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How To Maximize Your Creative Energy

We’ve heard many personal stories this week of how people in our industry have experienced hard times and how they managed to get out of them. We end this week with an article by Ann Holm, a personal development coach and expert in psychology and brain science. Read on to learn how to reduce stress in your everyday life and prevent burnout and other breakdowns in order to stay healthy and unlock your potential. — Ed.

What does knowledge of the brain and personality have to do with creative work? As a lifelong brain geek, I have taken on the mission to help others tap the secrets of the brain to uncover personal potential. Not surprisingly, everyone can benefit from at least some knowledge in this area. [Links checked February/16/2017]

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

In fact, I’ve found that people who work in the creative industry in particular seem to be interested in this topic because many of them work alone and have to manage their energy, distractions and time to complete a project, while staying flexible and in the moment to capture the unforeseen creative gems that emerge seemingly out of nowhere.

“Everyone who’s taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference.”

– Nolan Bushnell, video-game visionary and Atari founder

Oftentimes we have habits that seem to work, so we are unaware that there might be better, more brain-efficient ways to do things. Other times, we feel exhausted and stretched, so our creativity suffers. In this article, I’ll share some facts and insight on brain functionality, as well as tips on how to get the most out of your creative energy. Some of these suggestions might be very different from what you are doing right now.

Multitasking: A Rapid Way To Deplete Brain Energy Link

Like many web designers and developers, you might work in a small business or even as a single entity. This means you need to master and implement several skills:

  • your creative work,
  • your networking tasks,
  • your administrative tasks.

While this makes you versatile, it can also lead to multitasking or plate-spinning. What is the most effective way to perform all of your roles, while still maximizing creativity?

In the old days, before computers, smartphones, social media and the like, interrupting someone’s train of thought was verboten — and for good reason. The brain is not meant to multitask. In fact, multitasking is a myth. Multitasking is actually task-switching, and it is among the most rapid ways to deplete brain energy. Every time you perform a task, the most energy-hungry area of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, has to recruit a different collection of brain cells to carry out the task you are trying to accomplish. You use different brain networks to work on projects, to respond to a phone call, and to check email and social media.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules6, tells the story of his son trying to write a paper for school with 11 other applications running, including two instant-messaging screens! Every time he switches his attention, his brain has to engage, disengage and reengage somewhere else. Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to complete a task and makes 50% more errors in the process.

Here are a few tips to avoid the pitfalls of task-switching:

  • Work uninterrupted for a designated period of time.
    Brain research shows that 25 minutes is approximately the amount of time it takes to “get on a roll.” Set a timer if necessary. Do only that one important task during that time.
  • Check email and social media at designated times.
    Email and social media notifications not only create those task-switching scenarios, but can result in a protracted diversion from your intended work.
  • Minimize distraction with internal and external management.

Manage Distractions With Internal And External Management Link

Distractions can be managed either internally or externally. Internal management requires additional brain energy, sometimes a considerable amount of it. It’s a form of willpower. A classic example is the individual who is trying to lose weight but keeps all kinds of tempting food in the house. The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” is instructive here.

I am a business owner myself. I coach, blog, maintain a website and develop curricula for leadership-development workshops. I use social media, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. By far, my biggest distraction was Facebook on my iPhone. I have a personal page in addition to my business page, and I found it way too easy to check my latest push notifications. So, I deleted the app from my phone. Now I wasn’t one click away from another diversion.

There are many ways to manage distractions externally so that the brain doesn’t get exhausted in the process. In my college days, I taped myself to a chair to finish term papers, thus eliminating the possibility of wandering off to chat with a friend. Nowadays, I ask myself, how can I make a distraction so difficult to execute that I don’t even consider doing it?

A young client used the following strategy to externally manage his biggest distraction:

“The biggest distraction of my life is my phone. I had a large project due, so I decided to try your suggestion. I took the phone out of my pocket, shut it off, put the cover on backward, and placed it on a high shelf. Amazingly, I got everything done, and I got it done fast.”

Distractions are best managed by eliminating them from your immediate environment — or by making them so difficult to execute that you don’t even consider them.

Here are a few tips on externally managing distractions:

  • Turn off your phone or place it in another room.
  • If you have to take calls, disable Internet access on your phone.
    Some phones have a “do not disturb” function that only allows calls from a list of defined numbers (such as emergency numbers) to minimize disruption to your workflow.

Sleep Well To Uncover Your Potential Link

“Sleep while you’re dead“ was my philosophy for years. I was a dedicated night owl, often denying that I needed much sleep at all. In truth, only 10% of the population do their best work at night, and few people can get by on less than 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night, night after night.

It is possible that the creative industry has a slightly higher percentage of night owls or those who can get by on very little sleep. However, the chances are high that most people need the same amount of sleep in order to function optimally. Many of us keep going at night because we are too tired to put ourselves to bed.

Our brains need time to calm down, so try to stop working several hours before going to bed.
Our brains need time to calm down, so try to stop working several hours before going to bed. (Image credit: kroszk@7)

Recently, I attended a seminar titled “The Ever-Changing Brain.” I was struck by the impact of sleep deprivation on every aspect of our lives. John Preston, Psy.D, wasn’t talking about simply doing time in bed. He was talking about the deeply restorative sleep that affects our ability to regulate our emotions, solve problems and think creatively. Sleep researchers say that, in the absence of slow-wave sleep, our pain threshold decreases and our cognition and focus are reduced. Depression is a long-term consequence of poor sleep quality.

Sleep behavior is largely a result of sleeping habits. Even a few small adjustments can have a profound affect on sleep quality:

  • Exercise regularly throughout the day.
    However, avoid exercising close to bedtime or it will have the opposite effect.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and sleeping pills.
    These substances interfere with restorative sleep, especially when you consume them close to bedtime. Sleeping pills can affect your sleep patterns long term.
  • Trend towards calmer evenings.
    Your brain needs time to calm down. Stop working several hours before going to bed, and fill those hours with calm and relaxing activities.
  • Avoid blue light at least an hour before bed.
    The blue light of computer screens and bright sources of light affect our sleep. Avoid them at least an hour before bed. Additionally, you can manage the light of your computer screen with the f.lux8 app.
  • Sleep in a cool room and ventilate before going to bed.
    Sufficient oxygen supply is important for your brain to recover from a hard day of work.

Eat Well And Exercise To Maximize Your Potential Link

My great Aunt Marian grew up on a diet of fatty meat, dumplings and potatoes. Vegetables were usually cucumbers doused in bacon grease. She smoked for 80 years and loved her scotch. She broke every health rule and yet lived with a clear mind until she died in her mid-90s.

Aunt Marian was lucky and probably genetically exceptional. Current brain research suggests that most of us probably couldn’t pull this off. Although we’re more aware of the benefits of eating healthy and exercising than we have been in the past, the stresses of the modern world and the increasing pace and pressure of our lives affect us more than we might think. Traveling to conferences and clients adds another layer of stress to our lives. We know now that small yet measurable brain declines already happen in a person’s late-20s.

Don't underestimate healthy nutrition. Your brain will thank you.
Don’t underestimate healthy nutrition. Your brain will thank you. (Image credit: Ted Eytan9)

Anxiety is common in developed countries, and the lifetime risk for severe depression is 20%. A hundred years ago, the risk was 1%. Because many creatives work on projects that they’re passionate about, they often don’t realize how much stress they’re putting themselves through and the negative effects this can have on their bodies. Burn-out often occurs after a phase of idealistic passion for something.

Stress is caused not only by the number of tasks we have to complete, but also by emotional events in our lives. This could be the death of a beloved one, a divorce or break-up, or tensions in our family or social circle. We have to acknowledge that our brain needs additional capacity for us to emotionally deal with these problems.

In short, we have to take care of our brains in order to get many years of creative output:

  • Keep weight within the normal range.
    Excess weight, a poor lifestyle and a lack of sleep set off the inflammatory process.
  • Reduce or eliminate sugar.
    Evidence is emerging that sugar is a significant cause of inflammation. Inflammation is system-wide. Therefore, if you feel unwell after eating something, then your whole body, including your brain, could be affected. Keep this in mind when attending conferences and meetings, where unhealthy food is often easily obtainable. Investing some time and money in eating healthy could result in a better creative output later on.
  • Supply your body with omega-3 fatty acids.
    Many supplements don’t work. However, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil have been proven to benefit the brain.
  • Exercise regularly.
    Exercise improves blood flow to the brain. Exercise not only will bring about creativity in the moment, but will benefit the brain in the long run.
  • Build and maintain relationships and interests outside of work.
    This is important to avoiding depression and burn-out.
  • Don’t underestimate the effects of emotional events.
    If an emotional event happens in your life, take some extra time out so that you’re brain is able to effectively deal with it. For example, go for a walk outside or a bike ride or meet up with people who can help you through this situation.

A Real-Life Example Link

Recently, a client confessed to me that she was staying up well past 1:00 and 2:00 am because she was a night owl. When I asked her what she was doing at that hour, she said she was “researching” various topics on the Internet. As we discussed this further, she conceded that she was really just surfing the web and couldn’t fall sleep any sooner. I explained that when we get very tired, we lose some of our willpower to move away from what we are doing and head off for a good night’s rest. She agreed to try an earlier bedtime and to turn off her computer screen at least 30 minutes before that. I further suggested she use the Sleep Cycle10 app to get solid data on her sleeping patterns. Ten days later, I received this email:

“I’ve been using the Sleep Cycle app most nights since we talked and I’m shocked. I knew that I often didn’t get as much sleep as I should, but I hadn’t realized just how bad it was. If the last week and a half is any indication — and I have no reason to think it’s an anomaly — I rarely get eight hours’ sleep on a weeknight. I hadn’t realized just how much time I’m wasting online before I go to sleep on a regular basis. This is a huge thing to work on. Thank you for this wake-up call.”

Several months later, she continues to report better sleep and better results in her work. It’s not that she doesn’t do any more night benders, but she is more aware of her need for sleep and how it affects her work.

Conclusion Link

No matter what a person’s career is, we are all first and foremost human, and we have evolved with a certain physiology that is not altogether compatible with modern life. Our ancestors walked up to 20 kilometers a day and focused on one thing at a time. We woke with the sun, slept when it was dark and ate the available natural food. Our lives today are vastly different from the conditions that mapped our ancestral brains, and yet modern living has not significantly changed our basic neural framework.

The main take-away is to be open-minded about how you might be compromising your own success and productivity by relying on habits that run counter to how we are wired to live and thrive. Experiment with some of the principles described in this article and see whether a few small changes make a big difference in your overall productivity.

These are only a few suggestions to help maximize your potential. Feel free to share your own tips and strategies below in the comments sections.

Other Resources Link

(al, ml, il)

Footnotes Link

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Ann C Holm coached brain-injured clients toward cognitive recovery for 25 years. In 2009, she started a personal development and leadership coaching practice in order to serve any client who wishes to uncover personal and leadership potential through increased awareness of how the brain works, knowledge of personality type, and emotional intelligence.

Visit her website or follow her on Twitter.

  1. 1

    This is an area that is so over-looked in our industry, but so crucial to our success and happiness. Thanks for publishing these important reminders.

  2. 3

    Great article! Congratulations :)

  3. 4

    For our blog, Cher Amis, we recently interviewed illustrator Ian Dingman. He gave really great advice on managing creative energy: “There’s no such thing as wasted time in your work space. If you spend three hours on a drawing that doesn’t turn out, try not to see it as a failure so much as an exercise. The more hours you put in, the better your work will be. Dive in and get to work. Don’t wait for the mood to be right.”

  4. 5

    I am so excited with all the thought provoking articles being written this week. I wrote one the other day, nowhere nearly as good as anything on this site, but I’m glad that people are taking the whole mental/physical health aspect so seriously. Thank you all so much for taking this issue to the next level and making sure that it gets noticed! <3 <3 <3

  5. 7

    I finally caught up on sleep last night and feel much better.

    I like working late into the night because things are more predictable. It’s quieter, the neighborhood and city is quieter. And generally you don’t feel like you need to be anywhere else or do anything else except the task at hand.

    That being said, I do get more quality work done with a better frame of mind and rest.

    • 8

      The sleep factor Is tricky because we can be sleep deprived for so long that we don’t know what it feels like to be well-rested. It makes sense to be open-minded and self-aware about our own sleep habits because the pay-off is potentially enormous.

  6. 9

    Great article, well written, and so proud you are my daughter. Love you.

  7. 11

    Just a great article! As a designer, this should be taken seriously. It’s one of the great factors to achieve productivity. In fact, I was able to produce quality outputs when having a well-rested night. Those routines are very useful; turning off the phone, healthy diet and regular exercises. Listening to mellow/classic songs would be beneficial too while relaxing.

  8. 12

    Wow, good! Thank you!

  9. 13

    It’s very helpful when others share how they work sleep, diet, and exercise into their busy lives especially if they notice a difference! Thanks for your comments, Earl and others.

  10. 14

    Good advice!

  11. 15

    Well drafted article. Every point mentioned is true, specially the usage of phone. I myself have noticed that people very frequently (sometimes in a gap of seconds)check their phones which is a kind of addiction. This habit is a great hindrance in work. A 10 min task takes 20 min with this habit. So best solution, keep your device aside and then see the difference.

    • 16

      The phone is our greatest friend and our worst nightmare. We have to be aware of who is in charge- you or the phone! ;)

  12. 17

    Great read :)

    Do wonder how many “Night Owls” are exactly that. I’m usually tucked up in bed by 10pm!

  13. 18

    I know this is aimed at designers, but it’s worthwhile advice for almost everyone in modern societies. When I don’t exercise for a couple of weeks or I drink a lot of carbonated drinks I find that my work and health suffer massively, to the point I’ve had to cut all carbonated drinks out of my diet unless necessary (like the caffeine kick when driving long distances; I’d rather spill cola in my lap than a cup of coffee!) and pledged to exercise at least 20 minutes every day, with longer workouts 3-5 days a week.

    Thank you for a great article, Ann. It’s been shared all round the office.

  14. 19

    Michael Skirde

    October 31, 2014 11:37 am

    Great article! Some information already known but the way how you describe this topic and how everthing has been structured is very helpfull. Thx.

  15. 20

    It is great article and 100% truth.

  16. 21

    BKreative Media

    October 31, 2014 3:56 pm

    Good article! This is why I run once or twice a week. It forces me to focus on one goal (usually hurrying up and getting finished) and ignore the other aspects of my life.

  17. 22

    Durgesh Ichake

    October 31, 2014 4:05 pm

    Very good article for healthy life. We should follow the above suggestions because modern life is very busy and stressful and for a creative person it is right.

  18. 23

    Kelly Edmonds

    October 31, 2014 4:33 pm

    Thanks for this article. For me, I’ve discovered I just need sleep. Period. I design online courses which I try to do in creative and leading edge ways. That takes a certain brain power and I didn’t realize switching tasks was so taxing on the brain. Thanks for sharing that.

  19. 24

    Thank you for all of your comments. We are all creatures of habit and yet we can pay attention to what we are actually doing, make a few changes, and derive excellent benefits.

  20. 25

    Am loving f.lux app already. Thanks for the insight!

  21. 26

    Great article! A lot of important information put together in a highly digestible way. When what we know we should be doing is backed up by research plus relevant stories, the message is potent. I’m motivated to practice more discipline in managing my external and internal distractions. Thank you!

  22. 27

    Being creative doesn’t mean becoming sick because of it and eventually a victim of exploitation of an employer or a customer! I’ve seen creative people becoming modern time slaves and zombies because someone “smart” took advantage of their love for creation and the money it brings!

    Protect your health both mental and physical guys n girls! Only you care about you in business no one else!

  23. 28

    “Stop working several hours before going to bed…” I suspect this one will be very hard to put into practice for most designers…

  24. 29

    Great article!!! Thank you!! I sleep few hours. I will try to change some bad habits before going to sleep such as working late or watching videos on Youtube.

  25. 30

    Thanks a lot Ann Holm for sharing a very detailed and to the point topics.
    I am surely going to use Sleep Cycle alarm clock.

  26. 31

    Now, if only my baby would get the memo on the sleep thing. “Momma needs sleep honey to be a better creative!” :)

  27. 32

    So many interesting articles and angles are coming out now about the nature of sleep. What happens? Why do we do it? I have my eye on that emerging research!

  28. 33

    Reading this once again made me step back and say, I’m human and I need to take care of myself! Being in this business is no joke, my brain is working constantly. I knew that something had to be draining all of my energy and now I know it may be just trying to do so much at once. Thanks for the wake up call! :)

  29. 34

    I have to say I tried both to test my creativity and productivity.
    When I work at night and going to sleep in like 4-5am I feel really creative and open-minded. It’s so quiet and I have much concentration.

    I also tried to go to sleep in line 11-12pm and woke up at 7-8am, it’s also good but many things disturbs me like my family, plans what I have to do that day and sounds from outside. I know it’s more normal to do a 2nd thing but I feel more productive when being a night owl. Who knows, maybe I just need to get used to being a ‘normal’ xD

    Thanks for great share!

  30. 35

    Wonderful article! Physical and mental health are usually overlooked when one is in work mode. Your article really shows the importance of taking care of one’s body to ensure it is functioning at it’s optimal level. When your body and mind are healthy, the work you produce will show that and, in turn, you will be more productive and time-efficient!

  31. 36

    This is an amazing article, very very helpful for me, thank you ann holm! :***

  32. 37

    This is good news for those of you who are sleep deprived. Remember it’s a secondary strategy though!

  33. 38

    Hello Ann,

    Just wonderful! I am trending towards getting more night sleep and this post gives me enough points to note them up on my whiteboard and actually strictly act on them.

    Thanks once again!!
    Adeel Sami

  34. 39

    Relaxed Wahmmy

    March 16, 2015 3:09 am

    Thank you for sharing. Excellent points on how sleep and unhealthy eating habits affect our productivity. These are truths I could feel in my body, but decided to ignore for years. I know better now and try to get enough sleep everyday. Eating healthy is more difficult though. I have recently tried preparing ‘light meals’ because I feel lighter when I eat them. Too much carbs make me sleepy at work and coffee makes me feel bad. I try to avoid coffee as much as I can now. Exercise? Standing Desk and walking back & forth the room when on break for now. I will find time to go to the gym soon. Badly need it! Again, thanks for sharing. I enjoyed reading this article!


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