Want to boost your creativity? In this short video, I discuss some easy-to-follow suggestions on how you can use sleep to boost your creativity and awaken your muse!
Want to boost your creativity? In this short video, I discuss some easy-to-follow suggestions on how you can use sleep to boost your creativity and awaken your muse!
Novice authors often assume that writing occurs solely in their conscious mind. They toil over the perfect opening sentence. They twist words to the breaking point trying to create vivid prose and immersive scenes and fanciful metaphors.
But experienced writers know better. They know that the true writer resides in their unconscious mind. In Bag of Bones, Stephen King describes the writing process as analogous to having a bunch of guys with a truck pull up and unload furniture into your basement. Furniture you can’t see because it’s all wrapped in padded quilts, but you don’t need to see because you know it’s everything you need to write your story. All the writer has to do is unwrap each piece, carry it up the stairs, and set up in the correct rooms.
In King’s analogy, the “boys in the basement” are his unconscious mind. His muse. He is suggesting that as a writer he doesn’t create the story elements; they already exist within his unconscious. His job is to merely pull each story element from his unconscious and arrange it so as to make the best story.
What is the Unconscious Mind?
Psychologists have long held that the mind has two major systems: conscious and unconscious. The conscious system is the part of the mind we are aware of. It’s the part of us that debates options and makes decisions. People generally assume they are aware of everything that happens in their own mind, but in fact, they are really only aware of this conscious aspect.
The unconscious system occurs outside of our awareness or control. It is the part of the mind that handles all the heavy lifting so we can live our lives more easily. It is always running in the background, scanning all the millions of pieces of information that bombard our brains and determining what gets passed to our consciousness and what gets buried. Our unconscious mind is a treasure trove of forgotten experiences, emotions, ideas and memories. Unlike its conscious sibling, the unconscious mind is able to process this wealth of data very quickly and efficiently. And allowed to, it can make novel connections between all this seemingly unrelated information, which is essentially what creativity is all about. Amazingly, it does this all without us even being aware of it chugging away in the basement.
The unconscious mind is often thought of as a dumb creature, only able to deliver basic “tip of the tongue” facts or give us strange dreams about talking Rhinoceroses. But a great deal of research suggests it is actually our unconscious mind who is responsible for most of our decisions and innovations. Our conscious mind just takes the credit after the fact. For example, one study by John-Dylan Haynes and colleagues found that brain activity increased several seconds before participants made a conscious decision to move their finger. That means that their unconscious mind had decided to move their finger well before their conscious mind had.
Recognizing that ideas don’t just get consciously invented out of thin air may shake your sense of free will, but it is also incredibly freeing. It means you don’t create good story ideas; you unearth them from your unconscious. It means that you already have the idea for your next great story lurking down deep inside of you, you just have to help it find its way out. But here is the rub: the unconscious mind is a shy creature. It only comes out to play when there are few distractions or noises to scare it off. As a result, it is very hard to just force yourself to be creative. You can’t just tug at the leash and expect your inner muse to come running (do this and all you’ll get is a bad case of writer’s block). Instead, you need to coax it out of its den by dialing down anything that would activate your conscious mind.
Lucky for us, writers far more successful than us have found ways to accomplish this. Through trial and error, they have discovered ways to unlock their inner muse. Let’s explore a few such tips, ones that are not only used by esteemed writers but also backed up by science.
Seven Tips for Unlocking Your Unconscious Writer:
1. Sleep On It
John Steinbeck wrote in Sweet Thursday, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” Research backs this one up. A study published in Nature found that people who were given a creative task to solve and then allowed to sleep on it were more successful than those who remained awake to solve it. Sleep allows your unconscious mind to restructure information, resulting in new and insightful responses. Just make sure to keep a notepad by the bed for when inspiration strikes.
2. Give Yourself Permission to Daydream
“You get ideas from daydreaming,” Neil Gaimen once told his seven-year-old daughter’s class when they asked him where he got his ideas. “You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” In support of Gaimen’s assertion, a 2013 review of mind-wandering studies found that when people had a task and were given a break in which their mind could wander, their responses were more creative. So rather than avoiding moments of boredom with your smartphone or social media, relish in the boredom. Use those moments of riding on the subway or sitting in the waiting room to daydream, just like you used to do as a kid.
3. Drink Up (Within Reason)
For as long as writers have been around, they’ve been using alcohol (or other mind altering substances) to uncork their muse. From Poe and Hemingway to Faulkner and King—the list goes on and on (and on). As any drinker can tell you, alcohol weakens the unconscious mind. But a word of warning. It is one thing to use a small amount of alcohol to boost creativity; it is another to succumb to alcoholism. So how much is enough? One study found that a blood content level of just .075 was enough to improve people’s creativity (that’s roughly equivalent to two glasses of wine or two beers).
4. Keep Your Hands Busy
Something that uses your hands but allows your mind to be free to wander. Stephen King wrote in Bag of Bones, “I made no effort to think—an old trick from my writing days. Work your body, rest your mind, let the boys in the basement do their jobs.” Research supports this argument that busy hands results in daydreaming minds. Good options are household chores like dusting and vacuuming, physical hobbies like knitting or woodworking, or just doodling or using a “fidget widget” (e.g., Slinky, Fidget Spinner, smooth stone). Anything that busies your hands and focuses your conscious mind, allowing your unconscious muse to freely roam. This is probably why many writers, including J. K. Rowling, Joe Hill, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaimen, Danielle Steel, and Clive Barker, prefer to write their stories longhand.
5. Write During Your “Off Time”
People have what scientists call a circadian preference, which essentially means they are either morning people or evening people. You probably assume it is best to write during your most optimal time (morning people writing in the morning, evening people in the evening), but that’s not true. Although analytical thinking—the kind you use to solve math problems—is better during people’s optimal times, a 2011 study found that creativity was actually better during people’s non-optimal times. Because our conscious mind is groggy during our non-optimal time, it relaxes the reigns on our unconscious mind and gives it more freedom to wander.
6. Take a Shower
A survey conducted by creativity expert Scott Kaufman found that 72% of people report having a creative breakthrough in the shower. This is a secret writers have known for a long time. Agatha Christie, Edmond Rostand, and Dalton Trumbo all wrote while soaking in their tubs. And Woody Allen once stated in an Esquire interview that he frequently uses long showers to break through writer’s block. So why is a shower so good for creativity? It is an activity that is relaxing, done in isolation, and lacks other distractions—all essential components for unlocking your inner muse. To best optimize your shower, consider buying bathtub markers or a waterproof notepad like AquaNotes so you can immediately jot down all your amazing ideas.
7. Get Outside
Nature is one of the best places to reacquaint yourself with your unconscious mind. Lots of writers go for walks or run outside to get their creative juices flowing. Stephen King walked four miles every day (until a freak accident stopped him). Joyce Carol Oates is an avid runner who stated, “The structural problems I set for myself in writing, in a long, snarled, frustrating, and sometimes despairing morning of work, for instance, I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon.” Research backs up this tip too. Study after study has shown that walking in nature (or even just viewing images of nature) boosts creativity by as much as 50%. Plus, as an added bonus, getting outside has been shown to reduce stress, increase happiness and boost physical health!
Writing Requires Both Unconscious and Conscious Minds
Once the “boys in the basement” send up a good idea, you still have to work hard to unearth it and get the words down on the page. Usually that means allowing your unconscious mind to drive the story during the initial writing phase and making sure your conscious mind isn’t getting in the way. As author Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “All I seek when writing is to allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.”
But once the initial draft is written, that’s when you want to invite your conscious mind to the party. Your inner muse may design the first draft, but it is up to your inner editor to perfect the story and get it to the finish line.
This article initially appeared in Hinnom Magazine 006.
Do you have other advice for unlocking your hidden muse? If so, I’d love to hear it! Tell me in a comment.
“Goals cannot be achieved without discipline and consistency” – Denzel Washington
What are your writing goals? To finally write your first novel? Put together a collection of short stories? Submit your query letter to agents? Pen that memoir you’ve always wanted to get around to but never did?
We all have goals. Goals about our writing career, but also goals about our health, our hobbies, and our lives. And yet, it seems we are always failing at our goals. But why?
One of the main reasons people fail at their goals is that they don’t have a good goal plan. On Sunday night they think, “tomorrow I’m going to wake up an hour early and finally start writing that novel.” They set their alarm for 5:30 am but don’t plan any further than that. Come Monday morning, they roll over, hit the snooze button, and dredge through another week without a single change to their lives.
No shame here—we all do it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can achieve our goals whatever they are, you just need to know the right way to go about it. As Denzel Washington pointed out in his 2015 commencement speech at Dillard University, to achieve your goals you need discipline and consistency (the guy is worth over $150 million so he must know something about achieving goals). But that’s easier said than done.
For this post, let’s just focus on the consistency part. To be consistent, you need a good plan. One that will ensure that no matter what your day is like, you will still get off your butt and work on your goal no matter what. Lucky for us, psychologists have figured out exactly how to develop such a plan. Even better, you can do it in under 60 seconds. Here’s how.
A good plan should specify five things:
For instance, if you are trying to stick to a writing routine, it’s not enough to just want to write every day. It’s not even enough to set your alarm for 5:30 am. You need to develop a plan that states exactly
Psychologists call this type of goal plan an implementation intention. Implementation intentions refer to an if-then statement that specifies the exact behavior you will perform in a particular situation. Implementation intentions are referred to as if-then statements because they typically take the form of “IF situation Y occurs, THEN I will engage in behavior X.” So IF it is 6 am on Monday morning, THEN I will go on the porch and write. And IF my schedule gets too hectic and I don’t have enough time for a full writing session, THEN I will outline my next scene.
A number of research studies have shown how beneficial implementation intentions are. For example, one study by Orbell and colleagues had women set the goal of conducting a monthly breast examination to check for potential tumors. For women who just intended to complete this goal, only 53% actually completed the exam during the next month. But when the women wrote down exactly when and where and how they would conduct the monthly exam, 100% completed the exam during the next month. Other studies have found similar effects using different goals, such as taking vitamins, exercising, eating a low-fat diet, or recycling.
So why are these nifty little plans so effective?
One reason is that, because of how specific they are, they are easy to follow. This ensures that your goal-directed behavior is the same every time. There’s that consistency Denzel was talking about.
A second reason is that because of their specificity, it is really easy to see when you’re falling behind. If your goal is just to “write more,” that goal is so abstract it’s hard to tell when you’re succeeding at it and when you’re failing. But if your goal is to “write at 6 am on Mon-Fri for 1 hour” then it is really easy to see when you are hitting your mark and when you are falling short.
A third reason is that implementation intentions make our goal-behaviors automatic. Anyone who has tried to kick a bad habit knows that the beauty of habits is you don’t have to think about them or will yourself to do it. You just do it without even thinking about it. For example, if every day at 4 pm you grab a Snickers bar out of the vending machine, chances are when the time rolls around you will find yourself mindless standing in front of the machine and wondering “how did I get here?” That’s because overtime, your repeated behavior caused your brain to create a connection between the behavior (eat a candy bar) and an environmental cue (4 pm). Now here’s the cool thing—implementation intentions harness this automatic power for good. For example, if you form the implementation intention, “IF I enter a building and see an elevator, THEN I will take the stairs instead,” you’ve linked the exercise goal (taking the stairs) with an environmental cue (seeing an elevator). By routinely linking your writing to a time (6 am), a place (on the porch), or an already formed habit (the smell of coffee), those cues become unconscious reminders to your brain that it’s time to start writing. Do this a few times and you’ll find yourself automatically grabbing your laptop and heading to your designated writing area without having to think about it.
So, enough talking, let’s start doing. Once you finish reading this post, take just one minute of your day and write out your implementation intention on a piece of paper. Then post it somewhere where you will see it every day. Do this one simple step and you will double your odds of achieving your writing goal (or any goal for that matter)!
And as a bonus, here is another one-minute motivation hack to really sky-rocket your success. Get a calendar (or print one out for free here) and mark a big X on every day that you actually fulfill your implementation intention. Once you see those X’s all lined up in a row, you aren’t going to want to spoil your winning streak. But if you do, no biggie. Treat it like a game. Maybe this time you got through five days in a row until you fell off the wagon. Start again and see if you can’t go for six! Or start a competition with a friend and post your streaks on social media.
If you try this technique and have success, I would love to hear about it! Shoot me an email or note it in a comment.
Now get going!
[This post includes excerpts from my Pearson textbook, Motivation Science].