Optimizing Your Creativity

Let's face it, when it comes to creativity, inspiration can be fickle. There are times when you're on fire and everything you do seems like a complete gem. Then there are other times when it all seem like complete garbage. The worst seems to be when ideas don't seem to be coming at all. There are things we can do to optimize the time when we're the most creative and what to do when we aren't.

Being On Fire

We all love those times when ideas are just flowing. The ideas are coming from every where and one seems better than the next. We all know though, that these times are fleeting and they seem to leave just as quickly as they arrived. Creativity can be like a little child. They come and go when they please. They're very erratic and can't be depended on. They can last but usually they're quite short...or never long enough. And the worst part is that the harder you try to get them to abide by your will, the harder it is to get them to cooperate. In short, when it comes to inspiration, we're at the whim of the gods.

Taking Control

So we can see that creative inspiration won't abide by our demand and will. Like the little child analogy, there are ways we can set the stage to entice creativity to come our way. We can make sure that we take time for it everyday. Creativity needs a playground. It needs a time and space to play. We can't always be there when it wants but we can set the stage and see what happens. We can have an open mind and most of all, patience. Great ideas come when they're good and ready. You should be ready too.

The Repetitiveness Of It All

Our brains work in different ways depending on our environment. Have you ever noticed that you get great ideas at the weirdest times? There are good reasons for it most of the time. There's no mystery why we come up with our best ideas when driving, vacuuming or taking a walk. Something happens to our brain when we do simple, repetitive tasks. Much like our brain when we take a walk, the brain gets into the the repetitive motions of the activity and spurs the ideas in the back of our brain. We want to get our mind into this area when we're trying to be creative. That's why being consistent with your work is such a valuable asset. Being in the right mindset helps too.

Cramming Your Day

There's also the opposite effect when we're stressed out, or trying to do too many things at once. Creativity usually can't fit inside your mind when you're preoccupied with a million other things. Try to set aside a time where you won't be bothered. Try and forget your day. Don't put too much emphasis on 'getting something done' as much as 'seeing what comes up'. If at all possible separate your 'creative days' from your 'working days'. I try to get as many of my chores done in a single day so I can devote a separate day to just creating. Pick a time of day when your mind is more quiet. Ironically, I usually find this to be the morning, you may find something else. If you're writing and your mind is preoccupied with things to do, write them down and let them go. They'll be there when you're done.

Other Places to Play

Some people say that they come up with the best ideas in weird places but have trouble getting the juices going when they get home or into the studio. I've had some musicians tell me that they've had their best ideas when teaching and working with others. There are two reasons for this. The first goes along with the notion we mentioned earlier about the environment and repetitive tasks. When teaching students, teachers are usually in the same space and same environment mentally for quite a few hours. They're also doing actions that are very similar and repetitive. The other reason is the state of mind. When sitting down and trying to get creative in the studio, you may do a couple of warm ups and get right to it. You start to bang out a couple of ideas and wonder why nothing is coming. Like the child, creativity doesn't seem to want to play today or at least won't play on demand. In the teaching scenario, you aren't asking the child to come and play. You're simply working and trying to convey ideas. You're playing on your own and leaving it open to creativity if it wants to come in a join you. Of course since your mind is on the task at hand, this happens in your sub-conscious. Working on your sub-conscious is much more effective because that's the area where your creativity stems from. Your mind isn't concerned about coming up with the next best idea, it's simply involved with the task at hand.

So What Can I Do

The best way to stimulate creativity is to just start playing. It's much more interested in playing along than being told what to do. Some people work best when they put aside a particular time of day and just get to it. If you're dismissing this right off, don't. I've always felt that I needed to be 'in the mood' or at least 'in the right state of mind' to be creative. I've also always felt that I was more effective at night than at day. The problem with this was I never really tested it. The reason why I felt this way wasn't from concrete results but it was always the time I was 'in the mood' to be creative. It amazed me when I started working in the morning because I was busy at night and didn't like losing days. To my amazement, not only were the results better, but I was getting much more done.

The Space

We've talked about this in here before. I think it's a great idea to have an area set aside to practice so that when it's time you can just get right to it. When it comes to creativity, there are a couple of ways to go about this. It's usually better to have a space set up because you can all of your items there ready to go. All you have to do is pick up your guitar and press record. The opposite to this is to work in different areas and see what happens. You may find that with creativity you may need a change in atmosphere once in a while. Be careful about having a writing area. This may put more stress on your sub-conscious. It's better to have a 'play area' and just see what flows. After you've been at a while you may find that you can get creative in pretty much any space. It's all about getting the mind into the right space and not so much your body.

Patience Is A...

If there's one trait you need to cultivate when it comes to creativity is patience. You have to be patient and wait for the ideas to come. You have to be playful and see how things evolve. If things aren't going well, try another way. Try another chord, another groove. Try something and see what happens with that. Try not to be too judgmental at first. Children don't like nay-sayers. Or, the child may still continue to try but the judgmental will eradicate any ideas as soon as they arrive. Ideas need time to germinate and grow. We have to take our time and just see what arrives. Our first reaction may not be the best every time.

Hit the Beach

I've had other musicians tell me that they're the most creative at the beach or an area like that. This actually comes from our brain being in a playful envronment. If you're stting on the beach with friends and start jamming , you may find that ideas are flying. This is again because your mind is in that playful state. It's probably not stressed, happy and most of all free to explore. Of course you don't have to be on the beach for this to work, just get into the right mindset.

Not Tonight, I Have a Headache

So what happens when you're not feeling creative at all? What if you haven't felt like doing anything for a while and when you do something, you're less than impressed with the results? Two things may be at work here. Either there may be some turmoil in your life, and the mind is focused elsewhere. Or, everything may be fine but (for usually some completely unknown reasons) the creative juices just aren't flowing. Creativity isn't a science, so there are no hard and fast rules. We won't go into the psychology of it all, we'll just look for some solutions. First off, there are a number of things that you can do to get your mind back in order without having to spent time with your therapist.

Shut It Off

Unfortunately, our minds aren't a finely tuned machine. There are things that we have no understanding of at all. But there are some things that we can do to slow the mind down. We can work on our minds like we work on our music. We can practice letting go, concentration, focusing and mind games that stimulate the creative areas. First off, one of the best things for musicians to do (actually I think it's beneficial for all people), is to work on quieting the mind. The mind is in constant motion which isn't always a good thing. One of the reasons why you seem to get creative at the weirdest moments is because the mind is quiet. I don't mean quiet in the 'not doing anything' way but quiet in the fact that it's concentrating on only one thing. Take time everyday to quiet the mind. The best method is to simply count your breaths. It seems really simple until you try to do it. You quickly realize how much junk is running through your mind at any one time.

Exercising the Mind

One thing I like to do when teaching people how to write is to throw ideas around. There are specific exercises that I do that stimulates the mind and gets the wheels turning. These work because it challenges the mind instead of 'waiting for inspiration'. If you're a writer and having trouble coming up with new ideas, try some exercises, get out of your regular cycle and see what happens. Most writers don't like the results of most of the exercises but they're there to stimulate the mind. They actually lead to something great.

Mind stimulation exercises for songwriters:

1. Give yourself an odd assignment. a) write in a musical style that you're completely unfamiliar with. I usually will give a metal guitar player an assignment to write a pop song They usually hate this but do quite well. b) write in a lyrical style that you're completely unfamiliar with. I will ask a pop songwriter to write a song based on a ridiculous theme. (e.g. rabbits falling in love, what it's like to be a dog, the political climate in America). You get the idea.

2. Become a remixer. This involves taking somebody else's work and seeing what you can do with it. Some famous composers did this all the time; Bach was famous for using folk melodies. In essence you would take the backing track (or form, or chord progression, or groove) from a song you love and see what you would do with it. This is great for writers who have a hard time with re-writes since it makes you come up with something in place of a well known piece. This can also be applied to lyrics. Take the general theme (or main line) and write a new lyric.

3. Get a book on music theory or take a course. Nothing stimulates the musician's mind more than learning other kinds of music. Learn a new chord progression or lick or some theory and apply it to your music. Even if you're in a terrible mood, it won't last long. The ideas will be flying in no time.

4. Get a toy, new way of working. Sometimes the best way of doing something is to take another approach completely. If you've always wrote on guitar, try piano. While it's not always the best solution, sometimes just getting new toy gets you in the mood to get to work. How many times have you gotten something new and just couldn't wait to get home and get to work. Be careful not to overdo this one though. Some people have way too much gear and not enough work done. 

With all of these exercises don't worry if it's good or not, just see what happens. The point is to get the juices flowing, not to create a masterpiece.

Be Like Nike

One of my favorite websites is a site about how creative people work. It's mostly writers but it gives great insight into their creative processes. One of the things that stands out to me is that fact that most of them get up early and just start working. There doesn't seem to be any regard to inspiration, creativity or even being motivated at all. It just seems like a normal part of their day. I think that therein lies their secret to success. Inspiration or not, the most important thing is to be there and get the ideas flowing. To work through all of the problems and find what you're trying to say. It's a matter of 'just doing it'. And that's it. It's not very romantic and doesn't make for great movie plots but it's honest.

True genius may come along once in a while but if you're in there everyday, you'll find that you'll be able to get creative on a daily basis and not worry as much about finding inspiration. Happy writing.