11 Riffs on Creativity & Time

11 Riffs on Creativity & Time

Create October 15, 2012 / By Jeffrey Davis
11 Riffs on Creativity & Time

Time eludes the best-intentioned creatives. Author & creativity consultant Jeffrey Davis offers 12 riffs to reframe how to sculpt, not save, time.

Most creative people with whom I work and study - scientists, authors, designers, entrepreneurs, marketers, teachers - find their optimal mix between messy chaos and creative order in their work life. Almost without fail, their chief complaints revolve around time - not enough of it or not sure what to do with it. Instead of managing time, sculpting time seems to me a useful reframe for creatives. I offer 11 riffs on sculpting time here.


In 1944, Miklos Radnoti knew the Nazis would shoot him and the other Jews marching across Hungary any day, any hour. When his wife later had his body exhumed from a mass grave, they would find a notebook of poems tucked in his field jacket's pocket. Somehow, he stealthed out a pen, the sound of gunfire rattling like bones, and wrote a series of poems.

Radnoti's persistence is a haunting reminder of my mortality, of this odyssey's limited time.

The pressure of time, the fact of mortality, the real dead line, compels me to create, and to create with awareness and intention.


All of us creatives tango with time. Most creatives cannot wait until their kids go off to college or until retirement or until divorce or until they quit a job to begin their real work. Gratified creatives with packed lives create before the family gets up or in "pockets of time" - on the subway or in the forty-eight minutes between when their children have fallen asleep and before they themselves fall asleep.

One way or another, we'd be wise to make peace with time, stop fighting it, and avoid bemoaning its scarcity. There's plenty of time to be had, it turns out, and if we can't change the way chronological time works, then we can change the way we work with it.

Instead of managing time like some begrudged worker, we can shape it. Think of yourself as a potter more than a manager. Something not to save or waste but to sculpt.

To show up and shape time as a creative has less to do with calendars and more to do with loving the mind. And the body.

Creativity is not about waiting for the muse - despite Elizabeth Gilbert's charming spin on the Greek muse (I've written about the "M" word for Creatives elsewhere).

Creativity is about showing up and shaping time for the muse.


Feeling gratified in your work doesn't depend solely upon whether you have too little or too much time. Most creatives are Time Crunchers or Time Stretchers.

Time Crunchers have packed lives filled with obligations of family, colleagues, clients – and a variety of inopportune surprises like car failures, employee failures, and broken ankles that plunder the pockets of time they had allotted for their meaningful work.

I'm in this category most of the time. I develop three complementary businesses, manage a small team, write, work with clients, develop client products & events, and guide a group of facilitators – all while I engage my wife and little girl, keep up with friendships and extended family, and an aging car and an aging cat and an aging body, and do things for my soul like keep up the homestead and tend to the small orchard out back and keep politically involved. You know this life, right?

Time Stretchers, by virtue of trust funds or investments or self-employment or retirement or smart & modest living or excess vacation time or retreat time, have enviable hours to shape. And both groups must learn to shape time in order to feel gratified in their workflow. I'm in this category about 2% of the year when I go on extended creative retreats and self-created business immersions.

Unless you factor in the fact that - because I have no boss and commute to the study and conference room at the back of our farmhouse - 90% or more of my time I shape, not someone else.


We have baggage around our experiences of discipline. We're hard on ourselves. We whip ourselves. We cuss ourselves.

As a consequence, some coaches and bloggers advocate dissolving discipline altogether. They come up with euphemisms and ways to say in essence, "You don't need to be disciplined."

In my view, that's soft "feel good" advice that rationalizes a mind's errancy but isn't very useful.

The word discipline comes from Latin words related to "teach" and "train" and "follow." A disciple follows one who is worthy of being followed. Here's where we Americans freak out. But in the case of being creative, you're not following a parent or guru. You're letting your Everyday Mind follow Your Best Creative Self. You're letting Your Everyday Mind follow your Mirror Mind.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the mind as an elephant in part capable of being trainable but not controllable. The untrained elephant simply isn't as happy as the trained elephant (And anyone who refers to the novel Water for Elephants in response is missing the point!).

Harnessing the mind's attention can be an act of love for the mind. You're tending to it and bringing out its best capabilities.

And you're acknowledging that you can pursue mastery of your mind's crazy fluctuations.


Time-shaping has a lot to do with the creative mind's mirrors and rooms. Think of Alice in Wonderland. A part of your mind – Everyday Mind – has no mirrors. It only has one-way input streams that it's not even aware of. It receives and reacts to the news being read on the Internet, the messages popping up on the iPhone, the little girl screaming and refusing to put on her shoes. We need a vital Everyday Mind in order to stay creative and optimal.

But when Everyday Mind runs the controls for hours, days, months, years!, then it really becomes Reptile Mind – a primal place of reactivity instead of creativity (a favorite anagram). Raw fight-or-flight mode. Devastating for the creative's long-term motivation and physical energy.

Everyday Mind and its slippery shadow Reptile Mind account for about 5% of the mind's activity at any given moment. That according to George Lakoff and other cognitive scientists.

Another part of your mind has mirrors. In Mirror Mind you can witness Everyday Mind as it's receiving input. It's almost like you're having a simple lucid dream. You can hear Mirror Mind talk to you and say, "Oh! Your computer just froze for the fifth time in a week. Everyday Mind is getting angry. Oh! Your neck is tightening. You stopped breathing."

Apply Mirror Mind to time-shaping: "Oh! You're wanting to watch the opening episode of Homeland instead of working on that design project" or "Oh, look at that! You've spent the past hour tidying up your studio for the fifth time this week or reading the political gossip on The Daily Beast instead of writing that scene for your novel – or dreaming up your next webinar course - or developing that new speaker's series for your agency."

There are three tricks (at least) to using Mirror Mind to your advantage.

One: Open Mirror Mind at the moment of decision – at the moment you're typing in the Netflix URL or at the moment you're reaching for the dust rag.

Two: Forget guilt. Mirror Mind is not interested in self-flagellation. Only reflection the way a still pond lets the sky and willow see themselves.

Three: Change the mirror into a crystal ball. At the moment of decision, imagine yourself doing the work you love and doing it in a way you love to do it.

All three of these factors - witnessing the moment, abstaining from self-judgment, and imagining your best self - quiet the reactive amygdala and wake up your brain's frontal lobe. This balance shapes your mind that in turn helps you shape time.

Yeah, but when in the moment, how do you flip out of Reptile Mind that simply wants an 88% dark chocolate bar and an episode of Glenn Close destroying everyone in her wake in Damages? How do you bring out the non-judgmental mirrors?


Once you have your mind rooms shaped, make appointments to show up. Every Sunday evening, I spend 1-2 hours shaping how Monday might flow and the rest of the week. I prioritize Writing Time and Dream Time (what I call those periods of project development, workshop development, client product development, and business development). They get priority. They lead. Because they inform everything else. If they don't get due attention, everything else feels less than astonishing. And, frankly, I expect astonishment every week.

At the 99% Conference in 2010, I heard Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project speak about sprints. His trademark idea is that we're better off focusing our energy on shorter work periods divided by breaks for replenishment than by trying to work in marathon periods.

You can write a book – at least in part – in 45-minute increments. But only if that 45 minutes is highly focused.


Once I have my tasks grouped in meaningful categories, I can schedule them accordingly. I bundle client meetings next to each other on the same days. I bundle client preparation tasks on the same days. I bundle email correspondence in 45-minute chunks.

Bundling tasks this way is consistent with what brain science studies repeatedly have shown us about the hazards of multi-tasking. We're not wired well to handle multiple tasks simultaneously if those tasks call upon different parts of the brain.

I use Microsoft Outlook Calendar on my PC laptop and Mac's iCal on my Mac desktop to color-coordinate my Mind Rooms and to bundle tasks.


A client I worked with two years ago wanted to get our business developed to another level of meaning and financial stability. But her oldest of three sons was approaching adolescence, her husband was entering a sort of mid-life conundrum, and her parents weren't faring so well either. But after attending one of my creativity retreats, she returned home ready to create No Matter What. And a son broke his leg in a skiing accident. And her mother got ill. And you know? My client kept creating. She kept her 30-minute and 45-minute appointments with her muse. No Matter What.


Be aware of your body as you create. Call it "Creative's Pose." That act of awareness makes your actions more intentional and increases your chances of bringing out the mirrors while you create.

Begin: Shut off email alerts. Use Freedom or other cool tools to reduce fret. At the beginning of a sprint, state or write down a focus intention. Just breathe for five cycles. Count in to three or four seconds, and count out to three or four seconds. Why? More frontal lobe stimulation. A simple way to quiet down the Reptile Mine and bring out the mirrors. Set a timer.

Middle: Watch your impulses. Catch your hand taking the cursor to check emails. Focus on the breath again. Observe tension. Talk to your best self in friendly, encouraging ways - even if you're engaged in creatively critical activity like revising a design or assessing a project's next steps.

End: Acknowledge the end of the designated time. Try not to obsess into marathon mode and burn yourself out. Bow out. Feel gratitude for that sprint.


The creative mind and brain love meaningful repetition. To show its love, the brain generates more brain cells in the hippocampus. That's a core finding of Fred Gage of the Salk Institute whose research in this field dates back at least to 1999. Why is the hippocampus relevant to creatives and time? Memory, baby, memory. The hippocampus correlates with memory activity, and the memory holds a reservoir of possible triggers for new combinations and associations - the heart of creative novelty.

By the way, neurogenesis isn't just for kids and twenty-somethings. That's old neuroscience.

One reason Tracking Wonder tools such as Yoga As Muse work so well with creatives is that a creative mind can memorize simple physical patterns, and the simple patterns are pleasurable to the body and brain. It's a type of repetition we'll explore at an event in March 2013 to learn to create-on-cue, and it's a type of repetition the creative mind wants more of.

But with all of the above time-shaping and mind-harnessing activities, I have to watch myself. I resist rigidity. I set my intentions. Shape my calendar. And then flow. If I get "off-schedule" - which I do every day - then that's okay.

If I've created a monastery for my creative self, then the main monk in charge is Thelonious Monk. Now that man was disciplined, and he was a master of his mind and his métier – all so he could improvise in the moment.


Every day stretches wide and long or short or narrow. The hours wave by. Or they march. Or they creep. Or they saunter.

As those hours go by, your muse is waiting. Don't stand it up.

My gray long-haired cat is 15, maybe 16. Two weeks ago, he stopped eating and started hobbling. We thought he had kidney failure. But with a shot of steroids and pain meds, his spine stopped hurting, and he started eating again. This morning he wobbled outdoors to sniff and roll in my wife's browning garden. He's making the most of the day.

It's no coincidence his name is Miklos. After the poet. He's a furry reminder.

How do you show up and shape time for what matters most in your work? How do you show up to develop and create your business and not just get things done? What's your story with time? Have I said anything you disagree with? I love to hear your stories and ideas.

See you in the woods,

This article, with a few modifications, was originally published as Creativity & Time: 12 Riffs to Show Up & Shape Time at Psychology Today.

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