Everyone has a creative sweet spot — a time during the day when you're just better than your normal self. Studies show this, but the big question is: when is yours? Let's find out.
We've all found ourselves in the creative zone at some point. It's the moment when you realise the perfect solution to a problem and you start acting it out immediately without worrying about failure. It seems impossible to replicate, but science has shown we all have points in the day where we're more creative than others. The trick is trying to find your creative sweet spot. Let's take a look at the science to kick things off and then move on to some tricks and tools you can use to find your own.
The Science Behind Your Creativity
In the big picture, science has ignored the idea of creativity until relatively recently. It wasn't until 1950 when an American Psychological Association Presidential Address by psychologist JP Guilford suggested that creativity was worth researching. Which is to say, in broad terms, the research is still young. Subsequently, we have a few different theories on when we're most creative. Here's a look at some of our most creative times.
- You're likely most creative when you're groggy: It's thought that problem-solving comes most naturally when you're unfocused and you allow your brain to wander. In a study published in 2011 in the journal Thinking and Reasoning, researchers found that people were more likely to come up with creative solutions to problems when they were tired. For some, this meant in the morning, for others it was the afternoon or evening. Obviously it depends on your body.
- Being drunk helps creativity: Similar to the idea above, a study last year by researchers at the University of Illinois found that you are more creative when you're drunk. The idea is the same as the example above because it reinforces the idea that when you allow your brain to meander it can solve problems more creatively.
- Exercise can make you more creative: Research has shown that exercise can cause a creative burst. The idea here is that when you get your body going and push it you're unfocused and can latch onto more creative ideas.
- We may even be more creative when we're asleep: A 2004 study published in the journal Nature suggests we're more likely to come up with creative solutions to big problems when we sleep on them and look at the information again first thing in the morning.
- Creativity is linked to scheduling: A study published in 2010 in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity links time management and creativity together as being mutually beneficial to each other. Basically, if you're good at managing your time and creating to-do lists, there's a positive correlation to your creative time. The implication is that you can schedule for and decide to be creative, which is exactly what we'll be looking to do.
Notice some trends in all this research? Contrary to what we might think, we're the most creative when we're at a non-optimal mental level. This time is different for everyone, but capturing it isn't as hard as you think. Since capitalising on that time is key to coming up with new and fresh ideas, let's take a look at some of the ways you can time and track your day to find your creative sweet spot.
Photo by Allan Siew.
A Systematic Approach To Identifying Your Creative Sweet Spot
There's a good chance the information above may have given you enough of a starting point for finding your creative sweet spot: If you have a pretty good idea of when you're at your most tired, for example, you may prefer to try that out as your sweet spot. If so, skip this section and read a bit about how to work your creative sweet spot into your schedule. If you'd like to approach things a little more analytically, though, that's what this section is about.
We're all a bit different, so finding your creative sweet spot is going to take a little work. Before you can start rebooting our day, you'll need to collect data to work with. Over the course of the last week, I tried a few different methods to try and capture my own creative bursts and create a baseline schedule to compare them to. The kind of creative work you do may vary greatly from mine, but here's what I did.
Since the bulk of my time throughout the day is spend in front of a computer, I used a time-tracking program to get a better idea of how I'm spending my day and what I'm spending it on. I also started digging into my revision history on documents and time stamping my notes. Here's a few tricks I picked up for tracking my creative bursts.
- Start with a spreadsheet: Create a spreadsheet like the one on the right with the days of the week running on the top and the time in half hour blocks running vertically. This is where we're going to stuff our data for our creative moments, our productive times, and our daily schedule (more on this in a second).
- Time-tracking software: Use a time tracking app to get a better idea of when your productive points in the day happen. I had a sneaking suspicion they wouldn't line up with my creative insights, but we'll get to that below. I used RescueTime to help track my application usage to get an idea of when I was actively using software. This collects all your usage data in a webapp online. For now, download the free version, set it up, and let it run quietly in the background. We'll enter in the data at the end of the week.
Google Docs Revision History:
- For myself, I wanted a way to track when and what I started typing. I realised Google Doc's Revision History would do the trick. If you're writing in Google Docs, click File > Revision History. On the right side of the screen, you can see every large revision you made in a text file. At the end of each day I went back and looked a the history to find the eureka moment for the post I wrote that day. For me, this was a single line that stuck out or a huge edit. In some cases, it was just a big block of text where I could tell it all started to make sense to me. Your version of this will be different, but it's easy to recognise. At the end of each day, make a note of the time of the eureka moment by dropping an X into your spreadsheet next to the time and day.
- Timestamp your notes: This works whether you're on the go or at home, but if you use sticky notes, a notepad app, or a spare receipt in your wallet, start writing the time an idea comes to you. These are the eureka moments when we solve a problem or come up with a new problem to solve. Consider these notes the spark of an idea. The ideas aren't always good, but they should be new. If you prefer smartphone notes consider an app like MomentDiary for iOS or Android to automatically stash the timestamp on your ideas. Let these sit for the week and we'll enter them on the spreadsheet at the end.
Track Your Daily Schedule to Help You Find Clues
Tracking your creativity is just part of this idea. In order to get a good understanding of your creative schedule, you also need to understand your daily schedule. It's not just about finding your most creative and productive moments based on time alone. It's also about seeing where the rest of your schedule fits in. To do this, you need a basic outline of your day.
Each day track elements in your spreadsheet like:
- Wake time
- Sleep time
For good measure, toss in any details below the times that might have an effect on the numbers. Note peculiarities like if you were feeling a little sick one day, your morning ritual was screwed up, or if you ran an errand. Basically make a quick note of anything out of the ordinary you did (or didn't do) throughout the day so you can compare it to the rest of your data.
Review the Data and Use Your Findings to Schedule Your Day and Take Advantage of Your Creative Sweet Spot
Once you collect your data for a week it's time to turn all that information into something you can use. Let's go through the steps of assessing your data and take a look at how you can adjust your daily schedule to make the most out of your creative sweet spot.
Collect All Your Creativity Data
It's time to take all the data you collected and put all those details into your spreadsheet. For this, we'll assume creativity comes in two basic forms: the eureka moment and the productive moments. Let's take a look at how we can use all the information we collected over the last week to gauge both.
- Step 1: Grab all of your notes and other creative data you collected over the week. With your time stamps in hand, add an X for every note to the spreadsheet. These mark your eureka moments. If you're using the Google Docs trick listed above, you likely already have a few scattered around alongside your daily schedule.
- Step 2: Take a look at your software usage in RescueTime. Log in to your RescueTime Dashboard and click the task you're tracking under "All Categories". Set the graph to daily, then hourly. In front of you is a graph that that should show your application usage throughout the day. This is the baseline for your current software usage. Look at your peak usage in the software you use for creative ideas and integrate the information into your spreadsheet by colouring the cell backgrounds when you're productivity spikes. These are your productive creative moments.
- Step 3: Look at the schedule of your productivity, eureka moments and your day-to-day activity. You should notice a trend of some kind. This might be that your eureka moments immediately follow (or precede) the productive ones. Maybe you're most productive after lunch, but your creative notes are in the early morning. Take a look at the other details you entered as well. Is there a correlation between waking up late and when your ideas come? Does feeling ill have an effect? If so, you can likely ignore some of these stats and focus on the days that went well. If it's totally scattered, consider going through the process for another week.
In my case, I learned that the bulk of my productivity came at a different time than my eureka moments. My eureka moments tend to revolve around my exercise time more than anything else. Out of 15 total notes, six of them were after exercise. Seven notes were taken between 9am and 12pm, and the 11-11.30 block was the most common.
What can you do with all this information? Let's look at how to rearrange your schedule to best take advantage of these moments.
Tweak Your Schedule to Use Your Time Wisely
We've talked before about integrating a dedicated thinking time into your schedule and that's essentially what we'll be doing here. This isn't just about thinking, it's about dedicating your time wisely and surrounding yourself with what you need to keep up your creative output. To some people, this means creating a block of time where you can let the muse speak. To others, it's more about rescheduling any problem-solving portions of your day when you're at your creative peak.
I made a few adjustments to my schedule to take advantage of these moments. I scheduled my exercise time at 10.30am on most days. Afterwards, I take a short walk around the neighbourhood to clear my head and come up with new ideas. Then I get to work on laying out the basics of my ideas before lunch and work through them afterwards because that's when my productivity is highest. I also noticed the bulk of my big edits in Google Docs come late in the day when I'm exhausted and early in the morning before I start (technically) working. Subsequently, I've set up two blocks of time for editing: one at 4pm and another right after I wake up.
Your solutions will be different, but the important part to factor into your schedule change is not just the time you made a lot of notes, but the triggers that cause them. For instance, if you notice a creativity boost after meetings, schedule creative time after every meeting. If it's when you're tired and groggy in the morning, schedule more time for your morning shower. If your schedule is set in stone these creative moments probably come within a specific block of time, so give yourself the tools you need to make use of them.
Photo by Justin See.
Creativity is an ambiguous thing, but we all have those times when we get the so-called eureka moments. Finding when and why those seemingly out-of-the-blue insights strike us is the first step to creating a schedule that's conducive to creativity. Whether it's being groggy in the morning, jogging in the afternoon, or after a few beers, knowing when you're in your creative sweet spot can help you embrace it.
Do you have tricks to embracing your creative moments or rescheduling your day around them? Share your tips in the comments.