In my last post, we looked at how our unconscious mind is much better at coming up with new, authentic ideas than our conscious mind. The trouble is, since it operates in the background, it’s nearly impossible to access. So the question becomes: how can we get hold of that hidden genius?
Well, like everything else, we just have to practice. A lot. Just like learning to ski, or juggle, or play the banjo, we can practice how to think — or more accurately in this case, how to not think.
So I’ve put together a few ways I have found that help me let go of what I think I know, and get more in touch with my unconscious creative instincts.
DO NEW STUFF
Part of the problem of problem-solving is that after a while, we start to develop a “style” for how to do it. We get good at doing things a certain way, and that becomes our path of least resistance... so we tend to go there first. Before you know it, you’re in a rut. And you can’t come up with anything new by applying the same old template.
I’ve found that a great way to bust up those old thinking patterns is to start by making simple little changes elsewhere in my life. These changes don’t have to be that significant, or even related to creativity, just that they are new and there are a few of them. Try it out! Walk a different way to work, try some new food, call that long-lost cousin, read some poetry, and if you already normally read poetry, read a comic book instead.
By changing these little habits, you start to show yourself that you are open to seeing things in a new way, so the next time some unusual new thought comes to mind, you’ll be less likely to dismiss it.
You’ve probably heard that taking regular breaks during the day is a good way to help you increase your circulation, avoid repetitive motion injuries, and clear your head so you can come back fresh and energized.
These breaks are also good for another reason. Like the idea of “sleeping on it,” when we focus on a problem for awhile, and then let go of our focus, our unconscious mind continues to chew on it. When we come back to it, we’ll often find a new approach just sitting right there on our doorstep. By regularly turning our attention on and off and on again, we get used to the handoff. We start to create a trusting relationship between our conscious and unconscious processes.
Of course, timing is important. If you are in the zone and have some good momentum going, by all means stay with it, but if you feel your energy beginning to ebb, cut out before you lose it altogether. That’s where you need to take a little break. Rinse — repeat.
BONUS: Speaking of “sleeping on it,” my friend Alex has this practice: if he’s near the end of the day, and his next task looks exciting, he stops. That way it’s easy to get going the next day. His unconscious gets to play around with possibilities all night, he wakes up fully rested, and he gets to dive right into something fun! Otherwise he risks working too late, burning out, getting up groggy, and starting his work with very little enthusiasm for the first tasks of the day. It’s a cool idea, right?
What can we do during our little breaks? Try zoning out! I like to walk around the block a few times and let the world wash over me. I listen to the way things sound, or notice the faces of strangers. I sometimes imagine how everything I see would feel to the touch: a cold ridged lamp post, waxy springy leaves, rough cement, bicycle spokes, cardboard…
The goal here is to drop the judgements and get used to letting go of the analytical mind. It’s a meandering meditation without a mission. We are not counting anything or collecting experiences. We are just walking around in the world, letting it be what it is. By doing this, we are teaching ourselves to accept whatever new possibilities and new ideas might arise. —> Pro Tip: don’t bring your phone.
MAKE A SPACE
Dedicate an area in your home where the only thing that's allowed to happen is your creativity. It can be small, but it should only be used for your art. Don’t ever do anything else in this space. It’s like you are training a dog. Your dog needs to know that her things belong to her. Her bed is hers, her bowl is hers. In order for your dog to feel safe, those things must never be taken away or messed with. Your creative nook must be protected. By doing this you are planting a flag and claiming this area as a safe-zone for your nervous little unconscious mind to come out and play.
Now I’ve never done this, but a number of my writer friends have taken improv lessons. One of the main pillars of improv is the “Yes, and…” rule. Whatever someone says on stage must be accepted as true. The next person to speak has to expand upon it by starting with “Yes, and.” This forces the players to really listen to each other in order to add to the conversation. They can’t just stand there, silently crafting some unrelated little joke, waiting for their turn to talk.
It’s a great way to get used to responding fearlessly to an ever-changing situation and in front of other people. By practicing this, you become more confident in your instincts and your ability to think of new things. You learn to trust your gut — a.k.a. your unconscious.
Have you ever noticed how if you make yourself smile, you start to feel happier? Doesn’t that seem backward? The physical movement of your mouth actually triggers the chemical reaction in your brain! The two are linked, and in both directions.
If you are sitting, staring at a blank document on your computer, or an empty canvas, or a silent piano, your body is sending signals to your brain: no changes here - nothing new - no action required at this time. But by adding physical movements and motion to your ideation process you are sending a message to your unconscious: Hey! Something’s happening out here in the real world — help us out, will ya?
When I’m in brainstorming mode, I don’t like to stay seated for that long. I get antsy. I pace and walk around. I’ve also found that sometimes it helps if I act out the ideas — I use different voices for different characters and points of view. I like to think in terms of physicality. Ideas have weight, speed, and timing. How does this moment land? How does this big heavy section get along with this little soft section?
Here’s something I do all the time: I start the recording app on my phone, I hold it up to my head as if I’m on the line with someone, and I walk down the street talking about my concept. In addition to hearing how my ideas sound out loud, I get a recording that I can go back to for reference. In fact, I did it to work out some of the early structures of this post!
By giving your process physicality, motion, and voice, you help breathe life into your ideas. They stop being just bullet points on a to-do list and they start to feel like living characters with a mind of their own. You can then begin to sense where your ideas want to take you. Follow them!
( pause for effect )
So there we have it, and I’m sure there are many other ways to create conditions that inspire fresh new thoughts and ideas. What about you? I’d love to hear what methods you have found to help you trust your gut, listen to your instincts, and make friends with that shy genius: your unconscious mind.