“Do a huge volume of work.”
This is advice from Ira Glass (star of the hugely successful podcast, This American Life), for anyone seeking to master a craft, or produce works of creative genius. Indeed, history and research supports this assertion. Some of the most famous achievers have delivered their most celebrated ideas during times of high productivity. Yet, despite the apparent value of many hours invested and a high quantity of output, many of us shy away from choosing a lifestyle that involves a great volume of work. Or, we don’t make the most of circumstances where a high volume is imposed upon us. This article is designed to help you embrace the times in your life when high volume is forced or available. Read on for strategies to turn your chaos into creation.
1. Reconsider “chaos”
The labels we place on events, emotions, obligations, and opportunities greatly impact our subjective experience. As we set forth in a day that is packed full, task after task, we have a choice regarding how we view our circumstances. We can sigh with fatigue and resentment, angry at the lack of room to breathe, and feeling trapped on the treadmill of living. Or, we can reframe our path through the day in an altogether different way. Perhaps your non-stop schedule of meetings could be viewed as many opportunities to brighten the smiles of those around you. Perhaps your schedule could be viewed as a game – can you really make it from “a” to “b” to “c” to “d” to “e” within that crazy timeframe you’ve committed to? Perhaps you can view the high demands upon you as proof of your value in the world. After all, you must be bright, and skilled, and needed if your time is requested by so many. How can you reframe your day to highlight the meaning and opportunities within it?
2. Embrace the experience
I urge you to find any way you can to cultivate positive emotions throughout your day. Science has shown that positive emotions empower people to take action toward their goals. Psychologist and emotion expert, Barbara Frederickson, has found that positive emotions open our awareness to opportunities around us, and literally expand our vision. Researcher, Alice Isen writes that positive emotions produce “a broad, flexible [manner of thinking], and ability to integrate diverse material.” Integration is of course, a major factor in the creative process. Methods to cultivate positive emotions include reframing your experience as described above, stopping to notice and savor the positive elements of your current environment, and connecting with people you enjoy.
I believe that how you spend your time should be carefully considered. However, odds are you’re reading this with numerous commitments already in place. Don’t waste energy fighting circumstances you can’t change. Until you can pause to consider the structure of your days avoid commentary on what’s wrong with your schedule or those who are demanding of you. Instead, face forward on the tasks before you. What are you doing now and now? Do just that really well, and stay open to the beauty within it. As humans we are limited to having a direct impact on this moment only. Do the best you can with each moment as it comes to you, and then when the time is right take time to consider how you will spend future moments.
4. Be Curious
Chaos is normally characterized by the collision of actions, people, and objectives. Creativity is all about unusual connections and integration of ideas – essentially collisions of thought. So, as you run, direct, help, drive, and respond stay open to the ideas that come to you. I believe curiosity goes hand in hand with the surrender described above. Stop fighting and complaining. You’re in the storm. Look around. It might not be long before a flash of lighting illuminates something in a way you’d have never seen it in the sunshine.
Record your experience. Even if you only write for five minutes each day, or thirty minutes once a week it will help you put your life in perspective. Psychologists have found that recording one’s experience can increase a person’s well-being during difficult times. The writing need not be positive. Just record your honest experience of living in that moment. Also, putting ideas on paper allows you to reflect on them in such a way that creative epiphanies are more likely to occur.
Although perhaps your middle school teachers told you differently, daydreaming has terrific benefits. Researcher, Jonathan Smallwood has found daydreaming to be integral to the creative process, and eminent psychologist, Jerome Singer coined the term, “positive constructive daydreaming” to describe the form of mind-wandering that can lead to useful insights about one’s future. Activities that require little effortful thought like driving, showering, walking the dog, jogging, and washing the dishes lend themselves beautifully to daydreaming. It is in these unfocused tasks that solutions to problems frequently and spontaneously emerge.
Time spent with valued others is one of the greatest sources of positive emotion. Stress produces the hormone, oxytocin, which prompts us to reach out to others. Psychologists who are experts in the field of stress tell us that contact with others increases courage and positive emotion.
8. Commendation and compassion
Speak kindly to yourself. If you’re reading this article you’re likely someone who experiences chaos in your life. This probably means that you are truly committed to a lot of tasks, and you really are trying to help a lot of people. Remember that you are a human. You have limits. That’s a fact. Regularly commend yourself for your efforts, your little wins, and your good intentions. You’re going to get grumpy, you’re going to get scared, and you’re going to get tired. That’s what happens to human beings when they’re stretched. Offer yourself some compassion for your humanness.
Many of us are in the habit of taking tasks as they come. So and so wants to meet at 5pm, ok, I’ll just move my dinner to 6pm. There’s a group that wants to meet at 8am, ok, I’ll skip my run today. Whenever possible, consider how the tasks in your life can be best aligned for you. This does not mean that tasks need to be eliminated – just rearranged to suit when you’re most inclined to do them well, and in such a way as to protect the tasks that you need to complete in order to feel at peace.
Throughout this article I have avoided suggestions to reduce anything. Suggestions to stop, to pause, to rest are the most frequently ignored when I consult with people. There’s no point emphasizing something that someone is just not going to do. But, despite the resistance I receive toward rest, this recommendation must be stated: you need to sleep. Sleep, my friend, sleep. You must. Science does not have a complete understanding of why we need to sleep but we do know that it is critical to success in absolutely every field. Find a way.
Do a huge volume of work, and apply my ideas above to survive and thrive within it. I wish you immersion and enjoyment in your craft of choice, and brilliant creation within your chaos.
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Frederickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, Vol. 56,(3), 218 – 226.
Isen, A. M. (1990). The influence of positive and negative affect on cognitive organization: Some implications for development. In N. Stein, B. Leventhal, & T. Trabasso (Eds.), Psychological and biological approaches to emotion (pp. 75-94). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Smallwood, J. L., Andrews-Hanna, J. (2013). Not all minds that wander are lost: The importance of a balanced perspective on the mind-wandering state. Frontiers in Psychology, 4 (441).
Singer, J.L. (1975). Navigating the stream of consciousness: Research in daydreaming and related inner experience. American Psychologist, 30, 727 – 738.
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