Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Daily Rituals for Prompting a Work Mindset

The brain takes cues from the body. 

As creators and communicators of ideas, part of our job is to activate the creative subroutine in our head, bring up our energy and snap ourselves into the appropriate state of mind to do our work. In the same way that the physical act of smiling triggers the chemistry in our brain associated with happiness, the on ramp is the cue for releasing the chemicals that stoke our work fire.

That’s why so many creators start every day of their lives in the exact same way. They don’t want to have to wake up, drag their butts out of bed and look for options of what to do first. That’s just another unnecessary decision making process that’s exhaustive, stressful and wastes valuable energy that they should be dedicating to their ideas.

To make matters worse, most people’s creative processes are solitary endeavors. Which means the inevitability of showing up has to be created by sheer willpower. They have to summon tremendous reserves of discipline and energy. And so, the power of the on ramp is, it allows creators to cultivate the seeds that have already been planted, as opposed to going out into the rocks to chip away at a brand new garden.

There's an intriguing book called Old Type Writers, which explores the obsessive habits and quirky techniques of great authors. Turns out, many of our most cherished creators used methods that were just as inventive as the works they produced:

Joyce wrote in crayon. Colette picked fleas from her pets before picking up her pen. Poe balanced a cat on his shoulder. Hugo placed himself under strict house arrest, wearing nothing but a long, gray, knitted shawl. Schiller filled his desk drawer with rotten apples, relying on the pungent smell to spark his creativity. Steinbeck always kept exactly twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. Christie munched on apples in the bathtub while pondering murder plots.

Each of these creators, whether they relied on specific tools, eccentric routines, strict schedules or bizarre environments, steadfastly adhered to them. The combination and accumulation of which constructed the creative on ramps that enabled their prolificacy.

My on ramp is to spend the first half hour of every day inhaling. Not just reading, because that limits the medium, but inhaling. Breathing in. And doing so promiscuously. The routine is, I read and browse and learn from a diverse range of websites, blogs, pictures, comic strips, trending memes, online publications, interviews, research studies, books, articles, songs, street art, store signs, podcasts, eavesdroppings, conversations and other sources of inspiration. Plus, I take notes. Lots of notes. And by the time I’m done making my rounds, my desktop is littered with new documents and ideas and perspective and insight. I feel engaged with what’s going on in the world. I view the news as a source of energy, not just a source of information.

This morning practice, this creative subroutine, ensures that the first part of my day has a cadence and rhythm that includes movement. By giving my ritual of thinking the primacy it deserves, never forcing it to compete for my attention with anything else, I find that I’m able to stay prolific.

What’s your on ramp?

I have a therapist friend who specializes in sleep hygiene. He tells his clients the key to ensuring restful, effective sleep is to establish a soothing presleep routine. According to the famous Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep, this presleep ritual, an hour of relaxation before bedtime, reduces the body’s secretion of the stress hormone cortisol––which is associated with increasing alertness––and helps to ease the transition from wake time to sleep time.

Now, that particular subroutine focuses on sleep, but it still points to the same general principle: The human brain craves routine and likes to know what’s coming. And so, the goal is to establish a clear association between different types of activities. To prime ourselves to do our creating. To set the tone that it’s time to go to work.

I’m reminded of the book The War of Art, which has inspired people around the world to defeat the internal foe of resistance. In fact, it’s the only book I’ve read once a year, every year, for the past ten years. And although it was written for writers, it has also been embraced by business entrepreneurs, actors, dancers, painters, photographers, filmmakers, military service members and thousands of others around the world.

The opening paragraph of the book gives us an inside look at how the author activates the creative subroutine in his head:

“I get up, take a shower, have breakfast. I read the paper, brush my teeth. I’ve got my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy for only eight bucks. I have my lucky nametag that came from a dream I once had, and I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend gave me. I point it toward my chair so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, invoke the muse, and I sit down and plunge in.”

That’s his on ramp. The ritual that prompts the work mindset and merges him into the creative process.

What’s yours?