You have to plan to let your mind wander.
Last week was a whopper for me.
It was a convergence of events. My kids’ school year was ending, and we had a lot of unusual events (and a lot of emotions) to manage around that. Plus, I had several different groups of family members in town and staying with us. For completely unrelated reasons. My house was overflowing with unexpected comings and goings, atypical schedules, uncertainty, and general disarray.
I spent most of every day trying to figure out who needed to be where and at what time. And when people would be home and want to eat. And how to serve the smallest number of foods that still covered everyone’s unique dietary needs. Who needed clean towels and who needed to borrow a car for a few hours.
I was able to carve out time and space to do my most important tasks of the week. But everything else in my brain was taken up by trying to figure out the logistics of the day.
This is not how I usually operate.
If you’ve read my writing before, you know that I tend toward a pretty organized and routine life. I like structure, I like habits. I naturally crave and create them, for myself and my family.
And I haven’t always considered myself a creative person. I love math and science, I worked on Wall Street. I am fascinated by the business side of any business. None of these things are traditionally considered creative endeavors.
But in the midst of the chaos last week, I realized a few things.
Creativity is important in all areas of life
Almost every area of life requires creativity to innovate and move forward. Of course creativity is important for artists. But startups need to approach their business from a unique perspective to carve out their own niche. On Wall Street, I needed a creative approach to analyzing biotech companies. So I could find previously uncovered opportunities.
And of course writing. Writing that feels satisfying and makes an impact needs a creative approach. Most of us write about topics that have been covered before. Approaching a topic from a unique angle and with a clear voice requires it’s own kind of creativity.
Even coming up with the solution to how eight family members will get to three different locations at the same time with only two cars requires a level of creativity.
Setting a routine and structure can de-clutter your mind
I long believed that because I craved structure and routine, I must not be creative. I always associated creativity with spur of the moment, swinging-from-the-chandelier personalities.
What I realized is that structure and routine actually support my creativity. In fact, I could not create without them.
How could I focus on writing when I wasn’t sure what would happen next. Would someone come through my office door at any minute with a request for a food or a crying child that missed his classmates?
How can I find a new way to tell a startup client’s story to potential investors when in the back of my mind I am wondering who will need a ride and at what time?
Creating a routine — whether it’s a morning routine or a weekly schedule or a regular evening routine — de-clutters your mind. Setting that routine and schedule in advance clears an important space. You know what’s going to happen. You don’t have to think about it or keep the topic going in the back of your mind.
And these routines can allow your brain to disengage when it needs to. Which is really the key to creativity.
The brain needs to disengage to generate a flow of ideas
I have done a lot of research recently on brainwaves (for reasons unrelated to this article).
Basically, the brain generates electrical power. This electrical output can be measured by electrodes placed on the scalp. And there are four categories of brainwaves. They range from most activity to least activity. There are lots of studies using EEG (electroencephalogram) to measure these brainwaves. EEG is also used to diagnose epilepsy and sleep disorders. A lot of the newer research uses EEG to map your specific brainwave levels to different regions of the brain and attempt to “optimize” them.
As I was recovering from last week’s chaos, I came upon this older Scientific American article. I’ve read a lot of basic research on the topic, but I think this article has the best, simple language to describe brainwaves. And as I read about one specific kind, called theta, it all clicked for me. From the article:
[Theta] is a state where tasks become so automatic that you can mentally disengage from them. The ideation that can take place during the theta state is often free flow and occurs without censorship or guilt. It is typically a very positive mental state.
So, theta is the most important brainwave to foster if you are trying to come up with new ideas and be creative.
But your brain needs to be mentally disengaged from the present moment. It can’t focus on uncertainty or logistics or distraction. It needs the time and space to enter theta to be creative.
And what better way to disengage from tasks than to keep a routine and a schedule? When you know what you’re having for breakfast and you’ve made it a million times, you can disengage. You can enter theta. And you can find your most creative thoughts.
That’s when I realized.
It’s not only that my structure and routine keeps distractions at bay. It’s the ability to mentally disengage within my pre-planned schedule that actually maximizes my creativity.
I am back in my routine this week. The kids are in camp. Family members have left. And I’m finding great ideas in all sorts of places. In the shower. While walking the dog. In standstill traffic on my way home from a client’s office. I have found the time to enter theta once again.
My well planned days leave room for my brain to go to unexpected places, with creative results.
So I ask you, how can you create the structure in your life to find more time in theta? You won’t be more confined by a schedule. You’ll be so much more free.
Your brain, your projects, your work will all thank you.