As a creativity coach, I used to ask my clients “How often did you write this week?” I still care how often writers write, but now I’m more likely to ask “Did you pulse between work and renewal this week?” The pulse is the difference that makes a difference creatively.
Pulsing is a rhythm of focused work, followed by a period of renewal and restoration. The focused work might be writing or research or revision. The renewal period might include exercise or meditation or food or music. The focus directs the creative mind, and the relaxation from focus allows the creative mind to make the connections that lead to the aha! moments we all cherish. The payoff is mental and physical energy–and higher levels of creativity and produced work.
We all know the folklore about creative breakthroughs, brilliant aha! moments that came during a dream or a long walk after a long struggle to find scientific answers or create the right structure for a literary work. Now neuroscientists are studying the precise way the brain works and show us ways to balance work and relaxation so we get more aha! moments more reliably.
Tony Schwartz shares a study of violinists, all graduates of an eminent academy, in his book Be Excellent at Anything. What distinguished the violinists with brilliant futures from the ones with dismal futures was practice time. Given comparable talent and training, the key to a great career as a violinist seemed to be practicing about 27 hours a week. And yes, that’s like saying it’s hard to be a best-selling novelist if you haven’t found ways to write–a lot.
Doesn’t fit your life? Four focused writing hours a day doesn’t mix well with your toddlers or teens or day job? The neuroscientists have great news for you.
Schwartz also revealed that the best violinists uniformly developed a routine of 90 minutes of practice followed by 30 minutes of rest, renewal or restoration. Why does that matter? In a Charlie Rose /// http://www.charlierose.com /// interview, Jonah Lehrer, the author of Imagine, said the brain’s creativity function is making connections. The more diverse the connections, the bigger the aha! moment.
Without the rest and renewal period, there might not be aha! moments. None. The focused mind (Think left brain.) directs the mind’s attention. The relaxed mind makes the creative connections. If you only have 30 minutes to work, your best use of the time would be 20 minutes of writing followed by 10 minutes of relaxation or exercise.
If you pulse three times a day, the brain gets to make creative connections three times as often as if you work all day and don’t relax until you sleep. It may even be counterproductive to attempt to focus for more than 90 minutes without a creative break.
You may have to get creative to make the pulse rhythm work in your own life. One writer with a day job gets up early and writes three 20-minute sessions with 10-minute breaks for breakfast. A friend with a middle-management desk job accumulates errands like delivering files and FAXing, using them as a walking-in-the-office break after working with figures. A home schooling mother takes exercise breaks with her children between study periods.
You’ll know when you’ve got it right for your life because you’ll have more physical energy and more of those aha! moments we all cherish. This is no static balancing act. The dynamic energy of the 3:1 pulse ratio is the closest thing the mind can find to perpetual creative motion. A wild, escalating balancing act we can all win.
*Edited by Teresa Crumpton*