Quick – slow down! The paradox you need to practise

I make people work fast – and I insist they relax. I make them do an exercise in 10 minutes instead of an hour – then I tell them to take an extra-long shower. I give them a demanding schedule of work – and tell them to take it for a lovely long walk. I do all this not out of crazed split-personality psychosis, but because I know, intimately, the creative process.

Case study: Step 0 of the Springboard Your Book programme

When I launched the Springboard Your Book programme, born out of months of thought and 6 years of helping over 30 experts write their book, I wrote on the website in December, “Book now for January and start immediately!” This wasn’t another paradox – it’s the same one. We don’t start at Step 1, we start from Zero.  As soon people sign up, I send them a little pack of info, activities, and brainstorms. Everything is strictly time-limited. It will take them 2 hours, tops. And I want them to do it in 2 hours, no more – but spread over 2 weeks. Why?

Working like that gets you going fast with quick brainstorming activities and rapid research, but it also gives you time for more ideas to bubble to the surface. You do need time to mull it over. You don’t need time to get bogged down. And therein lies the paradox:

Bird walking through the snow in Oxford University Parks - original photo by Megan Kerr

Be QUICK – don’t get bogged down

All writing, whether it’s your magnum opus novel or a workbook for your clients, is part of the creative process. That process is full of wonders, but also dangers: here be dragons. People who work with creativity all the time know these dragons well. Self-doubt. Perfectionism. Dream-creating something so huge and wonderful that it’s impossible to actually make. Fear of making mistakes. The hapless notion that you have to have the whole thing worked out in your head or whatever you do now will be wrong.

Working at high speed bypasses most of these dragons, and that’s all we need to do right now – shoot past them. You might find other times, further down the road, when you need to sit down with your fears and have a coffee with them, but for now – don’t listen to the voices. Get it down, get it done, we can finesse about it later.

Working super-fast also helps you escape the inner critic – another friendly demon that creatives know all too well! (Mine is a bitch with a whip and a clipboard.) This one can be harder to manage, because the inner critic also has useful insights. Sometimes that section isn’t working, your metaphor is collapsing, your style is going to hell. You do need your inner critic – but that cautious, professional relationship comes much further down the line. The inner critic has no place at the start of a project. As my drawing teacher told me, “Megan, how can you even know if you’ve drawn the right line when there are no other lines on the page? Just draw some other lines. You can change them later if you need to, when you can see how they work together.”

The same is true for writing. We can’t know if it’s working yet - because it doesn’t exist yet! So we don’t listen to the inner critic right now. We speed past her (or him – or It).

So that explains 2 hours, instead of 10. But what about the 2 weeks?

SLOW DOWN – the non-thinking thinking time

You shouldn’t be dwelling on your work and fretting over it, but you should be mulling and musing over it. This is the other secret of the creative process – and why we get a bad rep! It doesn’t look like work and it soon all sounds a bit woo-woo. But it’s not: it’s creative pause.

All creatives know it and plenty of research has explored it. In the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Professor Lajos Székely describes creative pause as “the time interval which begins when the thinker interrupts conscious preoccupation with an unsolved problem, and ends when the solution to the problem unexpectedly appears in consciousness.” (“The Creative Pause”, 1967) (from Why thinking in the shower may be an ideal model for the ‘creative pause’)  A paper in Psychological Science, Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation, found that ”simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.” BPS Research Digest tells us to Be Creative – Don’t Even Think About It!, reporting research from Ap Dijksterhuis and Teun Meurs at the University of Amsterdam. 99U‘s recent tip on Why Boredom is Good for Creativity looks at how to harness it.

In practice, how do you do it? Give yourself time. Cut out distraction. Occupy yourself with simple, repetitive tasks.  Here are a few of my favourites:

  • a long shower – everyone knows we think best in the shower!
  • a long walk – with music, for me, but never with a podcast (distraction)
  • chopping vegetables and washing dishes – without talk-radio playing
  • any household task that doesn’t take thought: painting walls, cleaning windows, scrubbing floors, polishing furniture

While you do this, you let your mind wander. If it strays too far (into business plans or to-do lists or fantasies), remind it gently of the theme, the book, then let it wander again. Ideas float up. Occasionally you might stop to jot one down, but mostly just think – or don’t think.

That’s the secret, then, of the 2 hours – and the 2 weeks. If you want to write your expert book, email me now at megan@thoughtleaderbooks.co.uk and I’ll send you the pack to get you started. All other forms of creativity – take 10 minutes to do something creative, fast, then take a good long shower, go for a walk, or start scrubbing down your house, safe in the knowledge that this is creative practice.

4 thoughts on “Quick – slow down! The paradox you need to practise

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