Find Your Inner Muse (She’s in There!)
Years ago, while working in a busy, loud and cramped newsroom, I learned music was the key to my productivity. Part of it was that I needed a way to limit stimuli, and a set of earbuds did the trick. I’m naturally nosy, after all. If there’s gossip going on I want to hear it; funny banter, I want to be a part of it. But when you’re trying to weave together a seamless narrative or write a perfectly enticing lead sentence, you need to be one with your inner muse — not with the coffee talk around you.
Music not only silences distractions, it triggers something that makes ideas flow. Right now, as I write this, I am listening to the “Cantaloupe Island” station on Pandora. Instrumental jazz seems to work best when I’m writing, as I don’t want to be distracted by the wordiness of lyrics. But beyond that, there’s something about music that calms me and makes my brain feel lighter, more lithe and capable of turning a pile of facts and quotes into something worthy of your time.
Being on deadline is stressful; music eases that anxiety and allows me to stop worrying and start creating. My response is not an anomaly. In a Journal of the American Medical Association study, intensive care unit patients were given a set of headphones and a CD player programmed with their preferred music. They were told to listen to the music whenever they felt anxious, needed to relax or wanted quiet time. Patients who had access to music reported less anxiety and had less need for sedatives than those who did not.
For me, music unleashes creativity. Here are five ways others tap into theirs.
Take a Walk Outdoors
When Lisa Tener needs inspiration, she heads out of her office and into the great outdoors.
“A walk in nature lets your mind wander,” says Tener, a book coach at Write Your Book. “It helps you tune into your senses and get into a creative place.”
One day, while struggling with writing website copy, Tener decided to head to the Cliff Walk in Newport, R.I., about 20 minutes from her house. “As I watched a surfer on a wave, a metaphor came to me, which made the piece come alive,” she says. The ocean has a knack for putting her mind into a “dreamy space” that allows her rational mind to let go and the creative one to take over.
Science backs this up. Backpackers were asked to measure their creativity before and then four days into a hike via a widely used creativity and problem-solving test. Scores on the test increased 50 percent four days into the hike, according the study published in PLOS ONE, the journal of the Public Library of Science. Researchers acknowledged that they are unsure whether it was nature or the disconnect from technology, or a combination of the two, that accounted for the creativity spike. “The current research indicates that there is a real, measurable cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time truly immersed in a natural setting,” researchers wrote.
Let Yourself Daydream
Joellyn Sargent was having a difficult time trying to come up with a new name for her company. For several weeks she wrestled with the problem. Then, as so often happens to her, the perfect idea came to her while she was driving her car.
“I was driving and turning ideas over in my head when it came to me,” says Sargent, principal of Claravon Consulting Group. “As soon as I got back to the office, I did some research and discovered I had a winner.” Using driving time to mull over ideas wasn’t accidental for Sargent. It’s a regular strategy she uses when, as she says, “the computer has drained my creative juices.”
“If I have the seeds of an idea swirling in my head, something as simple as vacuuming can occupy my body while my brain goes to work,” she says. “Housework isn’t my favorite forum, but it works.”
There is evidence that daydreaming, however you do it, is an essential mental process. “Positive constructive daydreaming,” as it’s been coined, feeds our ability to plan for the future, solve problems, learn new concepts and be creative, according to an article in Frontiers in Psychology.
Turn Off Your Senses
When Miranda Reiter is feeling sapped of all creative thought, she knows it’s time to go to her quiet place. For at least 20 minutes, Reiter, a financial advisor with She and Money Financial Planning, sits in a dark, completely silent room. “It helps me regroup and get clear,” she says.
One day, while frustrated with work, Reiter cut off all external stimulation. “I pulled away from the computer,” she says. “And then I went back to the task, and it was like magic. I was refreshed.” She was able to spend the next three hours hosting a rush of ideas that helped her write an article.
Small studies into the link between sensory deprivation and creativity show benefit. One of the more recent ones, in the journal Music and Medicine, compared the creativity of jazz musicians who either spent an hour each week in a dark, quiet sensory deprivation “flotation chamber” (essentially a fiberglass case filled with salt water, blocked off from light and sound) to those who did not. Each group was then asked to improvise a jazz performance. Those who floated “had significantly higher grades in the jazz improvisation class than the comparison group,” according to an article in Pacific Standard.
A soccer ball helped Inna Kraner write on a difficult topic: Pennsylvania State University’s settlement with those abused by its former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
“I felt stumped,” she says. “There were so many articles to read, and I had a hard time concentrating. So I decided to take a break and spend 15 minutes with our office soccer ball.”
Kicking the ball around helped trigger Kraner’s creativity. Feeling refreshed, she wrote an article that ended up being published on a well-known legal news site. Her company, The Expert Institute, encourages physical activity in the office with volleyballs, hula hoops and yoga mats.
“Creative people sometimes use bodily movement to help overcome mental blocks and lack of inspiration,” says Lorenza Colzato, assistant professor of neuromodulation of cognition at Leiden University in the Netherlands. In a study, her team compared creative thinking among people who exercise regularly and those who don’t.
“We think that physical exercise trains your brain to become more flexible in finding creative solutions, but only if your body is used to being active,” Colzato says.
Connect with Loved Ones
Ted Hessing faced a huge problem at work: All of his websites had been delisted from Google, which meant customers had no way to find him. “The stream of visitors I had worked so hard to cultivate for eight years was gone,” says Hessing, owner of Charlotte Website Development. “I had to find a way to repair the damage and get my traffic back, but where do you start?”
Hessing was upset and overwhelmed. He thought about giving up the business altogether. But around this time his first child was born. He found himself rocking her in the early morning hours, holding her soft, warm body close and talking softly.
“The simple act of spending time with her gave me time to reflect, to plan and get energized for the day ahead,” he says. “When I came home, I held her again and talked through the day’s events. As an infant, she obviously has no idea what any of these words meant. My vocalizing them in that parent-to-baby voice seemed to simplify matters and provided no end to creative solutions and the energy to implement them.”
Love does have the power to inspire. In a study comparing the brain’s response to love versus sex, researchers at the University of Amsterdam discovered that love triggers long-term thinking and creative thought. During sex, however, people focus on the present and are more analytical.
So the next time you ask your partner, “Can we just cuddle instead?” you might be doing your creative mind some good.