Taming The Wild Mind

Myths have developed around and researchers have studied how the human brain juggles creativity and organization. Popular theory tells us that the left brain is structured and logical, while the right brain is artistic and imaginative, and that all human beings use predominantly one side of the other.

Working in a creative field means challenging that theory, or else challenging the schedules and deadlines that managers impose on writers, designers and other creatives. As a project manager in a UX design agency, as well as a writer, I believe it is necessary to challenge both the assumptions about schedules and the belief that creativity implies disorganization.

Can Creativity Be Scheduled?

There’s a quick and easy answer to this question. Yes!

You’re shaking your head now. You’re thinking about how much you hate deadlines and how your designs suffer from the 9:00 to 5:00 schedule imposed by your manager. You’re remembering the sketches or creative writing you did in college at 3:00 in the morning. Sathish Manohar expresses it well in his article “Why 9 to 5”:

“Knowledge work solely depends on creativity of the workers. But, still some how, knowledge work-places got modeled around factories. Employees had to work 9-5, be creative between 9-5, and go home… This is a problem, We cannot schedule the brain to be creative at any given time.”

Yet I’ve spent years trying to merge my creative-writing personality with my project-management skill set and day job. Recently I realized that writing by the light of the moon results in over-caffeinated mornings and sloppy grammar, and still I continued—after all, isn’t that what creativity is all about? I’ve always been able to empathize with my designers, who want nothing more than free reign to be creative when the mood hits. But as a project manager, I also strive to create a working environment where designers and content strategists can be productive and efficient—and where we can deliver mockups on a deadline.

The solution turned out to be easier than you might expect. Spontaneous creativity is not the only way. In fact, as a content strategist, designer or even developer, you are paid for your ability to turn on the creative faucet. So, what goes into creating on command?

1. Create A Routine

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

– Gustave Flaubert, author

Flaubert did not write on a deadline, and yet he found that following an orderly routine improved his ability to be creative. This holds true for most people. Being able to “do your best work” at 3:00 am is no coincidence: you are training your brain to get those creative juices flowing when the moon is high and the workday is long over. This is fantastic if you don’t have anywhere to be in the morning; but for many of us, 3:00 am is not a great time to be inspired.

Instead, develop a routine that trains your creative juices to kick in at more convenient times. This could mean setting the alarm for 8:00 am, making breakfast and then sitting down with a journal to begin sketching as you eat. It could mean emailing yourself a to-do list before bed, with inspirational quotes to greet you the moment you open your email. Maybe you need a lunchtime scrum every day to energize and focus. Within two weeks, these mini-kickoffs will begin to signal to your brain, “Now is when we begin the creative work of the day.”

2. Take Your Time

“A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything.”

– Paul Graham, essayist and programmer

Distractions are a powerful creativity-blocker. Even the best routine can be waylaid by mandatory meetings, important phone calls and constant emails. If you are a freelancer in charge of your own schedule, try to relegate meetings to the very beginning or end of the day. If a manager schedules your client meetings and internal reviews, talk to them about the benefits of opening up large blocks of time for creative work.

At Above the Fold, we make a point of scheduling around the “maker’s schedule.” Paul Graham sums up the maker’s schedule in his essay, “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule”:

“When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it…. I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon.”

Therefore, at Above the Fold, we hold internal reviews at 5:00 pm, check-in meetings at lunchtime, and client calls first thing in the morning. This gives our creative team the time they crave to get engrossed in projects, without interruption.

This doesn’t solve the issue of interruption via email, of course. Try scheduling specific “Check email” times into your day—again, first thing in the morning, just before your lunch break or at the end of the day works well. Make sure your team is aware that you will not be responding to emails immediately, and suggest they call you or come find you if something is urgent and relevant to the current project. Team members can be surprisingly understanding and can quickly grasp the difference between imperative and interesting.

3. Use Your Team

“Separate brainstorming (idea generation) from synthesis (putting it all into a flowing post).”

– Tim Ferriss, author

Having large blocks of time available and scheduling them into your day sounds well and good, but how do you convince your brain that the time has come to get in the zone and ignore distractions?

Taking a page out of the Agile development book, try starting with a variation on pair programming. Pair programming is designed to help developers break down complex tangles of code with the simple rationale that two heads are better than one. The same is true for kicking off any other sort of creative block of time. Instead of working together all day, kick off the day with a 10-minute group brainstorming session. Nothing focuses the creative mind faster than talking through project details, and 10 minutes can lead to a far more productive three hours of synthesis.

Don’t have a team to kick around ideas with? Hit up a few colleagues on Twitter or Skype. We have found that many in the content and design worlds are happy to help, and you can offer to help in return.

4. Warm Up Your Muscles

“Major league players aren’t the only professionals that regularly practice. We’ve met musicians, firemen, pilots, and surgeons, all of who regularly practice their skills.”

– Jared M. Spool, founding principal of User Interface Engineering

Athletes warm up their muscles before starting their real work, and so should creative thinkers. A good warm-up helps you practice basic skills, focus your mind and improve the work to come. In addition, taking 10 minutes to warm up allows you to separate your ideas from the plethora of ideas surrounding you.

A few hundred years ago, visual stimulation was hard to come by, and artists were influenced primarily by their surroundings. Now, our surroundings contain hundreds of representations of our surroundings and of other people’s interpretations of their surroundings. Finding your own voice can be difficult amid the clutter.

The following quick warm-ups can bring you back to basics and isolate what makes your creative voice unique. Some of these suggestions even include using someone else’s work as a starting point—but making it your own.

  1. Write your thoughts down in a journal.
  2. Doodle for 10 minutes in a sketchpad.
  3. Copy the first sentence of a book, and then write a one-page story that begins with that sentence.
  4. Create three variations of a landing page based on different mood themes (happy, scary, sad, etc.).

None of these warm-ups should take more than 10 minutes, and each offers a different way to reconnect you to your creative spirit. From here, you might find it easier to begin thinking about new and different ideas, and even jumpstarting a project that has felt stale.

5. Save The Best For Last

“Laziness in a white collar job has nothing to do with avoiding hard physical labor. “Who wants to help me move this box!” Instead, it has to do with avoiding difficult (and apparently risky) intellectual labor.”

– Seth Godin, entrepreneur, author and speaker

Most creative jobs come with a catch, such as having to respond to client emails, send invoices or email writing samples. It’s not uncommon for these boring, “uncreative” tasks to turn into a means of procrastination. You feel as though you can’t set a task aside because it must be done; but because you don’t want to do it, you procrastinate—effectively avoiding both your creative work and your busywork.

Invoices and emails and bills are quick tasks, so we don’t feel as though delaying them by an hour or two costs much. But the hour you spend avoiding a five-minute task eats away at your creative time. What’s more frightening is the possibility that you’re actively using these tasks to avoid your creative work. As Seth Godin explains, this is due to “lizard brain”:

“The [lizard brain, or resistance,] is the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise. The resistance is writer’s block and putting jitters and every project that ever shipped late because people couldn’t stay on the same page long enough to get something out the door.”

We’ve all dealt with lizard brain, and many of the suggestions in this article can help combat it. But how do you remove the procrastinations that are genuine work, the busywork that must be done but just gets in the way?

Try setting aside one morning a week (Monday is a good day) to devote to the boring tasks. Relegate email reminders of the busywork to a “Monday” folder. Keep all physical folders and to-do lists for that work away from your desk. Of course, you don’t want to wake up one day and realize you forgot to pay the bills, but you won’t forget housekeeping chores like that if you assign them to a specific time slot—and not that generic “tomorrow.”

One more tip: don’t sit in your creative spot to do the busywork. The area for busywork will quickly get cluttered with to-do notes that have nothing to do with the creative work that you need to accomplish. Do the necessary evils somewhere else to avoid distracting yourself the next time you begin your “real” work.

Untamed Creativity

Saying that a wild creative mind can’t be tamed sounds romantic, but romanticism will serve you better in your actual products than in your schedule. The advice above will help you schedule your mind, enhance your creativity and use team members, time constraints and even deadlines to your advantage. Give your creative mind the structure and security it needs to run wild.

Other Resources

Here are some more resources on creative productivity:

What other tips and tools help you to be creatively productive?

(al) (il)

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Marli Mesibov provides clients with a combination of content strategy and project management at a UX Design agency, Above the Fold. She is an active contributor to ATF’s blog, in addition to writing short stories in her spare time. Marli can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on UX Design, content strategy, and Muppets.

  1. 1

    Excellent article, Marli. I’m going to practice your warm-up techniques today, I think the 10 minutes of sketching/doodling will be a great way to open the “faucet”. I’ve found exercising or meditating during my lunch break helps to reset my creativity during the day also.

    1
    • 2

      Thank you! I’m also a big fan of exercise as a way to wake up my brain. Let me know how the sketching/doodling works out for you.

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  2. 3

    These are great project management tips! The comments about rescheduling creativity from the college-years 3am schedule to the day job hours are very insightful. Regarding the “warm-up” before the day’s creative work, I couldn’t help but wonder, does reading an industry-related article on, say, Smashing Magazine count?

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    • 4

      Reading Smashing Magazine is a great warm-up, and even better if you can engage your brain to take the next step – next time you read a Smashing Magazine article take it to the next step by creating an illustration for the article, or writing a new introduction for it.

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  3. 5

    Thanks to this article I’ve got the “lizard brain” on the run!

    2
  4. 7

    Bonnie-Tennis- Steenburgh

    May 11, 2012 8:30 pm

    Hi Marli….I really enjoyed your magazine article .As a retired business woman, I definately could have used your informative
    suggestions on scheduling and organization! Your tips can be applied to everyday living too!
    Very very interesting.

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  5. 8

    In your resources you have an error in one of your links. Please correct http// to http://

    Very good article, and gives an insight into how my designers work. Keeping on a schedule is always a big key here.

    1
  6. 10

    Very cool, Marli, awesome job with this!

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  7. 11

    This will help me so much! I think this is a wonderful article!

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  8. 12

    “check-in meetings at lunchtime”

    So you don’t have an hour to eat quietly outside the company ?

    4
  9. 13

    Hi Marli Mesibov.

    I’d like to keep my take on this pretty simple. And, if possible, advance from there. Throughout my creative life, I have found myself always struggling to get some semblance of balance between the functions of the two sides of the brain. And losing. Even, reading through your article, as inspiring as you’ve managed to keep it, I’ve found a kind of innate resistance building up at the prospect of “being tamed”. It’s almost as if the same person is being encouraged to assume two mutually exclusive personalities. Inexplicable, yet almost tangible.
    I’d love to receive feedback on this.

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  10. 14

    Hi Marli Mesibov. Will send my message again, tomorrow. The original somehow did not get through. And that was my true gut feel. Now let’s wait for the next 24 hrs….

    -3
  11. 15

    Good read. I have a similar balance to manage myself – by day a creative services director and a UX design agency, and illustrator / designer in my own time. Certainly a few insights here I will be pushing onto the design team internally. Thanks!

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  12. 16

    Christopher Butler

    May 14, 2012 2:21 pm

    Marli,

    Good points!

    I spend most of my day managing the staff at my firm, but also do a fair amount of writing (some right here at Smashing — http://www.smashingmagazine.com/author/christopher-butler/ — and also elsewhere). So, I completely agree with your point about scheduling creativity.

    One of the best lessons I’ve learned in writing is to schedule limited working periods — typically 20 minutes to one hour, maximum. I’ve found that I’m much more productive if I give myself a limited window to write and no more, rather than clearing out an entire morning or more to write until I finish. Instead, I’ll set a time, disconnect from the internet, and write for only that time. It’s amazing what you can get done when you give yourself less.

    Another important lesson is that most people assume that creativity is something you either have or don’t, but I’ve learned that it can be developed and fostered in anyone. I’ve used a short (and fun) exercise with my staff to prompt creative thinking and writing called “What If.” The gist is to give a group of participants a limited window (say, 5 minutes) to respond to a “what if?” prompt, like, “What if there was no such thing as straight lines?” In free-writing a response, participants tend to learn that they can be creative, it just needs to be drawn out of them. They can then use similar approaches to control the flow of their own creativity. (More detail on that exercise here: http://www.newfangled.com/prompting_creative_thinking.)

    Thanks for an enjoyable read!

    - Chris

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  13. 17

    great :)
    I have my problems too… helping myself with useful task-managing apps

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  14. 18

    Great article. I was reading it, thinking about the discipline needed in study at our polytechnic (Whitireia in New Zealand) and the creative process our students go through to complete their assignments. Will retweet…
    Tim Renner

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  15. 19

    José Luis Bolos

    May 15, 2012 1:33 am

    Really interesting article, it has a lot of points in common with John Cleese’s talk on Creativity ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VShmtsLhkQg ). Specially the part on “idea generation” vs “synthesis”.

    I do usually find myself being more creative late at night, and I’m also trying to “redirect” my creativity towards a more reasonable schedule. Will try all of the tips, I was already using some of them.

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  16. 20

    perfect post! keep going!

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  17. 21

    How’d you guys get rights to use Calvin & Hobbes?

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  18. 22

    Aaron Zorndorf

    May 16, 2012 1:49 am

    One of the better articles I’ve read on this subject. Keep it up.

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  19. 23

    Thanks to everyone for the great comments! I’m eager to hear more examples of how people are using these (or other) tips, and what works best to engage your creativity.

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  20. 24

    The experience of freelancing, for me, is all about balancing the creative with the business. During my (short-ish) career, I’ve really tried to get my head around being reliably productive in both. This article sums it up nicely. It also reminds me that I’m much better at it now than I was when I started :)

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  21. 25

    Excellent article Marli. These tips are especially helpful for fellow freelancers like myself who often spend many project hours off on “designer’s island”, constantly moving between the manager and maker roles without a support team to keep us centered. The tip about reaching out to our extended team on Twitter and Skype is spot on and the warms-ups and schedule ideas are great – I think I’ll try a few this week! :-)

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  22. 26

    Nice article Marli,

    I just wanted to point out that the “popular theory” you mention in the intro about having a creative side of the brain, and a separate organized logical side is false. It has been proven numerous times that our brain simply does not work that way.

    If you could just add a note that the theory is actually false, I think that would help.

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  23. 27

    Creativity is not a time accuracy as he has a sense of stalking by human environment and its surroundings and differs between humans

    0

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