Want to be More Creative? Stop Focusing

UPDATE (August 3, 2012): Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, has admitted to making up quotes in the book. The book has been pulled by his publisher, and Lehrer has stepped down from his job with The New Yorker. I have posted a blog entry on this development. As The Artist’s Road blog is a chronicle of a man’s return to an art-committed life, I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to take down the post below, in which I highlighted a portion of his book a day after its publication. And, to be honest, there’s no reason to believe that what I excerpted here isn’t accurate. But it is another opportunity for us to reflect on the ongoing debate about nonfiction and truth.


Are you a night owl? Try reflecting on that thorny issue with your novel’s plot before your morning coffee. A recent study suggests being groggy will increase your chances of finding a solution by 50%.

In his book released yesterday–Imagine: How Creativity Works–Jonah Lehrer explains that focusing intensely on a problem often makes it more difficult for us to solve it. He outlined some of this counter-intuitive thinking, including the study mentioned above, in a recent Wall Street Journal article.  After describing how your creative processing can improve after distracting yourself with a humorous video or–brace yourself for this–an alcoholic beverage, Lehrer writes this:

What explains the creative benefits of relaxation and booze? The answer involves the surprising advantage of not paying attention. Although we live in an age that worships focus—we are always forcing ourselves to concentrate, chugging caffeine—this approach can inhibit the imagination. We might be focused, but we’re probably focused on the wrong answer.

And this is why relaxation helps: It isn’t until we’re soothed in the shower or distracted by the stand-up comic that we’re able to turn the spotlight of attention inward, eavesdropping on all those random associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain’s right hemisphere. When we need an insight, those associations are often the source of the answer.

Of course, as anyone who has studied creativity knows, it’s never this simple. Relaxation and distraction doesn’t help if you haven’t already made progress toward the answer you’re seeking, and that searching requires focus. But I know firsthand what he’s saying works.

An illustration of the “full locust” yoga move, drawn by my daughter. Some may recognize it as my former Twitter backdrop.

I’ve written here about how I allow my subconscious, while I sleep, to work out knotty creative problems. It only works, however, when I’ve already gathered up a nice, messy ball of string. My subconscious then works out the knots.

Lehrer cites several examples of “Eureka” moments that came when the individual struggling with a creative knot was focused on another task. As I wrote in an “MFA Nugget” from my last residency, this is not an uncommon occurrence for creative writers. Vermont College of Fine Arts Instructor Patrick Madden explained that Gabriel Garcia Marquez conceived of the method he would use in writing One Hundred Years of Solitude while trapped behind the wheel on a family vacation. It should be noted that Marquez had been wrestling for some time with that very issue.

So how do we know when to keep focusing on a problem, and when to turn away from it? Lehrer again:

The good news is that the human mind has a surprising natural ability to assess the kind of creativity we need. Researchers call these intuitions “feelings of knowing,” and they occur when we suspect that we can find the answer, if only we keep on thinking. Numerous studies have demonstrated that, when it comes to problems that don’t require insights, the mind is remarkably adept at assessing the likelihood that a problem can be solved—knowing whether we’re getting “warmer” or not, without knowing the solution.

There’s a great deal of focus in creativity research on the importance of less focus, or perhaps redirected focus. I’m thinking now of the “Yoga as Muse” technique taught by author and creativity consultant Jeffrey Davis.

It seems that, even when a writer on creativity posits something that seems counter-intuitive, a brief examination causes numerous supportive examples to spring up. What are some experiences you’ve had with creative insights and the magic of relaxation and/or distraction?

40 thoughts on “Want to be More Creative? Stop Focusing

  1. Patrick,

    Thanks. If I’ve ever read “the perfect creatives blog post” this is it. Inspiring, connecting (had to “Read-Later” all the great links!), and well-written.

    For me, this is still a lesson that’s difficult to practice. What I mean by that: I can “get” the idea and do it a few times. The trick is to make it my M.O. and really practice it more continually. I’ll use your post as additional inspiration to make the shift.

    Playful blessings,
    Stan (aka @muz4now)


    1. Stan, what a kind and welcome comment!

      I concur that it takes “focus” (sorry about that) for me to try this shift. I think we need to go easy on ourselves, though. I program myself before I go to sleep, but many of the examples are the result of no effort; in fact, that’s part of the magic. So I think what we need to work on is being open to the unexpected inspiration, which as a musician I suspect you’re very comfortable with.


  2. It’s inevitable for me — when I’m struck trying to put together thoughts into coherent copy, it almost always comes to me when I change things up. I go to the gym, hop in the shower or just do some housework. Doing something physical seems to be the common thread. Then the ideas seem to all come together and I’m madly typing notes into my phone or dictating a voice message or just repeating it in my head so it sticks.


    1. Interesting, Rob, you mention physical activity. I’ve read a fair amount of research on that very point, relating to the flow of oxygen and the mental distraction of engaging the body.

      And yes, I know what it’s like when you’re trying to get that idea down! I have left voice mails for myself, then wondered “Hey, what’s this call?” because in the short time between inspiration and playing back the message I forgot I even had the breakthrough. That forgetfulness probably says more about me than it does about creativity, though!


  3. For myself, as a fiber artist, when I move into what I call the “Creative Free Flow”, and allow the medium to tell me what to do, rather than me trying to impose my own will on the piece, is when I get my best work. Rob spoke in a reply above about how moving helped him get inspired. IMO, and in the research that I do in the unconscious, my take is that as bi-pedal animals, that left-right, left-right stimulation of moving has a profound effect. It seems to have been “wired” into us when we were still small enough to slosh around in our mothers’ amniotic fluid, and it seems that movement allows our brains to be lulled into slower brain wave patterns, hence the “foggy” experience if you’re not used to doing it on purpose. Terrific research in your posting, Patrick, and LOTS of links to follow. Thanks!


    1. Hi Nancy, good to have you here! I like the connection back to our fetus days, and I know you have some knowledge regarding our time in the womb and our creativity.

      This motion discussion has me thinking about InterPlay, which someone mentioned at the Capitol Creativity Network event we were both at the other night. I follow some good tweeps who swear by InterPlay, @KateArmsRoberts and @anitabondi and @muz4now (who just commented above). Kate did a guest post on it here awhile back: https://artistsroad.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/the-power-of-play-escape-from-the-tyranny-of-technique/

      Thanks for the kind words!


      1. Funny that you thought of InterPlay. InterPlay has a ‘trick’ of posing a question or identifying a concern and then ‘throwing’ it into the air with our imaginations and a physical gesture. With that symbolic gesture, we invite the issue to hang around in the room near us but not be tightly connected to our bodies and our focusing minds. It is amazing how often after that a person moves through the physical form and comes to a realization that was eluding the focused mind.

        For religious minds, it is like giving the problem to God, but it works even for secular folks who think it is silly.



          1. I’ll be among the first to admit that the forms of InterPlay aren’t for every one, but they are really great for some people.

            However, I believe that the principles that InterPlay embodies are very widely applicable, which is why I write about them even though I am not leading workshops at the moment.


        1. Dear Kate, thanks for explaining some for what Interplay is about. In my healing practice, we would say that in order to release a trauma, surrender to the Divine is needed. The trouble with ,any of our clients is that the need to hang onto the trauma, while totally illogical, is held in the unconscious or reptilian brain. That part of us “speaks” in body sensations, so it would make sense to me that ‘throwing something into the air” would alert that unconscious self…”Hey, there’s something going on here and I’m speaking your language.” Thanks for the posting…
          Nancy Smeltzer


          1. InterPlay is great for getting to those unconscious “body” sensations. We call it “sneaky deep” because on the surface it often just feels like fun, but it can tap powerfully into those deep body sensations.


            1. “Sneaky deep”… O-O-Oh! I’m “borrowing” that phrase. What we find for our clients is that by focusing on a small body sensation. they can be with the deeper emotional issue that they can’t/won’t face at the time. Last night, a client was upset because her son is out on the street, and focusing on her fear of him being killed was too big. We had her do a body inventory, (start at your head and work down to the first place you’re called to be with) and focus there. Turned out it was a small area over her left ear, but that was where she needed to be. By the end of the 1 hr session, her fear numbers were down by about 1/3.
              Pretty cool, huh?


  4. Somehow driving ends up being my best kind of unfocused thinking time. My biggest problem is that I get a lot of strong ideas while driving, but don’t really have the time to write it down. By the time I get to where I’m going, I’ve lost a lot of them! I might have to think about having some kind of recording app on in the car from now on…thanks!


    1. When I took my six-week cross-country road trip, I spent countless hours alone behind the wheel, my head filled with ideas triggered by the artists I was video-interviewing. I had a digital voice recorder with me, and I would simply talk into it, saying everything that popped to mind. It’s funny to play them back later, and hear me jumping from topic to topic, occasionally competing with the Australian female voice from my GPS!


  5. Oh boy – I have lost count of the numerous times I’ve had plot or character problems solved while in the shower. I have also used long road trips home (5 1/2 hours on Interstate 80 across Nebraska) to work out issues.

    I’ve also figured out plot problems while driving home from work…and when I arrive home, I wonder how I got there! This leads me to believe I am probably not paying as much attention to the road as I should be. LOL


    1. A ha, like Marquez and @LBGale (above), you use the hypnosis of the road. Let me assure you, Melissa, we’ve all been on auto-pilot when driving and thinking about things.

      Funny you mention I-80 in Nebraska. I drove that stretch (Lincoln, NE to Boulder, CO) in a single day on my cross-country road trip. I’ll confess I feared it would be quite boring, but I found the slow but steady ascent into the Rockies unbelievably inspiring. I’m writing about that road trip now in my MFA, and I’ll be writing about that day in a couple of months.


      1. I suppose it could be inspiring for a first-time driver of that stretch of highway (LOL), but as someone who has taken that trip three or four times a year for the past ten years…I have to admit it’s become more than a little tedious! (We start in Lincoln and end up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska).


        1. Well, I can’t remember how many times I used to drive I-10 between Phoenix and Los Angeles (the former was my childhood home, the latter where I attended college). People would tell me how beautiful the drive was, the Sonoran Desert in AZ, the mountains in CA, but “tedious” soon became the right word for it for me!

          I liked my time in Lincoln!


          1. Lincoln is a fun town! It’s big enough to have enough stuff to do – we have the university and all the goodness it brings (football, theater, art, etc.) plus small enough that it has a small-town feel. It’s perfect for me since I grew up on a farm and didn’t want to move to a “big” city (like Omaha!).


  6. Taking a shower always works for me, even when I don’t want it to. Sometimes I just want to take a long, hot shower for relaxation and to get away from my creative pursuits. But then creative ideas and solutions come pouring in. (I need a better system for capturing them when there’s water everywhere. 😉 )

    Reading often helps. It takes my mind off whatever I’m working on. Even if no solution comes, it’s still good to get away and just relax my mind.


    1. I tweeted a link about showering and Eureka moments the other day, and a bunch of people RTed it, saying “Yes!” (Or perhaps, “Eureka!”) It works for me too. Perhaps it’s the water, but I think it’s because I can’t quick check my smartphone or read a section of the paper. The forced isolation allows me to listen to what I’ve up until then been ignoring.


  7. I’m a huge advocate of letting the subconscious do as much work as possible. Years ago there was a small book out that was very popular in the advertising world, called “Technique for Producing and Idea.” It basically advocating stuffing yourself full with as much information on the topic as possible, and then forgetting about it. After a bit, that’s when the idea pops in. And it works….thanks for a great post reminding me to take it easy.


    1. You know, that’s kind of the way daily reporting works. You’re always absorbing stuff that doesn’t make it into that day’s news story, and weeks later you’ll be working on another story and one of those unused strings will pop into your head you can include. The editor will say, “Wow, nice addition to the story.” You take credit for the brilliance, but it was really your subconscious.


  8. Oh man, how true this is! I always think of the BEST ideas for my novel while I’m driving, or in bed, or watching a Woody Allen movie. My favorite? While at work! I think it’s because my mind is soooo focused on my job at hand, that it relaxes the creative side and I think of the next chapter. Ha!

    Sorry, Patrick, I’ve been offline lately. I’m working on getting back into swing! 🙂


    1. Good to have you back, Shari, and no need for apologies! Ah, a Woody Allen movie, he’s a marvelous writer, I can imagine a lot of sparks coming from his work.

      I have to say, it’s the shower for me. I had to rush out this am and go write a first draft of an essay that just came to me (I did take a moment to get dressed first!).


  9. calliefeyen

    Great post, Patrick! And your daughter is so talented (I’m back on Twitter and following you and saw her photographs – lovely).
    The best sentences I’ll never write come to me when I’m working out. I’ve thought about taking a notebook to the gym, but I think that’ll make me look crazier than I already am. Besides, there is a peace that comes over me when I’m simultaneously sweating and thinking about an essay or story. I look forward to that peace just as much as I do when I hold a pen again. And I think the release I get from figuring something out helps me when I do eventually write.


    1. Well, Joan Didion says a writer should never go anywhere without a notebook, and something tells me she wouldn’t care if someone viewed her as crazy. That said, I am really bad about having an easy way to jot down those quick insights.

      Thanks for sharing your own personal process, Carrie, which echoes fairly well that of some of the other commenters.


  10. LOVE, love, love this post, Patrick. My best example is the crazy influx of creative solutions that seem to work their way out while I’m running. It could be argued that the mind is completely distracted (at least in my case) by the great outdoors and the act of putting one foot in front of the other. But it never fails: I come away from EVERY run with a new blog idea, a new scene for a novel, or a line for my WIP that truly seems to pop out of nowhere. Now – the whole alcoholic beverage approach… ah ha… I might need to try that!


    1. It would seem with running you are combining physical activity, being outdoors, and repetitive motion, all three associated with creating an environment for this sort of insightful thinking. I will simply say “No comment” on the beverage notion!


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    1. Fantastic! FYI, two of my Twitter friends — @DoseofCre8ivity & @T_C_P — are hosting a #bookchat next week about his book. I don’t recall the exact date/time — I’m teaching a class that evening and can’t participate — but you might want to touch base with them via Twitter and find out if you’d like to join!


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  16. I read a review of Jonah Lehrer’s book ‘Imagine’ and it made me want to read it ASAP. I agree that some of the best ideas come subconsciously or when you are distracted. Thinking about something too hard can lead to mind clutter and frustration. When I am engaged in creative fiction writing I often let my mind wander and see where it takes me and the results can be amazing.


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