Outbursts of Creativity

by Krishna on May 5, 2008

Cornelius’s post on his recent low frequency of blog posts was very interesting. Since my blogging frequency has also gone down, I look back at 2007 and wonder the same thing: What helped me blog so much then? To some extent, Cornelius is right in saying that the less structured one is, the more output one can produce. But that explanation does not really solve the problem, because the trick is: How do you produce quality in greater quantity, at least in accordance with one’s own definition of quality?

I feel that the biggest requirement of any creative work is the availability of time, or more accurately, the assumption of uninterrupted time. Creativity, by definition, means doing something that has never been done before or never been done quite the same way before. Because of its uncertain nature, it is difficult to estimate how much time it would take to complete a creative endeavor. To start a creative task, a person must have some confidence that he or she would be able to complete it, and what they need most, apart from tools, is the feeling that they will have sufficient time to complete that task.

Now strictly speaking, time is always available. It is possible to find gaps of unallocated time in the midst of other tasks that one is doing, but such time segments are useless for creative work. Creative work requires a significant focus of the mind to achieve a state called “flow”. Flow is achieved when the mind is fully knowledgeable about the critical pieces of the creative work and at the same time, heavily processing that information to make new decisions. Until the first stage (knowledge-acquisition) is achieved, the second stage (decision-making) is very inefficient. The first stage always requires some time, and the more complex the creative work, the more time it consumes.

When you have a short time segment, you don’t have enough time to achieve the first stage, even though the actual work accomplished in the second stage could have been completed in that time. When you are interrupted in your creative work, you have to start all over from the beginning. When you feel that you are likely to be interrupted, you decide not to start something because of the same reason.

There is sometimes a “zeroeth” stage (if I may use the term) of “desk-clearing”. Sometimes, a person will go out of his or her way to dispose of other totally minor tasks like replying to emails or taking out the garbage, even though the more urgent work is pending. To an outside observer, this behavior can be ridiculous and frustrating. But what the person is doing is to remove all possible distractions and create a solid chunk of time that can be spent on creative work.

High performance in creativity comes when the person has achieved flow and can count on not being interrupted. This usually means very early hours or very late hours when the chances of being interrupted are very low. Another option is, of course, a physical location where one can work in peace for long periods of time.

I don’t want to confuse this with workaholism, which is about spending more hours per day. A more creative person may or may not spend less hours than a hard-working person, but they spend those hours with more focus. Creative passion can lead to voluntary workaholism (at work or as a hobby), but that is a different topic, some aspects of which I have discussed previously.

One technique around the constraints of uninterrupted time is to convert creative work into mechanical work. For example, one could design a mechanical way of writing blog entries, such as post the most interesting link you read all day and write a couple of paragraphs outlining your views. Sticking to a well-defined structure can reduce the need for greater analysis and ramp-up time. However, the quality is the production-line type of quality with less deviation from the norm. So even though you are unlikely to produce total failures, you are also less likely to produce hits.

The other technique is to maximize the use any sufficiently long time period at the risk of being less productive. This article on sleep deprivation by 37 signals is pretty accurate, but it misses the point that when it comes to creativity, you are usually operating (without sleep deprivation) nowhere close to 100% unless you are well isolated from interruptions. If you are doing mechanical work, it does not make any sense to stay late hours, but if you are doing something creative, it may pay off to continue to produce until your brain drops off the flow state.


Sunil Deepak May 6, 2008 at 9:50 pm

For what you call the “first stage”, taking out your dog for a relaxed walk in a good place is an ideal situation, like it for me. Ideas come to me at that time. But is there a limit to creative ideas that we all have inside us? After you have said it 200 times, perhaps it is time to take a break?

Jennifer May 7, 2008 at 5:33 am

Well said! I agree that people can be creative in their work. I find that when I am very creative in my work, rather than taking more time, it takes less as I am more focused and pouring my passion into that piece of work. In fact, the same work done without creativity or passion is quite honestly, a waste of time for me.

Bala May 12, 2008 at 10:24 pm

Very nice post. I totally agree, high performance in creativity is acheived when we are not being interrupted. Well said about ‘Desk-clearing’. Clearing up the distractions helped me to focus on creative work.
Sometimes I get out of focus from the important work while disposing too many distractions. I have to learn how to balance and prioritize my work.

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