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How to Make Sure You’re Functioning At Your Creative Best

Posted By Darren Rowse 9th of May 2010 Writing Content 0 Comments

A Guest Post by Livia Blackburne from A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing.

With the need to come up with interesting posts week after week, blogging is a huge creative challenge. How do we make sure we’re functioning at our creative best?

At a recent conference, Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson spoke on harnessing your brain state for optimum creativity. Carson is an expert on creativity research and the author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life (aff).

According to Carson, there are two creative brain states: the deliberate pathway and the spontaneous pathway.

The Deliberate Pathway

The deliberate pathway handles problem solving, planning, reasoning. You use this pathway when you’re actively focused on a problem or task. For those interested in brain anatomy, this pathway primarily uses the prefrontal cortex, the most frontal portion the brain.

The Spontaneous Pathway

The spontaneous pathway, on the other hand, comes into play during idea incubation, immersion, and free association. You’re in this brain state when you defocus your attention: when you’re sleeping, in the shower, in a boring meeting, etc. The spontaneous pathway uses posterior portions of the brain.

So how does knowing about these brain states help you? You can either train yourself to switch your brain state according to your task, or you can structure your tasks so you take advantage of your current brain state.

The key is to realize that the majority of your creative ideas occur via the spontaneous pathway. Therefore, you’ll get most of your ideas outside of your formal writing time, during your idle moments. Creative ideas are least likely to occur when you’re sitting at your desk in front of a blank document.

To take advantage of spontaneous creativity, keep an idea journal and write down ideas as they occur to you throughout the day. It’s very important to have paper available to write things down. Because the deliberate part of your brain is also in charge of working memory, ideas you get spontaneously are very easily forgotten. Carson also recommends keeping track of when you get your insights. Perhaps you’ll notice a pattern.

Once you have your ideas, it’s time to switch to the deliberate pathway. To optimize this pathway, use the traditional strategies for focused productivity. Free yourself from distractions. Set mini goals and reward yourself after accomplishing them. Some writers also prefer rituals, like specific music or a specific beverage that gets you into the zone. And then, just write.

What do you think of Dr. Carson’s advice? Does it jive with your own experience of the creative process?

Note: This article is based on Dr. Carson’s talk at the course Publishing Books, Memoirs, and Other Creative Nonfiction, organized by Harvard Medical School. Read more by Livia Blackburne at A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing.

About Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
  1. that’s cool to be have the spontaneous pathway

    i wish i can train my brain to do so :-)

  2. This is true, I quite often go to the supermarket without an idea for a blog post and then come back having forgotten some groceries but with a cracking new subject to write about!

  3. In order to note down the ideas, I use this https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/12376 free firfox addons,

    I feel this addon will be very useful for all the problogger readers as they spend most of their time online.

  4. I have always noticed that my best ideas come when I’m in the shower. It’s cool to know the reason now.

    Interesting post!

  5. Yes, I agree, but what if you get so many ideas, so quickly every minute, that you just can’t write them all down? For me, I am more on the spontaneous side at any given moment. So, I have to work on the focus/planning/big picture side.

    Thanks for putting it in brain terms! Good post.

  6. Roughly speaking yes, these two creative brain states correspond with my own writing experience. Idea generation or brainstorming should occur unfiltered because you never know what good stuff is lurking in your mind. When it’s time to come up with the finished product, then it’s time to get the critics and scalpels out.

    Like Hemmingway said, “Write drunk, edit sober.”

  7. I fully agree with this statement; “Because the deliberate part of your brain is also in charge of working memory, ideas you get spontaneously are very easily forgotten.”

    Most of the time the idea pop-up while I was driving. I even had a whole idea on how to structure the writing. But then I got involve with other distractions and by the time I started to write, the idea had totally evaporated. Most of the times I blamed myself, thinking that this was a sign a getting older, but it seems like that’s how our brain works huh? :-) Reading your post, I was thinking, maybe instead of paper and pen, I need to have my tape recorder ready so I can record my idea when it comes while I am driving.

  8. I have experienced this countless times. I find the Notes app in my iPhone to be particularly helpful in these situations. I’m never without my phone (even at night!) so I rarely miss the opportunity to jot down a spontaneous idea.

  9. I was just joking with someone yesterday that my best post ideas come to me when I’m procrastinating on writing posts. I’ll be far away from my desk, goofing off with something not even remotely connected with what I “should” be doing and suddenly a great idea will hit me out of the blue. The spontaneous pathway in my brain is functioning just fine – it’s the rest of it that’s giving me a bit of trouble :)

  10. So true. I get my best ideas when I’m out walking my dog.

  11. Interesting advice, I think when establishing a blog one of the key factors you need to consider is are you going to be able to write the content needed to keep people coming back, part of that is having the imagination, inspiration, motivation and passion for the subject you want to write for.

    Especially in the early days when you really need to be posting at least twice a day, and built up over a few months is a hell of a lot of creativness buzzing around your noggin.

    I also find that doing what you normally do after work to relax is a good way to come up with content, like listening to music, watching a movie or even going for a drink! heck some of my best posts have come from me being totally wasted.

    Do what you love doing, don’t give up on your dreams and don’t be put off by people that have no faith in you, prove them wrong and get creative!!

    Thanks for the post, really enjoyed it

  12. Yes and no. I am completely aware of these two brain states. I feel them. But if I sidle up on myself, the creative state can still launch itself in a structured setting. It’s as though I hold a piece of myself separate, isolated from requirements, and then open the door and present the issue. It doesn’t always work. But it certainly works sometimes.

    I think it’s similar to trying to write a sonnet. Sometimes the most creative work benefits from a few constraints.

  13. I get a lot of my “killer ideas” as I am writing blog posts. I have to keep a pen and paper handy or I will forget half of the ideas that pop into my head.

    This is a great post, thanks!

    Brian M. Connole

  14. I quite often go to the supermarket without an idea for a blog post and then come back having forgotten some groceries but with a cracking new subject to write about!

  15. I like it how you take both deliberate pathway and spontaneous pathway … Great post…

    thank you :)

  16. Good post!

    The spontaneous pathway, vehicle of the Muse, creative brain or however we chose to call it, is a bit flighty and more available when your not “trying”.

    I have scraps of paper, napkins and notebooks with ideas, poems and drawings and still know I haven’t captured half of what has passed through my awareness. But at least I have fodder for the dry times.

  17. Ask and ye shall receive … wow!
    About an hour ago I was flipping through my books to see if I could find a good categorization of two distinct thinking states.

    I was looking to characterize those times when I’m in the zone, but I’m on a path and cranking through … where I can be mindless or mindful, but either way, I’m on path … versus other times where I’m in a creative mode, but it’s more spontaneous and potentially more constructive.

    I like this frame — the deliberate pathway and the spontaneous pathway

    It resonates.

    My simple test is, when I’m in a deliberate pathway, if I think harder or faster, I actually can power through and make progress … whereas when I’m down the spontaneous path, I can’t necessarily power my way through, and I do need to be mindful but not forceful.

    Interestingly, my first question was is this just a good idea or coming from somebody with some street creds and battled-tested against the real world. I like the fact it’s a brain scientists take … I expect it means it’s a step back and a look from the balcony, with plenty of patterns and experience to draw from.

  18. Roland says: 05/09/2010 at 5:56 am

    I keep paper and pencil in my wallet. The paper is recycled from my scrap, and consists of several roughly credit-card-sized slips (1/16th of a letter-size sheet, as a matter of fact), which I’ve found are well-suited to capturing just the essence of an idea for elaboration later. When I run out, I re-stock. The pencil is about 2-3 inches long, i.e. shorter than the width of my wallet, and is secured with a small rectangle of velcro into the fold of the wallet, where it’s pretty well protected from having the point broken. It’s slightly awkward to write with, but since I’m not using it to write for an extended period, it’s fine. I’ve found bowling or IKEA pencils are the least obtrusive because they’re narrow in diameter. It’s always there when I need to write something down, even if my phone’s dead or forgotten. I can’t even tell you how many hundreds of ideas have been preserved that way, not to mention grocery list items, to-do items, people’s names & phone numbers, directions, product model numbers, measurements, dates, web sites…

  19. I’ve never been a fan of psychology. This post doesn’t seem to suit exactly what I would be interested in. Still, thanks for spending the time trying to provide information for people.

  20. Great post! I already write down ideas when they spontaneously come to me. This is very important to me because I not only blog, but handle other entrepreneur projects as well. Not taking advantage of the ideas that would suit them would be a crime!

  21. I get my best ideas in the gym.

    And I’ve been stunned by how many great ideas I’ve had since the recession saw me seriously under-employed: it’s amazing quite how much creative energy I’ve spend solving problems for companies. I’m now committed to making myself self-employed, so I can use this energy for thing I WANT to work on.

  22. What I want to know is: how is one supposed to deal with the journal later?

    I write them down, but how do I deal with journals/notebooks full of ideas & notes??

  23. I can’t think of any ideas about what to write here, but later when I’m wiping the kitchen sides or emptying the dishwasher, a light bulb will go off and I’ll know exactly what I want to say to you! I plan to be spontaneous tomorrow :o)

  24. Isha — If you have certain projects that you’re brain storming for, try organizing the notebook beforehand into relevant sections. For example, if you have a blog with different themes, have a section in the notebook for each theme. This will help organize the notes as you jot them down.

  25. Hey Livia,

    Awesome post bud. You have shared some great points.
    I really like it how you take both spontaneous pathway and deliberate pathway.
    Thanks for sharing this great post !!


  26. Great post. Can I ask you a question? I want to start a blog as well that is why I was searching on the internet for blogs to use as examples, do you find you have to be perfect in your grammar to have people like what you write? I have been told I write like I speak, so I was wondering if that was a bad thing.

  27. A great post thanks which gave me a lot of insights. I always consider myself to not to be particularly creative. I always joke that I was absent from school the day they handed out creativity. But your post has made me realise that I do come up with a lot of (creative) ideas particularly when in the shower, driving or buying coffee at work etc. Thanks for bringing me an awareness that I can actually be, and am, creative.

  28. People like Paul McKenna and Richard Branson would call this notebook to write down spontaneous ideas ‘The Millionaires Notebook’. According to Branson most of his business ideas he scribbled on a napkin to use them later.

    My ideas often emerge under the shower. When my mind is going in all different directions and I can’t focus I like to take a shower for a long time as the water calms me down. Then some ideas come up. Even if nothing comes up I feel like reborn after the session.

    When it comes to goals I stopped defining them as everything ends up different anyway.

  29. It’s nice to see all the shower inspiration people I get a lot of good ideas in the shower too.

    Patrina — Grammar will depend on the intended audience of your blog. Think about who you want to blog for, and then think about what kind of writing style they would most identify with.

  30. I get most of my ideas while walking. I walk about 10 miles a day, it keeps me fit and gets me away from the screen!.

    Great Post


  31. Darren! Can’t believe this is your post today, because I was just thinking about writing a post about ‘how to generate ideas for your blog’ and ALL of mine come at a time or place when I am not at my computer, or at least not blogging or consciously trying to think of a topic! And now I see that I am certainly not alone…. thx so much for generating such consistent GREAT content…


  32. Instead of pen and paper, I use my cell phone as my weapon of choice to combat the possibility of losing an idea. How do I do that? I leave myself a voicemail! If you’re like the majority of the free world, you always have your cell phone with you, anyway. May as well use it to its fullest potential.

  33. Livia, A really helpful post which confirms that sitting there staring at a blank monitor is not a good way to generate ideas. (That’s certainly consistent with my experience.)

    But, like many of my fellow commenters, I’ve had good ideas or solutions to problems pop into my head while I was taking a shower or walking or riding the bus, mindlessly looking out the window.

    The post also mentioned sleeping as part of the spontaneous pathway–but not the boundary between sleeping and waking. Some really good ideas come to me when I first wake up and lie there a few minutes without talking and without coffee. One time years ago the thought that came like that was a terrific solution to a huge problem I had, actually an epiphany.

  34. Madeleine — great point about the sleep wake boundary. That happens to me too. Sleeping in general is good for promoting sudden insights. Although, I do notice that when I’m still sleepy, I come up with really whacky ideas too. One memorable one was when I woke up in the middle of the night and composed a romance scene for my novel with the super sexy sentence “His arm was so close that she could feel his arm hairs brush against her.” I seriously thought that was brilliant at the time! But then I woke up later and decided “maybe not” …

  35. I get most of my ideas while driving or while lying in bed trying to fall asleep. I’ve learned to carry a mini-digital recorder to capture them in the car. As for the bed I can only hope they are there in the morning.

  36. For me it doesn’t work that way. I decide on a topic and start writing – the creativity is in the editing.

    I find when I’m done it’s not how I expected it to turn out, it’s much better.

    I don’t find ideas just *pop* in, it happens but if I waited for that to happen I wouldn’t blog very often and I blog almost every day and have for a year. Sometimes more than once a day

  37. This is very interesting. I think it’ll take a while before I can have this skill, but it’s worth the try. I’ll also start reading more about these creative brain states.

  38. Antoniu says: 05/10/2010 at 5:33 pm

    Many of my ideas for posts come as I’m laying in bed before falling asleep. For this reason, I always keep my phone close by so I can jot down the idea in Evernote and then access it on my computer in the morning.

  39. So true! When I’m finished doing the “chores” of my work day, as soon as I relax, ideas come rushing in. I write everything down. I usually don’t have the cell with me. When I’m doing something for fun, I try to get a lesson out of it, always keeping the mind open to the possibilities because when I’m having fun, it does seem more ideas spontaneously flood the relaxed brain.

  40. Great post. Very thought-provoking. I keep a Moleskine notebook on hand at all times. I travel with it, carry it with me all day and never let it get too far away from me. I find that my best ideas come randomly throughout my day…so keeping my notebook with me is the best way to ensure I capture every idea.

    I like the suggestion of keeping track of when the ideas hit me…I’m going to give that a try this week!

  41. That’s an interesting topic!

    How do you produce engaging content when you don’t feel 100%?

    I believe we have to accept fluctuations.

    You can always compensate by working harder whenever you’re at a high…

  42. My blog is only about 10 wks. old, but as soon as I began I found myself awake at 3am with ideas to write about. It can ruin your sleep, for sure! But those seem to be the most ‘inspired’ posts, I must admit. Now I keep a note pad on my night stand so I can jot ideas down and try to get back to sleep.

  43. When it comes to creativity, he does seem to hit the nail on the head with the deliberate VS spontaneous pathway.

    Which is probably why i find writing blog content exponentially easier for me than say… Trying to write a dark fantasy novel.

    Undertaking both of them, I find that writing blog content is a lot easier when you have a deliberate mindset; one that solves problems.

    On the other hand, the spontaneous pathway is where all that creative power comes from. I’ve been having the damnedest time trying to draw from this particular pathway. I can immerse myself into a lot of ideas, but it’s certainly easier said than done than to get them to manifest.

  44. I’ve been derided by some writer’s who’ve claimed I was either 1. a freak of nature, or 2. lying. I write in my sleep. It began with a determination to record and interpret dreams. Somewhere in the process I gained control and could direct my dreams (your first creativity mind set), while pulling freely from the subconscious ether of swirling ideas during free sleep.

    The end result is a rich, unique solution to problem solving. It’s also a great way to free associate clues to find out, ‘who done it’.

    As I head into sleep, I’ll focus on what scene I have coming up, or how to get my character out of the delimna I’ve placed them. Frequently by morning I’ll have it worked out in my head. I’ll spend the day with it perking on the back burner and after my normal work, I can sit down and write it out.

    I’m glad to see proof that I’m either 1. not a freak of nature or 2. that there is proof that I am not lying!

    Thanks for the reaffirmation! Meg

  45. I keep an idea journal. It’s a good discipline for all writers. The TV show “House” provides good examples of these brain states. The cure doesn’t come while in meetings but during everyday occurrences that trigger a thought linking to something relevant.

  46. Umm! Lately I’ve found myself getting up from the computer with my articles already written.

    It’s all happens unconsciously.

    I don’t know how it happened but a switch was triggered inside my brain and now writing is effortless. The ideas fall onto the page. Is research required? Yes. But even that’s happening spontaneously.

    Which is cool.

  47. I’d be lost without my idea journal. I regularly come up with awesome ideas in unlikely places…and I always have something to write them down. I’m trying to get into the digital age with my iTouch, but somehow the good old fashioned paper journal seems to prevail.

  48. Great post. I wish i could tap into my creative side more often. Usually I try to look at things like a kid would, and find I have an easier time being creative. That or I watch a movie or listening to music that helps me slip into a creative state. And if that doesn’t work, going out in nature usually calms me and gets my creative ideas flowing.

  49. I’ve always known this, and always operated with the knowledge of these two states. Am not sure if I’m particularly self-aware, or if all writers instinctively know these things.

    Either way, I’ve not really read about these two states before – so it was great to read this. Thank you!

  50. Great Post!
    Interestingly that’s how I post my own entries. I am spontaneous everytime I create an entry, but at the same time deliberate to the point I know I know I’d like to share it with everyone so I make it a standard process to upload it straight away, and stick by this flow in the moment.

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