When Are You Most Creative?

When are you at your creative peak? That is, what time of day do ideas flow most easily for you? What activities bring your best ideas to the surface where you can most easily gather them up?

A recent survey by the Crown Plaza hotel group suggests that certain times and activities are more conducive to creative thinking than others [PDF download]. The most creative time, they found, was late in the evening (around 10 pm), while their respondents were at the least creative in the late afternoon (around 4:30 pm). The survey also found that most respondents were likely to have a lot of ideas either in or just after a shower.

I’ll admit the survey is a little silly – the results were “published” in a press release touting the commission of a designer to create note cards (they call them “Think Notes”) that travelers can use to jot down their ideas – clearly this is part of a marketing campaign intended to promote the Crown Plaza chain as most conducive to innovation for the executives that stay there.

Still, the findings do reinforce something that many of us already know intuitively, though we might not pay much attention to it: that there are certain times of the day when we are particularly creative and other times when we simply aren’t.

Call it circadian rhythms, call it the daily ebb and flow of blood sugar, call it magic if you want; the fact remains that or brains keep to a timetable that can be very hard to change and even harder to fight. Whether your personal schedule matches the survey’s results or whether your creative time comes earlier in the day, it pays to understand just how your mind’s abilities wax and wane over the course of the day.

So how can we discover our most creative times – and how can we best make use of them> Here’s a little advice to help bring your work into sync with your daily rhythm.

1. Pay attention

Sometimes your body tells you when it’s ready to rock and roll and when it’s ready to crash and burn. If you can’t keep your eyes open, chances are you’re not at your creative peak.

More often, though, we have to look pretty close to figure out where in our days our minds are really performing at peak levels. To help find your most creative moments, you might consider doing one of these things:

  • Add a “creative assessment” to your weekly review.
    Think back to all the things you’ve done over the previous week. What were the most creative tasks you did? What time were you working on them? How did it go? What is a painful slog or a breezy jaunt? Make a note and compare your results week to week.
  • Keep a log.
    I’m not a huge fan of mixing work with self-assessment – there’s too big a shift in mindset needed to critically assess your work more or less as you’re doing it. Still, keeping a log of activities can help you reflect back, perhaps in your weekly review. You might also get some use out of automated time tracking tools like Slife, which can tell you not only what you were working on at any given moment but, with a little interpretation, how focused you were. Working steadily on one task over an extended time is a good sign that you were in the creative zone, while rapid shifting from task to task suggests distractedness.
  • Switch it up.
    Since you might be wasting your most creative moments on uncreative tasks, try shifting things around for a while. Start with the survey’s suggestions, scheduling creative work late at night and more mundane tasks for the end of the workday, and see how that feels.

2. Be prepared.

Knowing when creativity is most likely to strike, and what sorts of activities can trigger your creativity, doesn’t mater much unless you’re ready to take advantage of the moment when it arrives. While I can’t sing the praises of carrying a pen and notebook with you all the time highly enough, there are times when ink-and-paper capture isn’t going to cut it.

Like when you’re in the shower. According to the Crown Plaza survey, the shower is the #1 source of creative inspiration. What will you do when an idea strikes you mid-lather? I keep dry-erase markers in the bathroom and scribble notes to myself on the mirror when I get out of the shower – though I like the idea of using kids’ bath crayons to jot ideas directly onto the shower wall as they occur.

What about other contexts? How are you going to make use of your most creative time if it turns out to be while you’re commuting, during your workout, or as you drift off to sleep. Put some thought into it now so you’ll be ready when the next idea comes.

3. Classify and schedule.

What a shame it would be to spend your most creative moments inventorying the supply cabinet! Instead, inventory your various tasks and sort them into those that require your most creative self and those you could manage while unconscious. Then schedule those tasks according to the best time of day for you. Work on that marketing presentation during your peak creative time and do your expense reports when your creative self takes its afternoon siesta.

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