When was the last time you were absorbed in thought? Or sat daydreaming, allowing your mind to wander wherever it wanted to go, tripping from one seemingly unrelated thought to the next? Most of us don’t allow ourselves the luxury of engaging in this sort of behavior because we’re all uncomfortable with the concept of unstructured time. This unease leads to an urge to fill the time with something, anything. When given a moment of free time our impulse is to reach for our smartphone and start scrolling. You’ve got mail and texts to read, Twitter feeds to review, photos to see, Facebook updates to scan and bank statements ready for your review.
All these urgent but unimportant tasks make us feel busy and productive and keep our minds from being bored but don’t allow for any moment of introspection or self-generated thought. We are forever stimulated and in a “closed,” task-oriented, purpose-driven state. We can easily fall victim to what Charles Hummel, in a 1967 essay, called the Tyranny of the Urgent. Urgent tasks are never finished, however, because there are always oceans of new urgent tasks to take their place.
This impulse to constantly be on the smartphone is reinforced by what I think are ridiculous TV ads that show people — guess what — constantly on their smartphones: a guy who is suppose to be on a date has to watch ‘the game’ on the phone in his lap; or the guy who portrays his boss as a Neanderthal because he actually expects him to work each day instead of playing games on his phone, so he plays games as he walks to work; or responding to anything someone says as “so twelve seconds ago.”
This constant barrage of activity keeps us busy but robs us of one of the most important mental states that foster the creative process, boredom. Strangely enough, the creative mind needs boredom, not stimulation. That’s because the bored mind is relaxed and free of distractions and demands upon its time, with no particular task to be accomplished. The mind must actually be bored so as not to feel put-upon; there’s nothing to do, nothing to produce, you’re bored. It’s that feeling we had as kids during summer vacation — endless, unstructured time stretching into the distance with nothing to do but what we could dream up doing. One thought leads to another, an image reminds us of a feeling, a scent brings to mind an event. We got bored. And then we got creative! This is where the subconscious mind can emerge with all its attendant imagery and symbolism. It’s in an “open” state where all things are possible. This is the point where creativity takes place, where we have the luxury of “playing” with ideas, exploring thoughts, curious about options and what-ifs. This is the place where hours can pass without notice because we are so absorbed in the moment.
Creativity can happen in groups or on teams but a deep creative process can only take place in solitude, far from the madding crowd, away from anything that would engage us in tasks.
There are things one can do to create an environment that facilitates the creative process:
• Find a quiet space where you are undistracted by anything that will take your mind from an open state to a closed state. No phones or computers, calendars or to-do lists.
• Give yourself a set amount of time, say an hour and a half, for this creative process to unfold.
• Ignore the mental chatter and resist the impulse to do something else. Stick with it and the impulse will pass. It takes time to achieve an open state where your mind is truly free of distractions.
• Be confident and don’t put pressure on yourself. There are no failures or mistakes in the open state.
For more on this, read 5 Tips on How To Be Creative On-Demand.
The next time you walk the dog or stroll to the corner store, leave the phone at home or put it in your pocket; give your mind a break, free of tasks, free to daydream…like that first day of summer vacation.
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