I needed to figure out some alternative solutions to a mystery in a story I’m working on.
A lot of the work I’ve been doing on this project has happened sitting and typing out ideas that I’ve solidified while either in conversation on the phone with a collaborator, or talking to myself while driving. But this time, I needed to generate those ideas in that moment, and I didn’t have anywhere to drive.
So I started by standing up. I have a whiteboard in my office, and it’s useful for thinking through ideas. But just standing there wasn’t helping me let my guard down and look past the couple pre-conceived solutions I came into the office with.
I recently finished reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Sparked by some ideas in that book, and the fact that I also have a subwoofer in my office, I thought about how adding some movement to the moment might help.
I want this to be clear: I am not a dancer.
I’m not a professional dancer. I’m not a good dancer. But I love music, and sometimes the groove gets in my heart.
Enter Daft Punk’s Alive 2007:
I can’t guarantee that any of my ideas were better because I was dancing while I was mind mapping. But it was more fun.
And there’s an aspect of breaking down your guard. Sitting down with as proper posture as I can muster, fingers on the home row, clacking away… It can feel rigid.
So getting less self-conscious about that movement and feeling the beat of the music cuts through that mental filter that makes you want to focus on perfection. Move to the rhythm. Turn off sense of self.
It’s like with meditation: If your mind is irritated or too energetic, calm the body. Take a few deep, slow breaths, and your mind will start to follow your body’s lead.
In this case, I was using my body to signal to my mind that it’s time to loosen up and throw whatever ideas it has up on the board. I broke down the mental walls separating the movements that were part of dancing from the movements that were part of writing on the whiteboard.
Change Your Environment and Change Your Mind
What I was doing by adding wasn’t just a change with my body: This was an attempt to alter my working environment.
It’s not just that I spend a lot of time sitting and typing or scribbling notes, but that when I sit and work in the same space that I check Twitter, grade papers, and track Amazon packages, there’s a sense that I have other things I should be doing besides writing.
That sense of everything sharing a space frustrates and confuses willpower.
In Keep Going Austin Kleon writes about the importance of creating a bliss station, so that there’s a specific time and/or place where you can put yourself in the headspace to work.
It’s the idea that signaling to your brain that here and now is where a certain type of work gets done helps that work get done in a better way.
He goes further to suggest that you can break down that space by certain jobs, like if you have one space where you work on your computer, and a separate space where you draw or write things out on paper. Even if they’re spaces in a single room, a small shift in where you sit or which way you face can send different cues to your brain.
It also might be about timing. Setting a timer, using a calendar to make appointments for certain tasks, or treating certain days of the week as having a specific focus are other ways to cue the brain and put it in the right mindset for the task at hand.
You are not just a brain in a jar, firing out ideas
You receive input from your environment. You receive cues from the rest of your body.
Accept that no matter how much willpower you feel that you have, you can’t exert total control and operate in a state of constant peak productivity.
But there are things you can try to control.
“When?”, “Where?”, and “With What?” are all important questions to answer when thinking about what you have to get done.
And if you’re getting stuck on something, those are the same questions you can examine to see if changing an answer to one might free up a little mental mojo.