For a while now, I’ve been meaning to write a post about ways to jump-start creative thinking and generate new ideas. I just finished reading Manoush Zomorodi’s book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, and it got me thinking about this topic again.
Zomorodi hosts the popular WNYC podcast Note to Self. While I’ve never heard the podcast, I understand that the episodes examine the intersection of technology and day-to-day life in the digital age. A couple of years ago, she challenged her listeners to a seven-day experiment designed to encourage them to examine their smart phone use, break free from unhealthy digital practices, and become more aware of how their device usage was affecting their states of mind. In Bored and Brilliant, Zomorodi recaps the participants’ reactions, discusses some research related to the topic, and makes the case for why we shouldn’t use our phones, games, and social media to fill in every spare moment of our days. According to Zomorodi, getting bored triggers mind-wandering and activates the default mode network, encouraging our most creative thinking.
I haven’t tried the Bored and Brilliant challenge yet, but I did take Zomorodi’s suggestion to download the Moment app (for iPhone) to track exactly when, where, and in what ways I tend to use my phone. I don’t feel like I’ve been spending that much time on my phone checking social media lately, but the numbers say otherwise. Quantifying exactly how much time each day I spend mindlessly scrolling certainly motivates me to evaluate how I could better use those minutes and adopt habits to limit my digital time-wasting.
Zamorodi makes clear that she is not anti-tech, and the book does not advocate abandoning smart phones altogether or even severely restricting their use. Rather, she wants us to be more aware of how, when, and why we use them, to understand the psychological and marketing forces that drive us to do so, and to use our devices more intentionally. That includes, necessarily, keeping them out of our hands and out of sight for significant portions of our days.
I’ve noticed that there are certain situations in which I’m likely to allow myself to be digitally distracted. One is when I’m sitting in front of a computer with the ability to toggle easily between multiple windows, which is why I’m a fan of site-blocking software. (Interestingly, I don’t seem to have this problem when working on my iPad. Perhaps the smaller, more streamlined screen of the tablet somehow allows me to better focus on the single task at hand.) A second tempting situation is when I’m sitting in a waiting room, and a third is when I’m laying in bed at night. I try to substitute an actual book for my phone at these times, though I’ll admit I sometimes (okay, often) slip back into the habit of screen-scrolling. When I do catch myself on my phone at these moments, I try to spend the time reading articles I’ve saved for later rather than just half-heartedly scrolling through my Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram feeds. Another time I tend to be glued to my phone is when I’m a passenger in a car, particularly on longer road trips. Lately, when I find myself in that situation, I’m making an effort to engage in conversation, listen to the radio or other audio media, or just take a nap.
Audio media like podcasts and audiobooks are a bit of a double-edged sword for me. I love them and listen to them often — maybe a little too often. (To put this into perspective, my husband has frequently exclaimed, “You’re always listening to something!”) They allow me to explore interesting topics and learn new things while I engage in mundane daily tasks like putting away laundry or driving. They don’t really require any true screen-time, but they do still divide my attention and prevent the kind of mind-wandering Zomorodi encourages. I actually find that I often get ideas for blog posts or personal projects while listening to podcasts and audiobooks, and I don’t plan to stop listening to them. They can, however, limit the conversations I have with those around me, and I believe it’s important to have a certain amount of true quiet-time each day. Continually taking in new content isn’t very productive if I don’t give my brain enough of a chance to process and synthesize it. So while I’m still going to listen to books and podcasts, I’m trying to be more intentional about when and for how long I listen.
The Bored and Brilliant challenge is a great starting point for encouraging our brains to think more creatively, and I definitely recommend the book to anyone whose use of digital media feels more impulsive or addictive than they’d like. But getting bored and freeing up our brains to think is only part of the equation. In addition to scaling back on screen time, I’ve found that the following practices help to get my creative mind firing on all cylinders.
1. Take a vacation. I seem to generate big new ideas nearly every time I take a trip. I suspect this is due to the combination of getting extra rest, shutting off my thinking brain for a while, removing myself from distracting daily tasks like housework, and being in a new environment where I’m more observant. If you can’t take an actual vacation, you can get some of the same benefits by simply exploring something new nearby. Spend a few hours in an art museum, take a day trip to a nearby town you rarely visit, go hiking in a new location, or just wander around an unfamiliar place.
2. Schedule creative time. Set aside a block of time in your schedule each week to write, draw, brainstorm, or whatever. Keep this time sacred. Banish your phone and other distractions during this time. Allow yourself to really get into a state of flow, without interruptions. Mornings work best for me — I’ve found that’s when I tend to be most rested and best able to focus. For some people, evenings are better. If you aren’t sure what will work well for you, experiment with different days, times, and durations until you find what works best. Consider creating a dedicated spot for your creative time. I have a writing desk that sits in front of a window facing my backyard and the woods behind my house. I keep the desk clutter-free, and I rarely use it for anything other than writing. When I sit down at the desk, I know it’s time to write, and I get to work. I don’t expect every session to generate a great end product, but I do know that once I get started, the ideas will come.
3. Capture your ideas. Carry a notebook or use use your phone to jot down good ideas when you have them. If I don’t do this, there’s a good chance I’ll forget them. The best ideas often come at times when I can’t fully explore them, like when I’m in the shower or commuting, or when someone makes a comment in conversation that sparks something in my mind. I have an “ideas” note on my phone where I add a short entry — just a few words — every time this happens. When I sit down to write, even if there isn’t much on my mind that day, I have a ready-to-go list of topics. Sometimes I decide later that an idea wasn’t very good after all, and I’ll remove it from the list, but that’s ok. The important thing is just to jot down the ideas when you have them. It’s amazing to see how fast the list grows!
4. Reflect every day. Life gets busy, and it’s easy to go through each day without ever actually stopping to think about what we’re doing, why, and how we’re feeling. A daily journaling habit is really helpful in this regard. When I’m tired at night, I don’t want to do any serious writing, so the One Line a Day journal is perfect for me. There’s really no excuse to fall behind more than a day or so. Looking back over months and years of entries allows me to see patterns in my feelings and behaviors, remember experiences I might otherwise have forgotten, and make connections that lead to new ideas.
Readers, do you feel like your smart phones and other digital devices are stunting your creativity? What do you do to encourage your brain to generate new ideas?
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