Come on little brain, you can move!
October 22, 2008 11:20 AM   Subscribe

Ok, so I am a creative worker. My job is to picks thoughts out of my head. I write, I teach, I prove theorems, I design software. I mean, all these things are the same... it's the harvesting of ideas. So, what do you do when it's dry season?

After I walk into the office, I brew the morning coffee and review my GTD «action items» [1]. Then I reply to all my email and touch the golden inbox-zero. After a moment of mediation, during which I renew my belief in the discipline of the 45-minutes blocks of uninterpreted work, I unplug the wifi and set myself in front of the keyboard.

Then... nothing. I have no idea. Quite literally, I have no ideas... my mind is blank. I stay put, staring at the screen, wondering if creative workers (who are not writers) have their own word for «writer's block» [2].

It's not procrastination, although I used to procrastinate. It's not disorganization, although I used to be disorganized. Rather, I find I lack control of the transition from bored to focused. I would be happy with more deadlines and bosses, as these are effective wake-up calls. Unfortunately, bosses and deadlines a rarer in academia [3]. I often find myself planning my entire lecture during the 10 minutes before I walk into class, simply because for the previous two days my mind had been blank.

Writers have many tricks to get their mind going. Indeed, I have read many such lists of tricks when it was my turn to write, and they have been helpful. Also, back when I was a coder this wasn't a problem [4]. My mind is such that, when it came to programming, focus came naturally -- a deep, powerful, and satisfying focus. For other activities, when creativity doesn't come I don't know what to do, or how to react, aside from patience, pithy or panic.

How do you acquire some cerebral velocity? How do unglue a sticky neuron?

[1] I'll admit that some of them are not exactly actionable. Today's list might look like: think about how to generate a trace from a path on a type graph some more, call mom, continue reading War and Peace.
[2] (lambda (x) x's block) perhaps?
[3] Actually, no, I wouldn't prefer having deadlines. I like academia exactly because there are no bosses. However, this does mean I have extra pressure to be self-reliant.
[4] Perhaps you wonder why I don't code anymore.
posted by gmarceau to Work & Money (11 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Well, surely you aren't expected to come up with just any ideas. There is probably some direction to the things you're paid to think about.

Pick some problem, and try to identify it. Boil it down to the most basic assumptions. If you were an engineer working for a car company, think about the issue at it's most basic - we build personal transportation devices. What does that mean... what's "personal" or "transportation" in this context. Why have people made the choices (four wheels, metal frame) that are now conventional. Do you really understand the rational? No? Well study it. Somewhere along the way you'll question why something was done a certain way, and not find a good answer, or in thinking about it, discover a new solution within the old parameters. Or rethink the parameters!

Basically, keep questioning.
posted by phrontist at 11:40 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if it's something really specific, like planning a lecture, think about the most half assed way to accomplish it. What's a really mediocre lecture on topic X like? Start doing that (force yourself to work for a while on it) and you'll probably realize pretty soon that you can do better. It's hard to start off on the revolutionary foot... but you can get their along the way.
posted by phrontist at 11:42 AM on October 22, 2008

I always have a zillion little mindless things that need to get done along the lines of editing some paper or document for release as a preprint/submission/etc., working on that diagram in LaTeX, reading something for a reading group/meeting with a student, planning a course for next semester or further in the future, and so on. I do these kinds of activities when I am not feeling able to focus on current research/teaching tasks at hand. (Actually, a lot of people I know slip into the inverse problem of yours where these little tedious activities occupy all their time.) Another idea is to look over recent journal articles or preprints in your field. I also have a few crazy long-term research projects that I find I can be strangely focused on even when I can't do the shorter-term stuff. Basically, my feeling is that you can't force creativity, so it's best just to redirect that time.

One more thing is that since I am in an empirical science where some part of the data can be collected through introspection (linguistics), it is often possible to brute-force problems (e.g. by taking a complete list of verb classes of English and running through them one by one with some particular question in mind). It isn't clear to me that that would apply to what you do, though. But in general if what you do involves data, and you have the data, it can be energizing just to semi-mindlessly explore it.
posted by advil at 11:50 AM on October 22, 2008

When I need inspiration about anything, I spend the day reading disparate things, go to bed, and the next morning everything is solved. There was recently an article in the NYT that confirmed that sleeping on a problem leads to more creative solutions, which has always been my experience.

Also, it has been said that creativity comes from the ability to connect ideas that have no obvious connection. I know it might sound weird to say that you could find focus for a programming issue by something like reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln followed by a recipe book, but you'd be surprised. It can come from anywhere; some turn of phrase that is loosely related to exactly what you need to do, or something Lincoln did or something the recipe asks you to do, etc. It might be in a picture of a cake.

Once I somehow derived a new character for a story from a nutritional guide. The character had nothing to do with food, and I don't quite remember how it happened; might have been a word or the font or a number, I dunno.

I've also solved programming issues that way. I couldn't figure out how to approach one problem, so I stopped and read the NYT. When I came back, I had my solution.

Also, I get a lot of inspiration from dreams, which is part of why sleeping is helpful to me. I think that speaks to your "how to unglue a sticky neuron:" throw everything at it until it does something else. So, for example, I might read a recipe book and see a picture of a cake, and be disappointed that I still don't have anything... but I've had it happen where I go to sleep and have a dream, and for some reason the cake is in it, but anyway, oh, there's my idea over here! The neurons might not have done that without having to incorporate the cake, for all I know.

This approach generally helps you relax and I think ideas come easier when I'm not looking for them. Maybe it will work for you?
posted by Nattie at 11:51 AM on October 22, 2008

My job is to picks thoughts out of my head. I write, I teach, I prove theorems, I design software. I mean, all these things are the same... it's the harvesting of ideas. So, what do you do when it's dry season?

I would argue that none of that can be done in a vacuum, all of those activities in some way involve being exposed to outside influences. In my opinion, creativity is less about forging your own unique ideas from scratch and more about understanding existing ideas out in the real world and exploring them in new ways.

What's the best way to come up with software design ideas? Read software design blogs and books, go to design conferences, talk to other designers, read good code, read bad code, read whitepapers, read case studies, study design in fields other than software, etc. It's the same with anything else. The more you immerse yourself in a given creative field, the easier it is to contribute to it, because you have such a large foundation of material to work with.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:03 PM on October 22, 2008

When you have writer's block (or the equivalent in other disciplines) it is often because you do not have enough information to work with.

So, when the flow turns into a trickle, seek out more data on the subject, whether it is researching a location for a story or requirements for software. The more data you collect the more fuel you give to the creative parts of the brain to work with.
posted by trinity8-director at 12:24 PM on October 22, 2008

God, I hate the word "creativity." I work in several creative fields, and I've seen person after person foiled by the need (or desire) to "be creative" or "be original."

Art/writing/storytelling/teaching/etc. has nothing to do with being creative. That's not the goal -- or it shouldn't be. The goal of storytelling is To Tell A Story; the goal of teaching is To Help A Student Learn Something; the goal of writing is To Clearly and Evocatively Communicate a Concept, Narrative, Mood or Sense-memory...

If you know what the end product is supposed to be (a lesson plan, a story, etc.), don't try to be creative. Try to make whatever it is you're supposed to be making.

If you're literally working on something so open ended that you don't even have a goal, the wrong place to be creative is when you're trying to determine what the goal will be. Ingmar Bergman's creativity didn't come into the picture when he was trying to decide whether to make a movie or direct a play. And it didn't ever come into the picture much when he chose between one story and another. It came into play much later, when he was trying to solve specific story problems. And by that point, it didn't feel like creativity; it felt like problem solving.

So if you're literally looking at a blank screen and your goal could be ANYTHING, just pick something. If you can't pick, flip a coin, roll a die or whatever. Okay, now we know you're .... roll ... going to write an essay. It's going to be ... roll ... an essay about cats. That's fine. What will make or break your essay in terms of creativity won't be the fact that it's about cats and not dogs. It will be in the details of how you write the essay. Similarly, if you're teaching American History, you'll be teaching the same facts that everyone teaches. But the difference will be in the details.

Still, when you get to this detail level, don't try to be creative. Try to solve problems. The worst case scenario -- assuming you do solve all your problems -- is that you'll hit on the same solutions that someone else did. Which means that your approach will be effective but not original. At which point, I would say, "so what? Your work is done." That's because I believe in doing the job -- not being original. I believe in serving the form -- not in serving my ego. The desire to be original or creative, while natural enough, does not serve your goal (it doesn't tell the story or teach the student) -- it serves your ego. Ego is the enemy of creativity. Squash it.

If you've determined that your goal is to write an essay about cats, and you don't care about being creative, but you're still looking at a blank screen and not coming up with anything, start brainstorming. My favorite (and really my only) method of brainstorming is to make lists. I write down everything I can think of about cats. That's easy enough and it can keep me busy for a long time. Once I've done, I organize the list. (Facts about cats; cats I've owned; cat food...) I iterate through this process many times. After a while, patterns start to emerge. I can cross certain boring things off the list and focus on what interests me.
posted by grumblebee at 12:53 PM on October 22, 2008 [7 favorites]

Creativity is an equilateral triangle: input, output, rest.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:53 PM on October 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

If you're allowed to: get away from the computer. Googling, browsing Wikipedia and so on can feel like work or research but after a point they will not help.

Go outside. Walk. Look at people and trees and things. Take some photos if you like to do that, or do some sketching. If you feel the urge to make your excursion useful, try the library or browse a good bookstore.

I sometimes find that going to museums and galleries is good. Soak up some visual stuff that is not yours, is not your responsibility and is not on a screen. Don't be overly diligent about making it educational, reading all the labels and so forth.

If you have the possibility of going away somewhere else for a couple of days (or longer) to a setting different from your usual one, do it. If not, something like meditation, yoga, a good massage, might help.

Think motion and flow. You may be too tied up in categories.
posted by zadcat at 5:54 PM on October 22, 2008

Keep notecards on you. Write tidbits down as you go about your business and get out of the shower, do dishes, write your emails, read the web. Text thoughts to your email inbox. My thinking is generally crap when I sit down "to think" (you still have to do it though because that's what stimulates your mind in the background). However, my mind soars when I don't pay attention to it.
posted by zeek321 at 7:57 AM on October 23, 2008

And scribble. Externalize your thoughts.
posted by zeek321 at 7:58 AM on October 23, 2008

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