New Year’s Resolution Idea – Don’t Give Up On Creativity

59505036_thumbnail

Ask a dozen people what makes someone creative and you’ll probably hear answers like cleverness or mental acuity. But researchers Brian J. Lucas and Loran F. Nordgren of Northwestern University have been digging into what really makes creative people tick.

What they’re finding is that the most creative people – the folks with the truly novel and useful solutions – are the ones that don’t give up easily.

Persist, and then persist again

Lucas and his team are promoting persistence as a principle pathway to creative performance. There’s a load of historical research and anecdotal evidence to support this belief. Everything from Edison testing thousands of theories before inventing the light bulb to Csikszentmihalyi’s introduction of the concept of flow.

The researchers at Northwestern wanted to see if people actually recognize the value and importance of persisting when idea generation gets difficult. Their basic hypothesis: “People generally underestimate the value of persisting on creative tasks.”

After a series of 7 cleverly constructed creativity experiments, a few things are clear:

  • People perceive being creative as difficult.
  • The best ideas are often produced later rather than early in the creative process.
  • People probably abandon the creative process before coming up with their best ideas.

Creativity: The generation of ideas and solutions that are novel or useful to a given situation.

On being creative…

Before we take a look at the studies and results, let’s examine creativity. Specifically, why it’s generally considered difficult to “be creative?”

The researchers identified two attributes of creativity that are illustrative of its perceived difficulty, and I think these are both fantastically insightful.

First, creativity is a two-stage, iterative mental process. In stage one, we scour our long-term memory for anything associated with whatever it is we’re trying to be creative about. In the second stage, we apply, break apart and reform associated knowledge to form new ideas.

People move back and forth between memory and idea generation in an attempt to create something novel and useful. If you think about it for a bit, there are four logical outcomes to this process.

  1. Booo… We fail, and no association is made.
  2. Yawn… We come up with something commonplace – an idea that lacks novelty.
  3. Meh… We make an association, but it doesn’t prove useful. (Remember our definition? We’re looking for creative solutions that are novel or useful!)
  4. Eureka! We’ve come up with a cool, new idea.

This is a grueling mental process. It’s hard to be creative because of all the false starts and unsatisfactory ideas. Perseverance is necessary to win the numbers game!

The second attribute pointing to the difficulty of creativity is that, unlike defined processes and procedures, it’s really tough to verbalize your progress toward a creative goal.

The example that Lucas and his team used to illustrate this is a math problem. Try adding two large numbers together. It’s pretty easy to figure how close you are to having the correct answer, right?

Not so for creative challenges. Think of the last time you were trying to come up with a creative solution for some problem. At any point, could you tell someone how close you were to a breakthrough moment of insight?

Probably not. That progress isn’t really something you can measure.

And because of these attributes, it’s easy to think that being creative is hard. The researchers at Northwestern put that perception to the test to see if we can be more creative if we keep working when others might give up.

I won’t go into each of the 7 studies in detail. I think the first experiment is the most informative. Also, the paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology is available on Lucas’ website and it’s well worth a read.

The research

Lucas and Nordgren invited participants to take 10 minutes to generate creative answers to a simple question. All they were asked to do was come up with a list of things to eat and drink at Thanksgiving.

After coming up with a list of ideas, each participant was asked to estimate how many more ideas they could make with a subsequent “persistence phase.” The researchers then compared the estimates with the actual number of new ideas produced.

The participants came up with nearly 22 initial ideas on average. When asked how many new ideas they could come up with if they kept working, the average answer was 10 more ideas. Interestingly, their predictions for performance in the persistence period was much lower than the number of ideas actually produced (15).

And here’s the coolest part…

The researchers ran all the ideas past another group of test subjects to determine which were the most creative. This shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point, but the participants came up with their best ideas when asked to keep going.

This shows us that:

  1. People tend to undervalue persistence.
  2. We are at our most creative when we keep working on a problem, even after we think we have all the answers.
  3. People who give up too soon or too easily miss out on their best ideas.

Pragmatic creativity

It’s worth noting that time has a very real cost. Sometimes – be it in school, work or with a personal project – it’s more important to be finished than to be creative.

But understanding that we tend to shy away from persevering on difficult challenges because it’s just plain hard to come up with new and useful ideas is a valuable bit of information. Knowing this, we can make conscious, deliberate decisions about when to accept an idea as good enough and when to go back to drawing board in search of more creative solutions.

The next time I’ve come up with a new and creative idea, I’m definitely going to pause and wonder if I’m leaving my most creative ideas on the table. And then maybe I’ll set a timer for ten minutes to see if I can come up with something even better.


ProWritingAid – Efficiently clean up your long-form writing

Editor’s Note: This post focuses on ProWritingAid, a tool for writers, but raises an interesting question that is more broadly applicable. So many creative projects get left at the ‘90% done’ stage because the final steps to complete it are so tedious. What ways can we use technology to smooth out that toilsome home stretch? Have you found a tool that’s worked for you? Please share in the comments!

I recently had the chance to kick the tires of ProWritingAid, an online automated editing service. I rarely get to write product reviews, but the timing on this one worked out perfectly. Particularly given all the just-been-finished NaNoWriMo manuscripts floating around out there.

pwa-logo-larger

If you’re one of the many first-time NaNo winners gazing bemusedly at your 50,000-word achievement and wondering, “Now what?” – editing is a fine answer. Editing, however, requires a very different skillset than what’s needed to write an original draft. Luckily for us, there are automated tools that can help us along the way.

What is ProWritingAid?

If you’re reading this website, there’s a good chance you’re interested in leveraging technology to quantify and improve your productivity. RescueTime does that by watching how you spend your time and providing tools on how to use each valuable minute more effectively. ProWritingAid works to provide a similar technological edge, applying rigorous proofing algorithms to written works.

Unlike in-line contextual editors you may be used to with Microsoft Word, Google Docs and Scrivener, ProWritingAid doesn’t track words as you produce them. Instead, it offers a series of tests that may be applied to a finished manuscript, work-in-progress, business report — anything written, really.

Most of us take things like spell-checkers and contextual grammar editors for granted in our word processor of choice. We see a word underlined in red and right click to correct it. They’ve worked that way for decades.

ProWritingAid will definitely edit for spelling and grammar, as well. However, the program is intended to do more than simply correct writing mistakes. It is also meant to teach; improving a writer’s skill by identifying overused words and phrases, highlighting cliché passages and generally improving grammar and diction.

Features I liked

There are a ton of editorial tests – called “Checks” – available in ProWritingAid. And both the online and plug-in versions allow writers to mix and match features into a more comprehensive, customized “Combo Check.”

I’ll talk about the online app versus the plug-in installations in a little later, but first I wanted to talk about the editing tools I found most valuable.

Just for kicks, I dropped a bit of dialogue from one of my old stories into a Google Doc and ran every test available. At least my hyphenation is consistent!

Repetition

Hands down, my favorite tool is the Repeat Words & Phrases report. We all have our little pet verbs and descriptive phrases, right? Those comfortable writing crutches we lean on when we get stuck. This is a great tool to ferret out those overused passages.

I’ve got one of these writing tics that shows up in first drafts of my fiction. My characters all seem to need something to do with their heads, and each one of them comes to the apparently universal decision to nod like a lunatic when speaking. Each time I read one of my early drafts I am greeted by a cast of bobble-heads.

The Repeat Words & Phrases report alone is probably worth giving ProWritingAid a look.

Writing Style

The Writing Style Check is probably most analogous to traditional word processing tools Microsoft Word’s contextual grammar checker. You know, the green, underlined reminder-bits we get every time we try to use a semicolon?

The report seems comprehensive, and it’s interesting to see all those passive verbs and repetitive sentence structures bundled up into a single report.

I have a reasonable grasp on grammar and my drafts are usually pretty clean. Even so, it’s educational to see where I’m leaning on adverbs a bit too heavily or using needlessly complex wording.

The system also makes suggestions to improve readability, and I agreed with the recommendations more often than not. For me these suggestions usually showed up as unnecessary qualifiers like “very” or “some.” I’m curious to see how the mileage varies for other users. If you try out the app, definitely let me know in the comments.

The Writing Style report draws attention to the overarching use of passive verbs and lazy writing while offering suggestions for improvement.

The Writing Style report draws attention to the overarching use of passive verbs and lazy writing while offering suggestions for improvement.

Choose your editing experience

ProWritingTools is available online as a browser-based application, and also as plugin for Microsoft Word or Google Docs.

I tested the app using a premium account and the interface is a straightforward, predictable web utility.

Understanding the results generated by each of the editing checks was also relatively simple. There is a user manual available on the web site, but I didn’t need to use it. Perhaps it’s a valuable tool for interpreting report results if you don’t have a lot of experience with editing and grammar.

Most of my work with ProWritingAid happened in Google Docs. The add-on was simple to install in both Google Chrome and Safari. Again, the interface was intuitive. I tried to duplicate everything I did in Google Docs on the website version. Although the interface was different, I didn’t notice any variations in the meat of the reports.

The one add-on I couldn’t test was ProWritingAid’s Microsoft Word integration. That plug-in is only available for Windows versions of Word, although not through a lack of interest by the developers. The Mac OS versions of Word simply don’t support the creation or installation of add-ons.

Another tool in the toolbox

Don’t expect manuscript editing software to shore up a weak plot or fact-check statistical figures. That’s why developmental editors have jobs. However, content editing and proofreading are laboriously detail-oriented tasks. I think ProWritingAid is a reasonable way to ease that editing burden.

I believe the tool is best suited for newer writers, or writers without a high degree of confidence in their prose and grammar. That said, established writers might benefit from testing a chapter or two to identify overused word or phrases. Or to see if they’re slipping into bad habits.

If you think you might enjoy something more robust than your stereotypical spell-checker, ProWritingAid might be a great place to start.

If you’re interested, head over to ProWritingAid.com and check out their free or premium versions.


Good luck to everyone still plugging away at NaNoWriMo!

Separate... but never alone

Separate… but never alone

“Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”
– Stephen King

Writing, at its core, is a solitary endeavor. On top of all the challenges threatening to crush the success out of creative works, it almost seems unfair that we have to bear those burdens alone.

But such is the lot of writers. Our productive output isn’t about inspiration or muse-motivated moments of eureka. It’s about sitting your butt down and teasing out one unwilling word after the next. It’s about wrestling each scene from the white-knuckled grip of your inner editor and body slamming it onto the page.

Books, articles and blog posts about writing process are legion, and writers would do well to study what individual routines work for successful, prolific authors. But the introverted writer is a habitual creature, so draped in routine and ritual that one’s process is very unlikely to work for another.

And so we invent tricks and rewards to keep us moving forward.

Remember, however, that November is different. Certainly, NaNoWriMo is a chance to write. But it’s also a chance to be part of a community, a movement of united makers intent on creating art and crossing a 50,000-word finish line at the end of the month.

Although the actual act of writing is a singularly reclusive pursuit, support structures like NaNoWriMo are a comforting confirmation that we’re not tilting at fictional windmills alone. Remember that there is an army of wordsmiths out there banging away at keyboards and purposefully gripped pens scratching away in every corner of the world.

We're more than half way through the month. If you need a push, now might be a good time to check out the NaNoWriMo forums.

We’re more than half way through the month. If you need a push, now might be a good time to check out the NaNoWriMo forums.

Write how you need to write, but if you’re struggling – if you’ve fallen behind your daily word count or your story feels like it’s starting to come off the rails – it’s okay to find yourself a broad and welcoming shoulder. And when you do, feel free to lean on that sucker for support.

But no one can write your book for you. You were always destined to do that part on your own.

So close your door. Or put on your headphones. Maybe get up early while everyone you know is still asleep.

Then write. And know that others will be doing the same. Separate… but never alone.


Are you ready for National Novel Writing Month?

typewriter-logo
National Novel Writing Month is just days away, and RescueTime is proud to sponsor this amazing event. For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is a worldwide program supporting aspiring writers on their quests to become novelists.

How? By equipping them to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

Whether you’re a first-timer or a grizzled, word-slinging veteran, NaNoWriMo is a marathon test of a writer’s dedication and endurance. And just like you wouldn’t run a marathon without a personal strategy for success, NaNoWriMo participants that show up on November 1st with a plan will have the best shot at crossing the finish line with a 50,000-word rough draft.

In this post, we’re going to focus on the math behind clobbering your 50k goal. It’s worth noting, however, that outlining your novel, character essays and world building can all factor in to your plan of attack. Regardless of your upfront effort, come November 1, the only thing that matters is hitting the 50k mark before the clock ticks down to midnight on the 30th.

Every damn day

Professional authors are notorious for offering one recurring piece of advice to young writers, “Write every day.”

In practice, writing every day may not be an option for many people. Yet at its core this common counsel is an admonishment for new writers to make a habit of committing words to the page on some sort of regular, scheduled basis.

Maybe you believe that new habits can be formed in 21 days, a figure commonly – and perhaps mistakenly – attributed to 1960s surgeon Maxwell Maltz. Or perhaps you buy into more recent research from the University College London that claims 66 days are required to form a habit. Either way, writing every day can make the unfamiliar and daunting prospect of weaving fiction from the aether become common and comfortable.

Many writers approach NaNoWriMo with a write-every-day strategy. This means 1,670 words from brain to fingers and out onto the page every day for 30 days. This method grants the lowest possible daily word count, and also helps jumpstart your habit-forming countdown to becoming a habitual writer.

Note that if you can only write on weekdays, the daily word requirement jumps to 2,380 words per day. And if you can only write on weekend days, well… good luck and make sure you have ice for your wrists!

Getting ridiculous

One way to stack the odds (or words?) in your favor is to capitalize on early enthusiasm and any advanced groundwork you’ve prepared in anticipation of NaNoWriMo. Many WriMos use the surge of November 1st excitement to fuel an ambitious DORG – that is, a Day One Ridiculous Goal.

I’ve been writing professionally for most of my adult life. I’ve been seriously pursuing my fiction work for over half a decade. I’ve written multiple novels, sell thousands of non-fiction words every month and have published both novellas and short stories. Even still, my greatest ever single-day word count is 10,112 words and it damn near killed me.

It was a ridiculous goal. In fact, it was a challenge made to all attendees at a writing retreat and each one of us that broke the 10k mark received a homemade pie of our choosing. Mine was a peanut butter chocolate silk, and the pie damn near killed me, too!

Ermahgerd it was good, but I wouldn’t have earned it without setting the goal and making a personal commitment to achieve it. Even though 10,000 words a day is not a pace that I can or care to sustain, I know that, for me, it’s doable. And it’s a legitimate way to kick start a new project.

One good thing about NaNoWriMo this year is that November 1st is on a Sunday and not a regular work or school day. If you can arrange to have the day all to yourself, or with a writing partner or group, maybe a setting a DORG will work for you.

Consider for a moment the impact that a 10,000-word day one will have on your daily word requirement for the rest of the month. It drops that daily obligation to 1,380.

Don’t think you have a 10k day in you? You can still drop that daily word requirement by nearly 120 words with a 5k DORG.

Slow and steady can certainly win the race. Still, if you feel like challenging yourself and capitalizing on early enthusiasm, set a day one goal and make it ridiculous.

What happens when things get hard?

Life happens. Experienced WriMos will tell you that statistically, “life” will probably happen to you somewhere near the start of Week 3.

It could be work that threatens your NaNoWriMo performance. Maybe it’s a sick kid. Hell, it could be family drama at Thanksgiving dinner. Whatever the cause might be, there may come a time when your NaNo-plan starts to unravel.

What can you do to keep a setback from derailing the entire month?

For starters, you can write ahead of schedule if you suspect you might get derailed. In the vein of “the best defense is a good offense,” consider banking some heavy writing days early in the month. This can give you a cushion should the wheels come off the tracks mid-month.

If building an early cushion is not an option and you find yourself behind, take heart. You still have options. They may be the nail-biting, breathless kind of options, but options nonetheless.

Your first is to simply up your daily word count. Your NaNoWriMo profile will help you track your progress and update your daily requirements to finish on time. Alternatively, you can chip away at the word deficit with some early morning or weekend sprint sessions.

Either way, playing catch-up is probably going to be more difficult than sticking to a plan. Think ahead and plan out the month now. If you have a plan that’s worked well in the past, please share it in the comments. Also, if you think you’re onto a killer strategy and want some feedback, clue us in now and let us know how it’s going as the month progresses.

Good luck, WriMos! And if you haven’t yet, take advantage of our NaNoWriMo promo and get RescueTime premium free for the entire month of Nomember.

NaNoWriMo sponsor badges final-04


Systematically Turning Time and Effort Into Results

continuous-improvement

If you’ve found this column, we probably share a few things in common. Like me, you may be at your best with a great many irons in the proverbial fire. I bet you keep yourself busy and nurse a hunger for getting things done.

The past few months, my drive to tackle new projects has generated a daunting slate of work. I’ve been blessed with an attractive array of interesting projects, and that’s when I really need to ensure that my keyboard time is converted into an actual work product.

And that’s a good thing. Like I said, I’m at my best when busy.

But committing to aggressive schedules does create a challenge. I need to ensure that the minutes and hours I spend are productive. I need to ask myself two questions:

How do I know if I’m succeeding? And what can I do to set myself up for success?

Counting words and getting sh** done

counter

Most activities lend themselves to some sort of quantifiable performance measurement. For writers, that metric is word count.

“I tend, by now, to think in terms of word counts not hours.” – Guy Gavriel Kay

“I’m writing a novel,” is a commendable, yet unimpressive statement if you’re only grinding out 150 words a day. Gee, that’s super swell. I’m really looking forward to reading the rough draft… in like, 3 years.

On the other hand, if you’re churning through 500 words an hour? Well now we’re talking!

Word count is a meaningful measuring stick for writers because it reflects results achieved rather than merely cataloguing effort expended.

Taking the pulse

RescueTime_-_Your_Monthly_dashboardRescueTime’s Productivity Pulse is similar in this regard. It is an accurate look back at how we’ve made use of our time at the keyboard. Just like tracking my word count, monitoring my Productivity Pulse is a useful and highly visual way to hold myself personally accountable for working efficiently. But we need a goal to work toward if we want to see our productivity increase over time, a goal and the tools necessary to achieve it.

“When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘One word at a time,’” – Stephen King

A few weeks ago, I posted about using the Pomodoro technique to increase productivity by dedicating short sprints of time to specific tasks or distraction-free work. If words-per-hour is my measure of productivity, a series of sprints toward my daily word goal seems like a reasonable and efficient strategy for success.

But it’s SO easy to become derailed by “important” distractions like research and email, or social media indulgences that I know I’ll regret later.

That’s where Focus Time comes in.

I actually use the Pomodoro technique quite a bit, although I don’t use a physical timer or one of the many smartphone Pomodoro apps. Instead, I use the “Get Focused…” option that RescueTime put on my computers toolbar.

Not only does it time my work sprints, FocusTime blocks online distractions that might otherwise devalue my efforts.

For me, FocusTime is a strict upgrade to my old Pomodoro timer.

Reflect on the past, Focus on results

Tracking word count is by its very nature a look back in time. It is a reflective process and one that is beneficial only in that it illustrates past performance. It is not inherently useful in assuring current performance. And tracking it certainly won’t guarantee productivity in the future.

Like financial accounting, word count reports what has been accomplished in the past.

“Word count has value in that it measures actual effort.” – Chuck Wendig

It is valuable to know where we’ve come from, to have a baseline and to understand what we’ve been able to accomplish in the past. But what if we need to ensure a certain level of current performance? And what if we want to improve performance over time?

To continue the accounting metaphor, we need a budget. Some goals to aim for.

Whether it’s words per hour, lines of code or bullet points ruthlessly purged from a to-do list, we can set meaningful and manageable short-term goals, then continuously work towards improving them. Having a measurable task at hand (e.g. “Write 200 words in the next half hour”) can give us a new lens to look back on past performance, and help us find new ways to eliminate distractions.

“Just write. Many writers have a vague hope that elves will come in the night and finish any stories for you. They won’t.” – Neil Gaiman

When you decide to work, commit. Eliminate distractions and focus on the job. It won’t finish for you, so find the tools and tricks you need to be productive.

Sweep distractions free from your path, if even only for a time. And then focus on the next word, the next task, or the next bit of logic. When you truly need to produce measurable results, be single-minded and ruthlessly efficient with your time.


The little tomato that could – using Pomodoro Technique

Tomatoes Rule - source: Art & Invention Gallery

Tomatoes Rule – source: Art & Invention Gallery

Nobody loves a blank page. I think I’m probably better than the average bear about starting new things, but it’s tough to get rolling on a new project. Especially when the task is enormous and you know it’s going to take a long time.

And like a lot of creative-types, it’s easy for me to get down on myself. My productivity usually sucks when my confidence and self-esteem are low.

Sometimes I just need a little external pressure – some sort of structure – to get me moving. If I can get a small portion of my time encapsulated and dedicated to getting things accomplished, that usually gets me over the hump.

That’s when I want something like the Pomodoro Technique, a workflow that structures your time in 25 minute sprints on a dedicated task, followed by a 5 minute break, then starting the cycle over again with a new task.

Pomodoro isn’t something I use all the time. However, when my confidence is low or I’m feeling overwhelmed, I need the implied structure to get me moving.

What’s a tomato got to do with it?

The Pomodoro Technique is a productivity system created by developer and author Francesco Cirillo. He named the system after a tomato shaped kitchen timer that he used to keep himself focused and productive at college.

Lifehacker has a good primer on the system with links to a handful of Pomodoro mobile apps. Most of the apps have a variety of competing bells and whistles; so check those out to see what excites you. However, all you really need is the timer.

The timer is a simple tool used to carve out an interval of dedicated work time. A short 25-minute sprint of work that Cirillo called his “Pomodoros.” Following each sprint is a 5-minute break and then… back to the salt mines!

You can do anything for 25 minutes

As I said, I don’t use my Pomodoro timer all the time. Actually, I probably don’t use it as much as I should. Still, when I’m down on myself, it can be the kick-in-the-pants that I need to get moving.

When I’m facing a seemingly endless or insurmountable obstacle – say… the first draft of a new novel, perhaps? – my Pomodoro timer carves me off a consumable first-bite. Something manageable enough to get things rolling, but big enough to show some progress and boost my confidence.

If you happen to find it difficult to stay on task during the 25 minute sessions, FocusTime is a great compliment to the Pomodoro technique. You can block distracting websites for the exact time of your session, giving you extra insurance that you’ll stay focused.

Site blocking for a Pomodoro session using FocusTime

Putting it to work

A big part of staying productive is changing things up. There’s real value in moving between standing to sitting or leaving the office to work at a coffee shop for a couple hours.

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” – Winston Churchill

Pomodoro is like that for me. It’s not something that I use or want all the time. However, if I’m struggling, that 25-minute timer on my phone can help me get the ball (tomato?) rolling.

Let us know in the comments if you use the Pomodoro Technique. Did it work for you? What else do you use to overcome the idle hands of low confidence? Or to take the that first intimidating leap into a daunting new challenge?


Fight, flight, freeze or flow – how our brains keep us from focusing

Brains are hard-wired for distraction

Brains are hard-wired for distraction

I’ve always been a night owl. Hands down, my favorite part of the day is the quiet hours between 10pm and 2am. It’s not that I don’t enjoy work or love spending time with my family, I do. But when the world quiets down, dishes are washed, lunches are packed and the family is down for the night, something changes for me.

I get more focused during these quiet times. I have better ideas. I create more. Produce more. And I’m generally happier with my late-night production than I am with work squeezed in between the meetings, conversations and errands that compete for my time during the day.

What’s different about these work sessions? Are they the product of conditioning and habit? Is increased productivity simply the result of a lower ambient noise level? Is my couch actually a magical aide to creativity?

As cool as a magic couch sounds, it’s more likely that my high-productivity evening hours are the product of “flow.”

In the zone

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, first named the concept of “Flow“, which refers to a “mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”

Sounds great. Sign me up. I’d like to work like that all the time. So how do we get into a flow state?

Part of the answer may lie in understanding our primitive fight, flight or freeze instincts. When we’re in a flow state, our focus narrows. Attention to the task at hand crowds out awareness of our surroundings, self-awareness and the passage of time. To better understand flow and how to enter a flow state, it’s worth looking at the parts of the brain that prevent focus by promoting fear and awareness.

The amygdala

Flow states are difficult to describe. I think this is in part because the centers of the brain responsible for self-awareness are turned off during flow. We just aren’t paying attention when it’s happening.

Relatedly, the amygdala is designed to protect us from centuries of oh-god-it-has-claws types of danger. We are hardwired to look for threats before dedicating attention to anything else.

Most of us don’t need to worry about sudden attack by a predator. Still, we are exposed to plenty of fear-generating inputs every day. Whether by accident or design, these experiences compete for our attention. For creative types with an interest in improving personal performance, our job becomes figuring out how to filter these inputs.

The amygdala hijacks our focus

There may not be some toothy beast waiting to leap out and gobble us up, but the amygdala is still hard at work. Marketers, advertisers and the news media know this. In his book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Peter Diamandis makes the observation:

“The old newspaper saw ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ works because the first stop that all incoming information encounters is an organ already primed to look for danger. We’re feeding a fiend. Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.”

Our brain’s natural inclination to constantly scan for threats is a convenient tool for capturing our attention, but it sure can throw a wrench in things when we’re trying to do something that requires long, contemplative thought.

Can flow compete against instinct?

The implication that fight, flight or freeze instincts have on creativity, flow and a quantified life are far reaching. I’m glad these ideas are getting some attention, and I look forward to benefiting from the results of the research.

But I also think it helps me to understand why my evening work sessions are so precious to me. I get to control the inputs during those quiet hours when the house is asleep.

Sure, I could stream a news program or keep Twitter open in a browser window. Sometimes I do, and I generally don’t have anything new or exciting to show from those evenings.

But sometimes I don’t.

Those are the nights when the sounds of the world fall away. Time stretches in interesting ways and I could care less about the pace of its passage. I forget about my ambitions and fears. All that matters is my ideas and my project.

During the day, I use RescueTime’s “Get Focused…” feature to blank some of those competing distractions. That helps, as does being aware of how messaging is packaged to demand my instinctual attention. But still, achieving flow is a challenge.

Let me know in the comments if you have a time or place that powers up your creativity. If you have tips on how to kick start laser-focused work sessions, I’d love to hear them!

And finally, here’s a really interesting TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describing flow.