walking, something miraculous happened; “when I was thinking of nothing much at all, the answer came to me. It arrived whole and complete – in a single bright flash”. The answer was a sparkling new plotline which propelled him straight out of his ‘creative jam’.
The rest of the book ‘virtually wrote itself’ in just nine weeks.
Studies show our most creative thoughts occur when we alternate between periods of intense, focused work and rest and relaxation. In Stephen King’s case, inspiration struck whilst he was taking a walk. But he may just as well have been having a shower, re-potting a plant or filing his nails. The point is he was (a) relaxed, (b) alone, and (c) ‘thinking of nothing much at all’
Psychologists call this break from conscious problem solving ‘incubation’ (to incubate = to develop gradually). This is the process which lies behind those ‘eureka!’ or ‘aha!’ moments we’ve all experienced – when you’re racking your brain to remember someone’s name and half an hour later, when you’ve given up and are doing something exotic (like mowing the lawn), the name pops into your head as if by magic.
Relaxation is key
When the body is calm and the mind is uncluttered, the brain produces slow alpha brainwaves. And in this ‘alpha state’ we’re able to tap into our subconscious. Neuroscientists estimate the data held in our subconscious outweighs that of our conscious by ten million to one. So Stephen King’s walks were a shrewd move. Numerous studies link the alpha state with heightened creativity, imagination and originality.
In addition to tapping into your subconscious, taking a break brings others side benefits. For example, it increases the chance that a random event will provide just the inspiration you need – as happened to James Watson and Francis Cricks who visualised the helical structure of DNA whilst sliding down the banisters of a spiral staircase at Cambridge!
It also allows you to see things with a fresh perspective. Rather like a rushing river, a busy mind tends to follow well-worn grooves. Slow your thinking down however, and the mind is free to meander and carve out fresh uncharted channels. “The mind in a hurry tends to see what it expects to see, or wants to see, or what it usually sees” says Guy Claxton, author of Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind.
FOUR STEPS TO EFFORTLESS INSPIRATION
Researchers studying some of the most creative minds in the world, such as Mozart, Leonardo Da Vinci and Einstein, have discovered a simple four-step incubation process which can be applied to any area of your professional or personal life. The next time you hit a creative brick wall, try enlisting the help of your subconscious using the steps below.
STEP 1: Preparation
Before you do anything you need to specify exactly what you want. Be precise. If you don’t know what the question is, how is your subconscious supposed to come up with an answer? What are you trying to achieve? What problem do you want to solve? Summarise your goal in one sentence.
For example, “I want to write a business plan that’s so exciting people will be fighting to invest in my idea” or, “How can I turn my garden into a tranquil place I can retreat to whenever I feel stressed?” Take the time to make your objective as precise and inspiring as possible. These words are going to prime your subconscious, so choose them carefully.
Once your objective is indelibly printed in your mind, start feeding your subconscious with relevant information. Immerse yourself in your subject, be it business plans or landscape gardening. Make it your personal mission to absorb as many facts and opinions as possible. Seemingly unrelated experiences will often spark something – a meal in a lavish restaurant could trigger a novel marketing idea; a trip to the theatre may give you the inspiration you need to revamp your website design.
Remember, this is the raw material you’re feeding your subconscious. Don’t expect it to get too excited over the mental equivalent of a Big Mac! The richer your database of knowledge and experience, the easier it is for your brain to make a truly creative leap.
STEP 2: Incubation
The next step requires a certain amount of faith. If you’re saturated with information, and a solution still hasn’t hit you like a thunderbolt, ‘more work’ or ‘harder work’ isn’t the answer. Rather like a car stuck in knee-deep mud; revving the engine is only going to make things worse. Now’s the time to take a break and hand the problem over to your subconscious. Any activity that slows and quiets the conscious mind will do: go for a stroll, listen to music, meditate, do yoga, do some painting, take a nap, bake some bread, go for a run, weed the garden, wash the car, wash the dog or go for a swim.
Whatever you do, focus on something other than your problem. This means giving up control for a while, which can be hard. You have to walk away…trust…let your ideas germinate. Studies show if you rush this part of the creative process you’ll revert to predictable, less innovative ways of thinking.
In a HarvardBusinessSchool study in which 12,000 daily journal entries were collated from 238 employees working on various creative projects, it was discovered that the pressure of trying to beat the clock stifled creativity – on that day and for the next two days as well. Creativity requires an incubation period; you need time to lie back, soak in a problem, and let the ideas bubble up.
STEP 3: Eureka!
Exactly how long it takes for a solution to bubble up from your subconscious is a bit of an unknown quantity. It takes as long as it takes (which could be minutes, hours or days). When it finally happens however, you’ll know about it. Trumpets will sound. Angles will sing…Well, no, not really. But you’ll almost certainly see things in a fresh new light, feel a surge of elation and think ‘that’s it!’
Bear in mind that solutions have a habit of turning up in unexpected ways. Einstein famously formulated the theory of relativity whilst daydreaming about riding on beams of light. The idea for Stephen King’s best-selling book Misery came to him in a dream. So don’t expect pre-packaged, ready-to-go thoughts. Tune in to feelings, images and dreams.
And make sure you capture these impressions whilst they’re fresh in your mind. In the 1920s a researcher called Catherine Cox studied the lives of 300 geniuses throughout history, including Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson and Johann Sebastian Bach, and discovered every single one of them recorded their thoughts and ideas in diaries and notebooks. (Thomas Edison alone filled 3,400 notebooks during his life.)
Buy yourself a special ‘ideas notebook’ and make sure it’s never far from your side. Inspiration can strike at any time.
STEP 4: Evaluation
Finally we come to perhaps the hardest part of the whole creative process; evaluating our ideas. Linus Pauling, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954, was once asked by a student how he managed to come up with so many good ideas. He replied, “First, have a lot of ideas. Then, throw away the bad ones”. This is good advice – providing you don’t do the throwing away bit too hastily. It’s often the ‘silly’ or ‘childish’ ideas we dismiss out of hand that contain the rumblings of a truly astounding idea.
Lateral thinking expert, Edward De Bono, demonstrates this using a simple example: suppose you ask a child to draw a wheelbarrow but they put the wheel at the back, between the handles, and the legs at the front. Have they made a mistake? ‘Yes’, according to more than 80% of adults. ‘Not necessarily’, according to most children, who see creative benefits such as, “it’s easier to tip”, “it’s better for your back” and, “it can turn sharp corners”.
Many ‘mad’ ideas or ‘mistakes’ bear the seeds of a great idea. In 1970 Dr Spencer was working in 3M’s research laboratories, developing a new glue. However, there was one problem – it wasn’t very sticky! The glue was rejected. Four years later, a fellow employee was in church picking up the paper markers which kept falling out of his hymn book. He remembered Dr Spencer’s glue, tried applying it to his markers, and the Post-it Note was born! Original ideas, like the Post-it Note, can easily slip through your fingers if you’re not careful.
So give yourself a safety net. Make it a rule to never leave the scene of a ‘stupid’ or ‘absurd’ idea without first asking: “What’s interesting or different about this idea?” (…a wheelbarrow with the wheel in the ‘wrong’ place; a glue that doesn’t glue things).
Ban “It’s not good enough” and “It will never work” from your vocabulary. These are creative dead-ends. From now on, start asking “What if…?”