Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Relationship Between Creativity and Willpower

Have you ever started the day determined to stick to your diet…and blown it by lunchtime?

There’s a reason that as the day went on, it got harder for you to live up to those good intentions. Psychological studies on willpower and self-control have revealed that we actually have a limited amount of willpower available to us each day–and once we’ve used it up, it’s gone.

Yes, gone. Self-control–the ability to make yourself do the right thing instead of the easy thing or the fun thing–is an exhaustible resource. Or, to quote Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.”

How We Burn Willpower

  • Making choices
  • Editing or otherwise controlling our behavior (usually as a way of managing other people’s impressions of us)
  • Controlling our emotions, especially negative ones
  • Focusing on instructions given to us by someone else
  • Being careful or deliberate in performing a task
  • Forcing ourselves to push on with a task even though we’re frustrated
  • Engaging in creative thinking

In other words, any time you’re not on autopilot, you are burning up self-control. How many times per day do you bite your tongue, force yourself to choose carrot sticks over cookies, or come up with a creative solution for a problem on the job?

The energy that fuels your creative process is the same energy that fuels getting chores done and resisting the ice cream in the back of the freezer. That makes it even more important for us creative types to be good about managing the mundane aspects of our lives–so we’ll have more energy left over for writing that novel!

 How to Get More Willpower

The good news is that, while self-control and willpower are exhaustible, they’re also renewable, and there are things you can do to increase the amount you start the day with.

Take care of your body. One of the biggest factors in how much willpower you have is your health. Physical vitality translates into mental energy that’s available for making choices. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and other things that drain your body don’t just affect how you feel, they also affect how much self-control you have available. Getting a good night’s sleep, taking a fifteen-minute walk, a few minutes of deep breathing, eating a healthy meal: these are just a few of the small steps you can take to increase your physical vitality, and at the same time, your willpower.

Nourish your mind. Mental stress–sensory overstimulation, an environment that’s full of distractions, having too much on your mind–also reduce your available willpower. There are many small steps you can take to reduce mental stress too: meditation, journaling, talking with a good friend, losing yourself in a good book for a few minutes, listening to relaxing music.

Use Your Willpower Wisely. Here are some strategies for making the most of the willpower you’ve got.

  • Do the important things first. There’s a reason so many successful writers recommend getting up early in the morning and writing first thing.  At the end of the day, you’ve got much juice available to channel into your novel.  If your reserve is exhausted, you’re likely to skip your scheduled writing session altogether.
  • Make starting easier. Taking the first step on a project often involves overcoming many mental hurdles, and each of those hurdles requires a bit of willpower to get past. What’s the simplest first step you could take? A phone call? A google search? A quick-and-dirty list that breaks the project down into simple steps? Gathering all the materials you’ll need in one place? Anything that makes you feel like you’ve gotten a grip on the project today can make it easier to do the next step tomorrow.
  • Eliminate unnecessary choices. It’s hard to choose carrot sticks over cookies as a snack — but what if it wasn’t a choice? Bring healthy snacks to work with you. If you need help keeping portions in check, put an appropriate amount of your snack into a ziploc baggie, so you don’t have to think about how much you’ve eaten.
  • Simplify your routines and habits. For example, how many choices do you make every morning while you’re getting dressed? Laying your clothes out the night before or having your closet arranged by outfit could make getting dressed a
  • Plan ahead. Do you have to wrack your brains every night to come up with something you can make for dinner using what’s in the fridge? How many decisions and how much mental stress could you eliminate from you day by planning the week’s meals ahead of time and buying the necessary ingredients each weekend?
  • Arrange your environment to make the right choices easy. If you have to clean off your desk before you can start writing your novel, how likely are you to work on the novel? Would you channel surf less if your television was hidden away in an entertainment center with doors? Could you hide the junk food in the back of a cabinet and put the healthy food right up front? The more your environment supports the habits you’re trying to cultivate, the easier it is to stick to those habits.
  • Make a checklist. If you have to look around a messy room and decide what to do first, you’re squandering precious willpower. But if you have a cleaning checklist for each room, all you have to do is follow the list.
  • Set rules. This one sounds like a drag, but when you discover how much mental stress the rules can save you, you’ll be glad you did. One of my new rules is that every time I go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, I do a small kitchen chore while the water is heating, like loading or unloading the dishwasher. Stress eaters often reduce snacking by following the rule that every time they get stressed and want to eat, instead they take a minute to do a breathing exercise. Thinking about situations where your willpower often fails and coming up with a rule that guides you to the better choice can significantly reduce the amount of stress you feel when that choice comes up.

The better you get at using your willpower wisely, the more effective you will be in your daily life. And here’s how the kaizen approach can help: if you break your goals down into small steps, you only have to use a little bit of willpower each day until that small step becomes a habit (i.e. an action that does NOT drain your willpower).

And once that small step is a habit, you take the next one, and the next one…until you’ve got a whole repertoire of good habits that keep your life under control, so that you can focus all your willpower on achieving the big things.

Can you think of one or more ways you might reduce the daily drains on your willpower?

What’s one thing you could do to increase the amount of willpower available to you?

Keep the Ideas Flowing: Cultivate Inspiration with Active Incubation

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.”
– Peter DeVries

Great quote, right? But what if you sit down at the keyboard every morning at 9 a.m. and nothing happens?

How can you make sure that you’re inspired on a regular basis?

You’re probably already familiar with the technique of incubation, where you set a project aside and give your subconscious time to transform your ideas and experiences into something new. Sooner or later, your subconscious makes connections that your conscious mind didn’t, and voila, you’re inspired.

But waiting for inspiration–known as “passive incubation” to psychologists–wastes a lot of time. While you’re waiting, it’s easy to get frustrated and start worrying that the muse has abandoned you. Frustration and worry can block your creativity, delaying inspiration. The longer it takes to get inspired, the more frustrated and worried you get. Next thing you know, you’re in a downward spiral and haven’t written for weeks. Or longer.

Active incubation to the rescue!

Thomas Edison was a master of active incubation. He discovered early in his career that inspiration struck much sooner if he:

  1. Clearly defined the problem he was trying to solve.
  2. Examined that problem in great detail, absorbing as much relevant information as possible.
  3. Once he was sure he’d considered all the angles, he deliberately set the problem aside, ignoring it while he slept or worked on other things.

By pre-loading his mind with a clearly-defined objective and a mass of data, he was often able to incubate with a twenty-minute nap and wake up with the solution he was looking for. I can’t promise it’ll be that quick for you every time, but active incubation significantly shortens that frustrating waiting period.

So how can you apply active incubation to fiction writing?

Here’s the two phase process:

PHASE ONE

Start with whatever you know about the story. Maybe all you know is that you want to write a novel set in that castle you visited on your trip to Scotland. Or maybe you’re sure your heroine is a demon-slayer, but you’ve got no idea why or how she came into her unusual career.

Dig deeper. What captivates you about this idea? Is it the possibility of discovering secret passageways and finding ancient treasure sealed up in a castle wall? Are you fascinated Scottish history?

Do you have a yearning to write a kick-ass heroine who believes that she’s damned? Does your demon-slayer have a magic sword you’d give your left arm to own?

Are you dying to write about something that happened to you, exploring how you might have handled it if you were a different person? What emotions do you feel when you think about this idea? How does this character or setting relate to you and your life?

Now broaden your thinking. What other story elements might be appropriate for this setting/character/etc? Does your initial idea suggest a certain type of plot or theme? Have you read books with similar story elements, and if so, how would you like yours to be different?

Identify what you know and what you don’t know, but don’t worry that you don’t have a complete picture yet. When you feel as if you’ve explored the story idea as completely as you can right now, set it aside for the rest of the day.

Sleep on it. Your brain uses sleep time to process everything you were exposed to during the day, and this is when your subconscious gets busy.

PHASE TWO (repeat daily until inspiration arrives)

Keep your subconscious on track. Take a few minutes to review whatever notes you made, and if a new idea pops up, jot it down. As soon as you feel ready, pull out your usual story development tools—conflict grid, GMC charts, ten-scene plot diagram, whatever works for you—and fill in what you can without forcing it.

Reserve a few minutes each day for quiet time, to listen for inspiration. If your mind is filled to overflowing with the mundane details of your life, your thoughts can drown out the voice of inspiration. Schedule five minutes of “muse time.” Meditation, daydreaming, a contemplative walk, and freewriting are all ways to clear your head and bring messages from your subconscious up to the surface, where your conscious mind can access them.

Seek out new information related to what you already know about your story while you incubate. If your heroine’s major trauma is that she was molested as a child, read a book or article about the psychological effects of childhood molestation on adults. If your hero is a kendo master, watch videos of kendo tournaments on YouTube. Research how castles are built or take a class on life in medieval times. The more relevant information you can give your subconscious to work with, the richer your story will be.

Give yourself some encouragement. Before you go to sleep, thank your subconscious for working on your story overnight, and let it know that you’re looking forward to seeing what it comes up with. Don’t forget to keep a notebook and pen by the bed, so you’ll be ready if inspiration hits in the middle of the night or when you wake up in the morning.

Be patient with the process. Trust that inspiration will come, and don’t let yourself fall back into the old habit of passively waiting. The more consistently you practice the phase two techniques, the sooner your subconscious will have all the pieces it needs to construct that killer idea you’re looking for.

Make it a habit. Don’t wait until you get stuck. Incorporate active incubation into your routine now to keep your creative juices flowing and avoid future blocks to your writing success.

Is there any aspect of your work-in-progress that you’re stuck on or unsure about right now?  

How might you apply the process of active incubation to get clearer on that aspect of your story?