“Don’t do what you think the world needs; do what you love. The world needs more people who do what they love.”
Do you know exactly how susceptible you are to auditory stimulation and how it impacts your ability to think creatively? Probably more than you imagine.
For example, studies have shown that it’s possible for us to subconsciously detect a shift in sound less than half a decibel (or 0.41db for you science nerds). That’s quieter than a whisper, comparable to the rustling of leaves on a tree.
Which is why it should come as no surprise how your surroundings impact you when you’re working or brainstorming.
The sound of strangers quietly talking in a cafe, having the TV on behind your laptop, or even something as subtle as a dishwasher running in another room, can impact your ability to think creatively and concentrate.
Unfortunately, many of us have been mislead into believing that background distractions provide just enough stimulus to actually help creativity and concentration.
We use services and tools like Coffivity to “get in the creative zone.”
The bad news is your immensely powerful auditory perception means you’re less likely to be creative when there’s a certain range of white noise present than if you were to sit in silence or if you were to listen to music.
Even for white noise sound generation tools, the research is insightful. People who participated in these concentration research studies were reported to be only slightly more creative under very specific decibel situations (42 dB on average, or slightly quieter than an average face-to-face conversation).
If you were able to control your environment and create an ideal auditory situation, the benefit is minimal, if there is any notable benefit at all to begin with.
Why? The research that indicates a certain level of auditory noise increases creativity isn’t entirely accurate. However, there have been studies that show overly-loud stimulation can increase stress and hinder your ability to concentrate or generate ideas.
In addition to loud noise being a distraction, research shows soft or quiet noise (between 30 and 40 decibels) has no noticeable effect on concentration or mental abilities.
The sweet spot for concentration is anywhere from silence (~20 db) to low-level white noise (~50-60db). Research points towards the true impact sound can have, it’s not creativity or focus, but the ability to create an environment that encourages concentration. Showing that the levels of sound actually improving cognitive abilities is less of a case of causation and more of correlation.
White noise doesn’t necessarily help you be more creative, it simply doesn’t distract you as much as trying to work at a rock concert or while a group of co-workers talk loudly next to you would.
It also doesn’t help that our sensitivity to shifts in sound levels is so microscopic. If you’re able to utilize a white noise tool or find yourself a decent cafe to work in, a sudden banging sound nearby or something similarly uncontrollable is all it would take to ruin your concentration and break down ideas. Our ears and mind are just too sensitive to constantly be in the perfect zone for creativity and focus, so we can’t rely on specific white noise generators or uncontrollable environments.
With all of that said, what’s the best way to ensure your environment is one that fuels your concentration and creativity?
Try to control your auditory input as best as possible.
Go to a cafe you know is consistently quiet (quieter than a face-to-face conversation) and work there. You could use software like Coffivity, iTunes, or even the radio to play consistently loud or soft music too, as long as the surrounding environment is equally controllable. Or get noise-canceling headphones and don’t play and sounds or music at all to keep your sensory input limited and in control.
While it’s difficult to find the most ideal environment for creative productivity, anything you can do to control the environment of stimulus will help.
Really that’s what these tools and apps are trying to do anyway. These white noise apps and tools aren’t necessarily enforcing creative output or concentration, but helping you better control the outside stimulus that would otherwise distract you.
Forget about white noise increasing your creativity. The only way to do be more creative is to actively pursue it. Try to control the amount of stimulus you get when brainstorming and working, but other apart from that: get back to work.
Photo by Craig Westfall.
A little over a year ago I launched an app that gives users access to more than 150 creative techniques and thinking methods. The app is called “oflow.”
Within the app you touch a button and a random creative technique or prompt flips into view. It’s super neat. The techniques that display are little (sometimes big) exercises or systems you can use to provoke creative insight into your work, relationships, or life in general.
In the app I included a feature that flatly asked users: “Can I track what you’re anonymously doing with oflow?” Which meant that every time a user who opted-in would open the app, create a note in it, or otherwise interact within the app, that information would be sent to a database with a bunch of other user’s anonymous data.
Last night I took a sample of the data from just September 2013 and realized how insightful it would be to share.
I pulled a little over 6,000 rows of data from 1,600 active users and compiled it into an ordered list of which creative techniques people were finding to be the most helpful.
While other creative method lists are put together at random, this list has been compiled based on real world data! Here are the most beneficial creative techniques. Prepare to get inspired (hopefully).
1. Focus on the process
“Rather than focusing on getting the results you are looking for, shift your focus onto the process you’re using. Ask yourself: ‘How can I change my process to be more creative?’ Or: ‘Am I stuck because of the process I am using?’”
I’m a little surprised this technique is #1 in oflow, but apparently people do find it helpful – 15% of those surveyed, to be exact.
The reason I’m surprised that this technique would be so popular is because it’s a classic prompt to try approaching a problem in a different way. But it does work!
If you were writing a novel, for example, you could look at the process you’re trying to work with and shake it up. If your process is to sit down to create an outline, then trying to write a paragraph, followed by an attempt to expand that paragraph, you could instead think about ways of adjusting that process for improvement.
Rather than writing an outline you would try writing the last paragraph of each potential chapter, from the last chapter to the supposed first, and see how that affects what you’re writing.
That’s just one example of how you would focus and adjust the process.
2. List 100 scenarios
“Linus Pauling, an American chemist, author, and educator, once said that ‘the best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.’ So set a timer for 15 minutes and list 100 unique ideas out right now. Give it a try. Ready? Go.”
This is one of my favorite methods. The technique works by using two powerful tricks to strengthen your creative output.
The first is to stop critiquing ideas. A primary killer of creativity is when we evaluate and judge our ideas before they’ve had time to fully evolve. If you have to write 100 ideas down on a sheet of paper in 15 minutes, you’re not going to have much time to critique each one individually. This exercise encourages a type of mental “chain reaction” where the ideas just have to keep evolving.
Secondly, 100 ideas for any project is a lot. Depending on the work you’re doing, you’ll find yourself really stretching for original ideas anywhere between the 30 to 75 mark. Fortunately that’s where the real unique stuff lies – by forcing yourself to get to that point, you’re diving head-first into a world of originality.
3. Free write
“Write as fast, honest, and detailed as you possibly can for 15 minutes. Forget about spelling and grammar, just focus on writing. This process allows you to ignore your inner critic and instead focus on the creative process itself.”
We tend to get in our own way when it comes to creativity.
Our inner critic likes to evaluate thoughts based on their realism and utility, rather than originality. This can lead our thinking to a dead-end.
Free writing allows us to not only get out of our own way, but to capture thoughts that are otherwise intangible and difficult to wrangle.
When you free write, you’re capturing all of the invisible, impossible-to-sense connections of the neural networks between your subconscious and conscious. Without worrying about critique, you’re free to fully explore those thoughts. Then, after the writing time is up, you can look back at them (something you can’t do with plain old intangible thoughts).
4. Use a new tool
“Using a notepad to jot down your ideas? Put it away and try using a whiteboard. Solving a puzzle with your hands? Put your hands into your pockets and use only your mouth. Simply try using a different tool.”
I often see people struggle to do any type of creative problem solving or work because they’re so hung up on the tools they’re using.
For instance, writers who won’t write unless they have the right-sized pen with the perfect grip, or designers who simply can’t use anything but Adobe Photoshop.
What we miss out on when we focus too much on the tools we’re used to using is the ability to see how various, new tools could impact our ideas and work.
Attempting to draw a portrait with one of those really, really, ridiculously big markers may not be ideal, but when the artist sees what the result looks like, it’s as though a light has been turned on and suddenly things they couldn’t imagine begin to take shape.
Of course, this isn’t always the case, but more often than not simply using a new tool to do an old job can influence your perception of how that job gets done and the results it produces.
5. Create crap
“Perfectionism can hinder getting started or moving forward, so focus on creating crap just for now. Write something horrible, take some bad photos, make a bad painting, just start now.”
In all honesty I put this prompt into oflow as somewhat of a joke. But it works!
How many times have you sat down to brainstorm ideas only to stop yourself before you even put the pen on the paper, fingers over the keys, or speak your mind?
In a time where incredible work is just a finger-touch or mouse-click away, the desire to create something perfect is almost overwhelming. That daunting feeling of failure stops us from even trying, and prevents us from pursuing creative results.
One solution is to ignore the desire to make something perfect and just start making something. Once that wheel gets going, it can lead to the realization that perfection isn’t that far off, so it keeps going.
6. Fake it
“Dive right into working on your project or problem, pretending (even to yourself) that you know what you’re doing. Spend at least 15 minutes faking your progress to see what comes of it. Remember: fake it ‘til you make it.”
Somewhat surprisingly, this technique is fairly related to the previous one on creating crap. Not surprisingly, both techniques work the same way. By temporary elevating our fear of creating something that’s subpar, we’re able to get into the work and make something creative which then may end up being what we were hoping for (or more).
7. Add constraints
“Even if you already have constraints set in place, constrain yourself even more. Only think in verbs, only draw with basic shapes, restrict yourself to painting only in a tiny space, set eccentric constraints.”
Similar to the technique of using a new tool, when you set additional constraints on a project, you force yourself to explore otherwise avoidable areas of thought.
Consider if what you were working on was shrunk down 1,000%. What would you do then? What if you had to work with your eyes closed for five-minute intervals? Try to imagine what it would be like to have some other constraint put in place to force you to think creatively or out of your norm.
If that wasn’t enough for you, here are few of the other more popular techniques from the app worth trying:
- Set smaller goals or tasks
- Do the opposite of what you’re trying to do
- Copy someone else’s idea
- Do something daring then relate it to your project
- Take a long shower to relax your mind
- Outline the wrong things to do
- Tune into a beginning (of a movie, book, podcast, whatever)
Of course, if you want 142 more techniques to try out, download oflow from the iTunes App Store.
What time, or times, during the day are you most creative?
For some of us, we find ourselves to be more creative at night, while others have more ideas and produce more work early in the morning.
The value of knowing can make or break a project, career, or creative dream.
Why? Because our bodies tend to work in strict cycles of ups and downs called biorhythms (or circadian rhythms). These rhythms regulate everything from blood pressure, body temperature, respiration rate, and – critically for creativity – energy levels.
These rhythms are so engrained in our very biochemistry that scientists have even identified individual cells within areas of the brain that maintain their own circadian rhythm. In fact, these microscopic rhythms are completely independent from the larger neurological rhythm that deals with most of your body!
One result of these continuous fluctuations is a direct impact on your mental abilities and – specifically – memory. As creatives, memory is how we connect ideas to form new ideas, it’s also how we digest experiences, and then use them later as sources for creative output.
Knowing what times of the day your biorhythms are most active can help you be more productive, produce more novel ideas, and engage your creative capacity when it’s guaranteed to be at its fullest.
If your body is low on energy reserves, the parts of your brain that need the most fuel can suffer. Unmotivated and without energy, the likelihood of stumbling on creative output can be slim.
But how do we identify when our personal rhythms are at their best for creativity? When is your most creative time of the day?
For one, don’t rely on results that you read in studies.
Some scientific studies have been conducted over the last several decades in an effort to figure out if rhythms are universal for introverts vs. extroverts, those who go to bed early and those who stay up until the wee hours of the morning, and so on.
What those surveys have found is that there is no universal norm. Your genetics are drastically different than anyone else’s, so why would your biorhythms be the same as anyone else’s?
In order to find your rhythm you’ll have to do a little work. But the value of doing so, again, is that you’ll be better equipped for brainstorming, knowing when to work and when to rest, and for planning your day around your creative capabilities.
The first step to identifying your rhythms is to take what’s referred to as a “Horne–Ostberg Morningness–Eveningness questionnaire.” You can Google the name to find free surveys online that will quiz you on your sleeping and energy habits. Or, if you’re really dedicated to finding your rhythm, seek a local professional.
After taking the survey, you can utilize the results to set daily reminders (on your phone, with an alarm clock, or whatever else works for you) to monitor your active and creative times.
From there, whenever you find yourself feeling energized or creative, try to make an active effort to record the time of day and day of the week. Using something as simple as a notebook or an app on your phone is all it takes.
After a week or two of keeping track, look back and see if you can clearly identify when you feel the most energized and creative.
Being able to know when the best times and days are for your creative work enables you to worry less about whether or not you’re going to be able to do the work or have worthwhile ideas when you need them most.
I noticed my energy levels drastically decreasing over the past few months and I couldn’t figure out why. My work was struck with a layer of half-assedness and I found it difficult to focus when I needed to most.
Sure enough, after a few weeks of monitoring my creative states and energy, I was able to spot what was going on: I wasn’t getting enough sleep. Simple fix, and the results are already beginning to show. I’m more energized and find myself coming home from a day full of work only to plop down and start brainstorming more work to do.
Unfortunately, the steps are really all you can do to identify your most creative times of the day. It’s an incredibly complex process within your body that only you will be able to properly identify.
Of course, if you’ve found yourself less-energized lately, unable to focus and you are experiencing a lack of creativity, your mental rhythm may be out of sync with your biorhythm. You can take a circadian survey to check for problems and get proposed solutions.
“The human understanding is most excited by that which strikes and enters the mind at once and suddenly, and by which the imagination is immediately filled and inflated. It then begins almost imperceptibly to conceive and suppose that everything is similar to the few objects which hae taken possession of the mind.”
Francis Bacon elegantly describes how creativity really is simply connecting everything.
As creative people, we get to experience the grand fortune of having a lot of ideas. I say that only somewhat seriously, as having a lot of ideas can be both a blessing and a curse.
For example, I remember meeting a local artist for lunch one weekend not too long ago to talk about all of the things she was working on. Before we even had drinks on our table she explained the seemingly endless list of projects that she had going on in her life.
Apart from a continuing series of commissioned paintings she had been working on, she also had an idea for a book that she was flushing out with a few partners. She was also working on a set of cards she wanted to illustrate, had an idea for an app, a number of crochet projects she had started weeks ago but never finished, and, to top it all off, she had to prepare a number of written articles to post on her blog for the upcoming week.
Somewhat taken aback by the list, I asked her how she handled working on so much at once. She replied: “I don’t handle it. So much needs to be done that I get overwhelmed and end up not doing much of anything at all.”
So after awhile of having these ideas for projects and starting some, the debilitating effect of having too many things to work on leads her to what research experts have called: paralysis by analysis; also known as decision paralysis.
Decision paralysis is a psychological death trap, where creative ideas and dreams go to die.
When faced with too many decisions, we feel paralyzed and helpless. We can’t make a decision. What if we make the wrong decision? What if there are better alternatives?
We experience this often in our lives, particularly if you live in a first-world country where you have to decide between what shoes to buy, where and what to eat for dinner, how to spend your time, and so on.
As creatives with a lot of ideas and projects going on at once, there’s a certain point where we become paralyzed too.
Rather than trying to work on anything in her queue, the artist I mentioned before ends up feeling stuck and unable to work on anything at all. Which means she never starts anything new and the old ideas get pushed back, further and further. Eventually her list of “things to work on” is so big that it starts to fall apart.
In his best-selling 2012 book “The Paradox of Choice” psychologist Barry Schwartz explains that the paralysis isn’t the worst of having so many choices in front of us.
Even if we’re able to overcome the paralysis, even if we’re to say “I’m going to just work on this thing I’ve had sitting here for a few days now,” research shows most people will be less satisfied and interested in that work. The reason? Opportunity cost.
While we’re able to complete something and make a decision, there is often the looming question of: did I make the right one?
Some of us will lose sleep at night over that question. We may have finished one project, but was it the right one to be working on? What if we missed a valuable opportunity to do something else because we were too occupied doing the thing we decided to do?
You really want to get the decision right…it’s easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better. And what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.
In the end it looks like decisions are downright dangerous. All of these ideas we end up having and all the projects we end up starting or daydreaming about, they’re great to have, particularly if we have good ones, but they can lead to paralysis, regret, and stress.
So, what should we do?
The answer is straight-forward and not completely pleasing or reassuring. I’ll just tell you that now so you can be ready. The solution is this: just make a decision and get behind it 100%.
For some of us it comes down to prioritizing our queue by making a to do list (I personally use the Clear app on my iPhone). For others it’s simply pulling a random strip of paper out of a hat.
Whatever it takes, make a decision and then get behind it.
The reason this works is explored in a research study done on baseball pitchers.
One particular pitcher in the study was found to constantly be thinking too much about decisions that are, I’m assuming, critical to baseball pitchers.
As a result, his performance suffered. He would strategize immensely well before a game, but during the game he would lose focus, jump back and forth on decisions about what to do, and perform poorly during games.
The solution to his problem? Simply having confidence in his decisions, and then follow-through.
It’s the same for us as creatives, with our stockpiles of ideas and projects that we consistently say “I’ll get to later.” We need to be more decisive in what we work on, trusting our decisions and having the confidence to follow-through with full dedication.
After-all, what matters isn’t whether or not we’ve made the right decision, it’s whether we’ve done anything at all. As I once wrote:
“When you look at the work of any known painter, you’ll encounter layer upon layer of paint, a visible example of their attempt to get the lines or shades exactly right. The painting couldn’t be completed if the artist had, instead, fumbled around in his studio, waiting for the decisions on where to place a stroke or which colors to use or which direction to tilt the brush, be made clear for him.”
To do list photo by Courtney Dirks.