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When Are You Most Creative?

When Are You Most Creative?

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.

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    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.

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    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:

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    • 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.

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    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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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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