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Creative Idling

Description

When you give your brain plenty of room to soar without a predetermined destination, your mind has room to come up with new ideas even when you're not consciously trying.

No one at my office has ever accused me of wasting time, at least not to my face. But it could happen. I could get caught staring out the window or looking distantly into the air around me, arriving at the end of the day without any productivity to show for it. It wouldn’t surprise me to come out of that gaze to the sound of, “Why aren’t you doing anything?”

But I already have an answer. I may not be doing anything immediately productive during those times, but I’m definitely doing something. I’m giving myself the space to dream, breathe, create, recharge, or anything else positive you want to call it. I’d argue that a writer who is constantly writing is a writer who produces stale material and eventually burns out. I’d position my loafing as efficiency in disguise.

This is a relentless tension: deadlines and productivity vs. freedom and creativity. And it feels like a zero-sum game. When one team is winning, the other seems to be losing—even though you can’t be successful without supporting both.

When you write—or create anything else—you have to have down time. That time is probably the best thing you can do for your productivity, even though it looks thoroughly unproductive to the people around you. It may involve shifting gears, like reading a book, taking a walk, or going to a movie. Or it may involve no gears at all, like letting your mind sit in idle—or even wander aimlessly—for a while.The problem with this need for downtime is that it often turns into a handy excuse for procrastinating—especially when you’re already feeling stressed or burned out. Like most creative types, you're probably very good at this sort of rationalizing. Sometimes giving yourself a little latitude for mind-wandering turns into losing yourself in an endless space odyssey. And that really isn’t good for productivity.

The solution is to put boundaries around your mental escapes and then run wild within those boundaries. Impose limits on your loafing, put a fence around your mental playground, hike the trails of your internal wilderness without getting lost in the bush. Set an alarm clock and then come back to your desk. Whatever it takes, find a balance that gives you freedom to veg out without giving yourself license to be irresponsible.

Otherwise, your thought processes become like a caged bird that doesn’t know what to do when the door is finally opened. You’ll feel confined even when you aren’t. You need to give your brain plenty of room to soar without any predetermined destination.

When you can do this, your mind has room to come up with new ideas even when you aren’t consciously trying to come up with them. The best insights sneak in from side angles, and taking your focus off your work for a while gives them the opening they need. Even if you don’t come out of your mental break with something concrete, you’ve still stretched your own thinking and laid the groundwork for future internal travels. And your work benefits all the way around.

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