Executive coach Janet Evans urges creatives to deal with their addiction to smart phones and to build in much more creative time.
My last blog discussed the conditions which favour the creative process and pointed out that the demands of the media industries can be inimical to it. How does the creative person make sure there is room for creativity in this very fast moving industry? Here are some hints and tips which my clients have found useful.
“We do not know where we get our ideas, but we know we do not get them from our laptops” John Cleese
“If you never stare out of a train window how are you going to write a novel?” Ben Elton
The use of electronic media is a particular issue. Ever more sophisticated hand-held devices in particular seem to exert an addictive hold over us. We need to be out there but we’re also hooked on the gratification of a communication showing that someone else is focusing on our work, that we are part of an online community of peers. But this constant babble in the forefront of the mind seems both to interfere with the unconscious processing necessary for creation and prevent ideas and visions from coming to the surface.
What is going on here? It has been suggested that the use of digital media swamps our “working memory”, a narrow channel through which our short and long term memories communicate. It therefore inhibits the “priming” of the mind necessary to start unconscious processing relevant to a specific problem, and the emergence of the conclusions into consciousness. In the long term, it may inhibit the laying down of new memories and links in the long-term memory, thus impoverishing the stock of unconscious “vocabulary” and associations on which the creative draws.
So my first tip is: try and deal with your addiction. Of course you need to be in contact with a large number of people but do you really have to be available all the time? Are you going after a series of small short buzzes at the cost of cluttering your mind and creating something really worthwhile? Discipline yourself to turn off the handheld for a certain number of hours each week and use the time to think or let your mind drift and start to make those connections between disparate elements which lead to new ideas.
Coleridge famously blamed his failure to finish his poem, Kubla Khan, on a “person from Porlock” who interrupted his train of thought. John Cleese says that to create, the creative must have “boundaries of space and time”. They need “a tortoise enclosure. So the mind can think it’s safe to come out.”
Redmond O’Hanlon (the explorer, travel writer, and broadcaster) says that is why he works at night:
“You are en route somewhere, on a journey, and in your imagination you experience it more intensely than when you were really there. If someone opens the door or asks a question at a moment like that it’s like being shot in the head”
So my second tip is: plan your time, and build in creative time. Creative people are often very bad at this. They take on too much and this is how they burn out. Allow time for feeding your creativity – by reading, thinking, watching other people’s work. This may feel like downtime, because you’re not producing anything tangible, but it’s the most valuable thing you can do. And programme in time for the process of creation. When are you at your most creative? – block that time out in the diary and guard it with your life. (I had a client who was most creative at night, and she organised her life so that she could stay up all night once a week).
My third tip relates to the nature of the creative process itself. You need to prime your mind with the problem. But after that, the creative process can’t be hurried. One of the main characteristics of creative people is that they are able to live in a state of mental suspension, to tolerate ambiguity while their unconscious processes make order out of chaos. Sometimes an idea is a slow burner, and this process can take years. Or a vision may coalesce gradually in stages.
So my third tip is: when you’re working on an idea, don’t worry away at it. Trust the process. There will be an uncomfortable period when everything seems to be banging around in your head and you can’t see your way through it. Focus on something else to let the unconscious processing take place without interference. Absorbing sensory activities are ideal. Sleep, go to the gym, have a massage, learn to meditate. Then, when something crystallises, capture it, and use it to prime your mind for the next stage.
The author: Janet Evans is an executive coach and consultant on strategic planning and leadership, with an MSC in Organisational Psychology and a Diploma in Coaching and Mentoring. She works mainly in the creative media industries and the public sector, having been a senior leader in Whitehall for many years. She runs her own consultancy, Adsum Consulting Limited, and can be contacted on email@example.com