You have to switch off to switch on creativity

Creativity is deep, attentive work. Whether you are solving a maths problem or painting a picture, writing elegant code or a novel, you have to be attentive, focussed and in flow. You need to be in an optimal peak state to create and that means setting aside the distractions for key periods.

This isn’t easy. There are so many things clamouring for our attention, but if we don’t find a way to step back, creativity will be one of the many casualties. Among the attention-grabbers that we need to take breaks from are:

1. Technology

Long bouts of social media or aimless internet surfing can leave us feeling ragged. We end up with our thoughts fractured and innovative thinking out of reach.

There’s no doubt that technology has changed our lives and, in many ways, for the better. The access to like minds across the planet, the ability to communicate across distances, the tools for writing, research and so much more, can be mind-expanding. But there is also the anxiety that the smarter out phones get, the dumber we become. There are many people who check their phones 85 times an hour, that’s more than once a minute. How do they get anything done?

Why this knee-jerk checking? It might signal a population unable to cope with ‘doing nothing’ for short (or longer periods) or uneasy with being alone with their own thoughts. It might also be that sometimes our devices deliver a reward. We find a great article, get news of a book deal. So we check in case we’re missing something. As Sharon Begley puts it:

Such low-cost, occasionally high-reward activities are catnip to the brain.

People who are compulsive about checking phones can feel enormous unease if prevented from doing so. Psychologist Alejandro Lleras such phone use as a ‘security-blanket’ staving off anxiety. An Illinois study noted that 70% of the group studied used texting as a way to disengage from stressful situations.

The internet also encourages a fear of missing out (FOMO). Cut off, people in various studies describe their state as anxious, ansty, miserable, jittery… For some, not being online is tantamount to not existing. The existential rage against obliteration is a strong human compulsion. No wonder people are distraught at the thought of being ‘cut off’. The online life taps into the human psyche.

But the cost is that we do miss something. We miss the ability to be alone with our thoughts. We miss focussing on someone who is with us in person. We miss building up a deliberate practice that builds our skills with deep work.

The practice of always checking together with myth of multitasking takes away our focus. It’s may not be that attention spans are falling per se, but that trying to multitask destroys this focus. Our brains receive thousand of stimuli and the ability to sift for what’s important and ignore the distractions is vital.

When we try to attend to a stimuli the brain has to move that piece of information to the frontal cortex. If we are doing three things at once, the constant switching (it isn’t multitasking) takes time and leaves us feeling fragmented and fuzzy-minded.

Our attention is quite capable of holding up. Think of losing yourself in a great novel or film. Think of the total absorption of a parent of a new baby. But we can’t sustain focus in the face of a thousand distractions or when our attention is being divided.

Sometimes we have to switch off social media, messages, calls, apps … to switch on the creative flow.

2. Productivity

If your work and your art are of a piece there’s less conflict, but many of us do one thing to hold body and soul together and pursue our art in addition. You might love your work, as I do, but that doesn’t mean you want to be available to it at all hours seven days a week.

My work home-based and most of my communication is by email, which is always switched on. If you have a similar set-up or bring work home with you, it’s easy to never switch out of work mode.

The temptation is to answer emails all through the day, to do a last check late at night before you sleep. You can lose track of what day of the week when there’s no distinction between working all day Tuesday and working all day Sunday. I used to feel obliged to be available all the time. It’s only in the last few months that I had the epiphany that it is possible to take weekends off and answer emails only once each day.

There’s more to life than productivity. Honing your craft (whether it’s scientific research or making music) is vital. This isn’t a call not to care about work, but it is a call to set some limits in the interest of not burning out and leaving room for creativity to flourish.

No matter how much you love your work, there will be elements of it that you can delegate or eliminate. So much busyness isn’t productive in the first place. The rest you can limit.

  • Time batch essential but mundane administrative tasks.
  • Set a time to finish each evening and disengage.
  • Promise yourself weekends or blocks of time with no work.

Above all prioritise developing skills over productivity. Cal Newton argues that it’s more important to be craft-centric than productivity-centric. Getting better and more skillful at what we do takes huge reserves of creative energy. It requires deliberate practice and that energy has to come from somewhere, so switch off from work regularly.

3. Daily rituals

We need habits that sustain us. It’s important to be well-nourished and to get exercise. It’s important to have a morning routine that sets up the day and an evening routine that promotes quality sleep. But we sometimes push too hard.

You can make your exercise count without spending hours exhausting yourself. Focussed, high intensity exercise followed by recovery is efficient and suitable for many people. Yoga or simply walking make a huge difference without being exhausting.

Similarly with nutrition. It’s not only what we eat but also how much and how often. A few years ago I had a lot of weight to lose. What worked was alternate day fasting. The psychology was part of the success as on a fast day I was only ever one day away from eating whatever I wanted. In fact my approach to food radically shifted so that eating days also became much healthier, but that was an organic development. This kind of dieting also reduced my appetite so that portions on any day became smaller.

Sometimes the digestive system needs a break. I’m short and have a slow metabolism so currently I’m limiting carbs and eating in a time window — usually of 8–9 hours. This gives my body 15–16 hours off each day.

Anecdotally, intermittent fasting appears to assist with good quality sleep and maintaining healthy metabolic functions. There’s a small body of evidence backing this up and more evidence that nocturnal eating and eating calories earlier in the day is worse for us.

Not everyone has a lifestyle that works with intermittent fasting. Shift workers or those with long commutes who get home late are likely to struggle. But whatever patterns we have, taking some time off constant eating, whether with lighter days twice a week (like the 5:2 diet) or occassional fast days seems beneficial.

Another daily ritual you need to switch off is from being awake for far too many hours each day. I recently read an excellent blog opposing the idea that it’s fine to get up early, do a full day’s work, come home to family demands and then work on your own projects late at night and into the early hours of the next day. Amen to that. We need to sleep. It’s a wonderful restorative and we suffer when our sleep is out of balance or deprived.

Switching off constant consumption is healthy. Whether it’s of food, technology, pushing our bodies long and hard, staying up far too long or overworking. Switching off can help creativity.

3. Sociability

We need other people. Having family who we help and who support us in turn and/or friends who we are there for and who return the favour, is essential. But sometimes we need solitude.

Some people like more solitude than others. I love the buzz of family gatherings or of a great book launch or leading a writing course that is full on for five days. But I refuel in quiet and alone. Other people find the opposite, but whichever way you work best you need some time with your own thoughts.

Some types of creativity happens in teams. Making a film. Some forms of music. Scientific research. Other creative endeavours, like landscape painting or writing a novel, are rather more solitary. So the amount of alone time you need will vary.

But you still need some time alone. Even if your creativity relies on the buzz of a team. Even if you prefer to be in a group, bouncing ideas off other people to nurture your own development. Why?

  • You will be more focussed
  • You will think more deeply
  • You will be less distracted
  • You will learn more about yourself
  • You will take all this back into your relationships: refreshed you can be more giving

On the positive side

Switching off is essential to creativity, but it’s not the end of the story. Creativity is deep, attentive work. It requires you to set aside distractions and limiting work time. It means knowing how far to push yourself and when to rest and taking some time alone. But as well as switching off, there are also positive things you can do to prime creativity.

Some of these will be individual, but these are my creativity primers:

Spend time with family: I have a big noisy family that is often swelled by those friends so close they have become ‘family’. Sometimes solitude nourishes, but at other times it’s about nurturing these vital connections.

Read: I read everything from philosophy to how to books, from feminist theory to poetry, fiction to food-writing. But the books that nurture me most are poetry and fiction. To lose myself in language or in a story is bliss. And it elevates my thinking and how I write.

See art: When I travel, the local art and photography galleries are always high on the list of things to see. Whenever I’m in London I try to visit the Tate Modern. I can barely draw stick figures and have a lot to learn about art, but visual image feeds me; try it.

Watch films: Not anything will do. Some switched off time demands comfort viewing (but not too much). More often I go for films that deepen my insight in some way. Art films. Foreign films. They may seem demanding but you’re not trying to switch off your brain, just the distractions.

Listen to music: I’m on a learning curve with this one. I don’t create to music, but it can certainly prime the creativity and many people love to write or paint … to it.

Move your body: At my best I have a daily yoga practice. My heart rate drops. I’m more focussed as well as more flexible (physically and mentally). I’m more able to get into the trance state of writing.

Walk: An extension of movement. I’m with Nietzsche on this:

​All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.

There’s even accruing evidence that

walking actually encourages the brain to create new connections between cells and helps transmit messages between them much more effectively

Dance: I don’t do enough of this, but I love it when I do and it often accompanies my cooking.

Cook and eat: Constant consumption can make us sluggish, but nutritious food cooked with love and a bit of flair is great fuel. For me, the process of cooking is a kind of meditation and delight in itself and I often have surprising thoughts while doing it.

Bathe: This is my daily luxury. Hot water soothes and rejuvenates and a bubble bath is a great place to simply think.

Let the silence in: There are times for music and film, for dancing and positive activity, and times for quiet. I love to create in silence. Take some time that is not filled, which leads me to:

Nothing: I can’t claim to be good at this one, but sometimes the positive thing to do is nothing. Even if it’s a few minutes. Completely unwind. Let go.

What are your creativity primers?

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