This week: protect your head space. How to surf your brainwaves and get into the zone where the good stuff happens, with a secret combination of herbs and spices. (And music.)
|Kickstart your book
1. Defend the project
2. Defend the time
3. Protect your headspace
4. Sit down with your fears
5. Use process goals
6. Get support
Week 3: Protect your head space
In the last two weeks, you defended the project and defended the time – you know exactly why this book is a priority and you’ve prioritised the time for it in your calendar. Now you need to protect the headspace.
Leaping from high-octane pressure to writing is tricky. Calm, intense focus is great for writing. Hurried, high-pressure restlessness isn’t. You need to get into the zone.
What’s happening in your head?
We divide brain waves into four categories, according to their speed: alpha, theta, delta, and beta. Beta is fastest, 13-40 Hz: it’s quick, efficient, fantastic for making quick decisions under pressure, dealing with stress, and for concentrating hard. That’s how we spend most of our waking hours. It’s fantastically efficient because it narrows your focus down to the essentials – but that’s also its limitation. It works with the known. Good old reliable Beta. Efficient, hard-working, not the creative type. And writing is about making something new – out of a whole cloud of ideas, concepts, experiences, knowledge, skills, and expertise, you are creating something. You’ll use some beta thinking, but you also need other kinds.
Alpha brainwaves are a delicate tightrope of concentration-and-trance: when you’re playing guitar and you’ve just found the perfect rhythm, you know you can keep doing it forever so long as you concentrate very hard and don’t think about it at all. It’s a narrow space, 7-13 Hz. Theta brainwaves are even deeper in the zone, slowing down to 4-7 Hz. When you’re showering – driving – walking – running – chopping vegetables – whatever brings it on – and you go into a trance, then suddenly “come round” as if waking up, that’s Theta brainwaves. (If you go any slower, below 4 Hz, you’re asleep – and that’s Delta brainwaves.)
Creativity, making new things, relies on a see-saw between Theta and Alpha brainwaves. When everything’s flowing like water, when that spark lights up, when ideas spring up, when you say “a-ha!”, when you’re glued to what you’re doing and it’s both effortless and intense, that’s the zone. Of course you’ll lapse into Beta occasionally – you still need it – but it can’t drive the creative process.
Think of a Michelin-starred kitchen. Theta’s the master chef. Alpha’s the head chef during any given service. Beta – well, that’s your sous-chefs, your onion-choppers, your kitchen porters, essential and valuable staff, but you don’t want them writing the recipes. And unless you want to be a canteen, instead of a gourmet restaurant, don’t put them in charge.
How do you make it happen?
You’re busy as hell, you’ve set aside these 2 hours to write – how do you jump into the zone?
Brainwaves in your lifestyle (in an ideal world)
When you wake up, let yourself drift slowly upwards – from Delta, into Theta, into Alpha, into Beta. This is the best way of ensuring you can access those brainwaves later in the day.
• Cut back on caffeine – it stimulates Beta brainwaves. After the first cup or two in the morning, I actually just want something warm, milky and brown, I don’t even notice if it’s coffee or not, so I switch to barleycup.
• Seek out your theta-triggers: find what activities put you in that trance-state and include them. When my brother starts a new design project, he has extra-long showers, because he knows that’s where the thinking happens. (Don’t worry, he’s in Sweden and has a bore hole; it’s environmentally friendly!) When I switch from editing to writing, I take a long walk to switch headspace. Yes, this adds an hour. It saves far more than an hour.
Headspace short-cuts: set da moooooood
Use your physical space to create triggers & the right environment for the zone:
• soundtrack: the right playlist can take you straight into the zone. I like contemporary, slightly ethereal folk with few lyrics, or film scores. I reserve certain playlists & songs for certain projects, so that the association stays strong.
• smells: the strongest memory-trigger we have. An oil burner and essential oils gives you a huge palette of smells – again, reserve them for that project, to keep the association strong. I like a combination of sandalwood, pine, and rosemary.
• location: clean your writing space in advance and make it pretty. This is not corporate-space (that’ll trigger a Beta response.) Let your fluffy, playful, or pretty side come out. Right now, I have candles, smurfs, a winter nature table, and a giant branch on my writing desk. When I’m using the same desk to work and write, I pack away all my work stuff and take out my writing stuff (including the oil burner). I also have a set coffee-shop where I brainstorm.
• clothes: your clothes set the mood. Office wear makes you feel officey. If that’s a high-pressure environment, you’ll trigger a Beta response. Switch to relaxed clothes (which doesn’t necessarily mean slobby).
• a sense of safety: if you feel threatened, your mind will switch to Beta brainwaves to protect you. Great when there’s lions and bears about. Not great for creativity. Create a sense of safety for yourself – security and cosiness. That can be as simple as taking the trouble to make yourself a latte in your favourite mug. The right soundtrack, smells, location, and clothes usually create that sense of safety for me.
Our brains are brilliantly Pavlovian. Before long, just the process of setting up the physical space – that 5 minutes or so of preparation – will bring your brain into the zone. That’s where the good stuff happens.
This week’s core task: create your writing space: a safe space and a lovely one.