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Harnessing Creative Bubbles Before They Burst

I live with frequent brain fog. I’m not sure why. Could be chronic stress, bad sleep patterns, over-dependency on caffeine to function, general anxiety. Who knows.

What I do know is that I only get about an hour a day of clear thinking, if I’m lucky. It’s difficult to compare between individuals, given natural variations in energy levels and attention span, so let’s be specific.

Most of the time I function just fine: I can socialize, run errands, exercise, do admin, and perform the less intellectually demanding aspects of work. But anything insightful, thoughtful or creative is walled off behind a snarl of vines, iron wool and vertigo.

As a rule, the wall comes down once a day.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern in what triggers the spells of clarity. They just come, leaping from the shadows, unbidden and grinning.

Sometimes I’m lucky, ready at my desk or a quiet corner or a train. I can drop what I’m doing and take to the keyboard or a pad of paper before the wall is thrown up again.

Other times, I’m not so lucky. Maybe more often than not, I can’t possibly take advantage of the clear spells, like when I’m in the shower, out on a run, or during a conversation.

Catching the tails of creative bursts over a week usually produces a sprawl of notes like this… (see half-baked wisdom point #2 below)

Recently, I’ve had more free time and a rested mind, so I’ve been able to catch the clear spells more often. Maybe half the time.

In more usual circumstances, I’m a caffeine-addled, sleep-deprived, anxious mass, carefully groomed to look like a high-functioning adult. I might catch a clear spell once a week.

I’ve tried to use my recent ample free time to maximise the number of usable clear spells. I’ve experimented, and come up with five things that work for me that I think are worth noting (and I stress: they work for me; this is not advice).

Today’s Nuggets of Half-Baked Wisdom

1. Scheduling: I hate schedules, but they work. This is advice that’s been repeated again and again by creatives in every medium. See Daily Rituals by Mason Currey for dozens of examples. If you want to create, or even to think, it’s never going to happen if you don’t set aside time for it. That’s the bare minumum. Like condoms: better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

2. Notepads, notepads everywhere: I’ve heard one person say they keep a waterproof notepad in the shower. I haven’t gone that far, but I do have notepads stashed everywhere else now: in my pocket, my coat, my bag, beside my bed, beside the treadmill. It might not replace access to a journal or keyboard, but the little snippets and notes build up.

3. Strategic drug-taking: Calm down, I’m not onto mescaline… yet. But I’ve started taking caffeine at scheduled times to optimize its effects, giving a small kick without overloading me or causing a crash later. See books like Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, for the science. And if I’m stressed and too rigid to move, a wee dram of whiskey greases the wheels.

4. The Gaiman Method: Neil Gaiman says his writing method is simple. He sits down at his desk to write, and it doesn’t matter if he produces nothing. But he’s only allowed to stare out the window. He’s free to do that all he likes, but eventually his mind gets bored and starts making stories. Crafting an environment to induce boredom not only removes opportunities for procrastination, but actually incentivises your mind to invent its own distractions.

5. Don’t Force It: Probably the most important of the five. Everything has limits: we know when we’re too tired to go on, when our limbs are twisted to breaking point, when we’re about to lose our balance. Nothing good comes from pushing too hard. I’ve found that once I managed to make use of a creative spell, I often tried to squeeze it for all it was worth. But ultimately, what came out of it just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, because I tried to climb a mountain in one leap.

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