The productivity experts tell you it’s easy. We all have twenty four hours in a day, so finding creative time is just a matter of priorities. If you want to find the time to be creative badly enough, you’ll find it. You’ll simply not do something else. Job done.
Not so fast, productivity experts. Every artist knows there is more to it than that. Finding the time is part of the battle but the other part is about the quality of that creative time. It has to be uncontaminated time, or you get very little creative work done.
What do I mean by “uncontaminated”? It means time to create, unencumbered by worries or distractions, so that you can immerse yourself fully in the flow of your creative process. Uh-oh! Suddenly, that seems a whole lot harder to achieve than simply blocking out hours in your diary. How the heck do you eliminate worries and distractions?
The virtuoso rock guitarist, Joe Satriani, shared some observations from his own experience as a creative artist. He indicated that family love is very important to him, as an artist and human being. To quote:
“I hate to admit it, but artists need support. Musicians need managers and lawyers and accountants and techs around them, but the creative part, the soulful part, really needs a loving, supportive family structure, and also one that is intellectually and artistically challenging. Not for a second do I take for granted how much support, love, and help I get from everybody that’s part of my inner circle.”
Sometimes, the stresses and strains that inevitably accompany any life can be grist for the creative mill. Joe Satriani again (emphasis is mine):
“During points of incredible stress, creativity also comes through and does something. You go through a life tragedy and you write a piece of music that represents it. But besides a couple of songs that came out of some horrible moments, most of my best work came from when I was free to forget about all that stuff and just work on creativity.”
That’s a very important insight. Having a clear head, free from everything else, so that you can focus and work on creativity, leads to producing your best work. If you can’t decontaminate your creative time, you’re probably not going to produce your best stuff, by corollary.
Joe goes on to say:
“If we move that microscope even closer: Imagine you’re at a studio session, and you’re not happy with your guitar sound, and the producer is telling you to hurry up—versus the engineer or the producer telling everyone to leave the room so the artist can play around for a few hours until he finds the sound that makes him happy. So, when you’re in that situation where, as guitar players are, you’re just endlessly searching for that right tone, that right effect, or the right guitar, it’s great when the people around you give you that space and time to find that tone, before forcing you to start performing.”
Joe Satriani has produced something like fifteen studio albums and sold tens of millions of records. Finding the sublime works in his own creative capacities requires that he surround himself with people that make the space and time for him to pursue his curiosity. He needs the ability to, through playful experimentation, give voice to his inner creative vision. The sound he makes has to resemble the sound he imagines in his head, or he won’t be able to perform with the same command over the work he is bringing forth into the world. His authority derives from his comfort with the match between what he wants to produce and what he is physically able to reproduce.
In Joe’s own summation (with my emphasis):
“The take-away is: Don’t even think about it. Just concentrate on the music, being prepared, physically and emotionally, for the project, and then that part of you that’s the professional musician takes over. That’s the part that deals with scheduling, and the wrong gear, and having to change studios, or personal issues. Those things are always going to happen and you’ll never work out a formula for it.”
This is a very clear observation that magic can only happen, in your creative endeavours, when you can free your mind of everything else. To do that requires that there are people around you, who love you enough and believe in your creative work sufficiently, to selflessly take away some of that load. Behind every great artist is a significant person in their lives that takes on all the distracting details. This is somebody genuinely interested in what you are trying to create; a cheerleader, and concierge, if you like.
Clearly, as an artist you cannot simply expect somebody else to selflessly give up their own creative endeavours to support yours. It’s give and take. However, if you can surround yourself with people that support you in decontaminating your creative time, who you can mutually support by decontaminating their creative time in return, you might be onto something.
There are other ways of finding uncontaminated creative time. There are moments in the day where you can relax and cannot be interrupted (unless you allow yourself to be). One example is the thinking time you can carve out on the train (provided it’s not too crowded and rowdy). I find the quietest carriages at non peak times, when possible. This allows me to be alone with my creative thoughts, which I capture in Evernote, on my phone. It’s not “doing” time, it’s “planning” time. Planning makes the doing flow more easily.
The other place I find particularly productive, from the point of view of uncontaminated creative time, is in a hot bath. In this relaxed, private space and time, your mind is free to focus on creative planning. You can’t make anything, but you can think things through. The problem is that the ideas come thick and fast and you find yourself rushing to get out of the bath to write things down.
It’s worth being aware of the “inspiration paradox” – the idea that “innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms”. Science has discovered that we are most creative in the middle of the afternoon, when we are least able to focus on analytical tasks and co-incidentally less inhibited in our thoughts. We can more easily make surprising connections and join disparate thoughts together, when we’re more unfocused. If you’re going to daydream some new creative work into existence, a drowsy afternoon is often best. This is not because you are at your peak of productive efficiency, but because you’re too fatigued to do that stuff. Awake dreams have their place.
At those looser moments, a few distractions can actually help us spot connections we might have missed when our filters were tighter. For analytic problems, lack of inhibitory control is a bug. For insight problems, it’s a feature. Being able to let our thoughts drift, or for distractions to take us down new paths of curiosity, lets us synthesise new things in our minds. Making them real is quite possibly very much less demanding, when we have a clear vision of them in our heads.
“I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.” – Henry David Thoreau
Decontaminating your creative time means achieving clarity of purpose and vision, while ignoring the trivialities that constantly try to invade our consciousness. Those you love most can help you best. It also means planning ahead, when you’re more open to the process, so that any creative time you can carve out is used to make, rather than conceive of, the work. Pre-imagined creative works are easier to realise, if your creative time is limited and contaminated by distractions. Find the clean time wherever you can.