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How to prime the idea pump with ease and aplomb

I am having fewer ideas, but they seem to be of better quality than the flood of ideas I used to get when I was younger. How can I take advantage of this? 

I am 40 this year and I have to say, things look a lot different than when I was 25. I used to be a babbling brook of ideas for my art work: I filled sketchbooks and journals with odd thoughts over the years. A lot of them were crap, but still, it felt great. I do have to admit, life was a lot simpler then… I did not have nearly the amount of responsibilities or cares that I have now, but I think my brain has changed. In fact, I know it has: the Seattle Longitudinal Study showed that we get way more efficient at processing information as we get older. We can’t work as fast or as long as we could when we were young – but we shouldn’t need to, since we are working better.

So I am better at thinking of ideas, but how can I get in to a state of flow? Turns out, plenty, and those things apply to people of any age:

Have a regular time to get work done

I try to work every day on my personal projects, though sometimes it’s impossible. I  have been training myself to get up earlier so I have some really productive time to myself. So far, it’s been alright although I still go to bed too late. Losing sleep is not the answer, so I have to work on getting my 8 hours of sleep. More on sleep in a moment. 

Set goals and establish strong motivations

I have to know where I am going before I start the journey, so I set a clear goal for the time when I work. I also try to keep my motivation for achieving the goal clear in my mind. It is always so much easier to do Monstress work than all the stuff I am supposed to be doing, so I use that work as a reward. For instance, today, I needed to write a syllabus for a course we are voting on this week. I worked for 5 hours, so I get to work on this essay until dinner. 

Make the problem compelling to solve

I try to split the problem at hand into smaller bits, but those bits can’t be so small as to be meaningless. I like to leave a little meat on their bones, if you get what I mean. If I break a problem too far down, the tasks can become mindless, and that is precisely what I have to avoid. I do not respond well to mindless tasks unless they are gesture based, like pulling a 100 silkscreen prints. And if I don’t break a problem down enough, it is overwhelming. You have to strive to achieve some balance. the problem needs to be doable, but not too easy.

Take breaks and play 

Not only do I need to get away from the screen of my computer periodically, I need to get off my butt and do something amusing or restful or otherwise refreshing activity. I try to not get sucked into Facebook, but I do let myself get momentarily distracted by my cats, or by a lovely passing thought. It’s okay to look up from what we are doing every once in a while as long as we don’t lose our core momentum.

Get enough sleep (naps included)

I find that I work best when I have had a full 8 hours’ sleep. That is hard to get, however, so I take naps whenever I can. Catnaps do nothing for me: I need to pass out for at least an hour to feel rejuvenated. This differs from person to person, however, so do what feels right for you. I require full-on nappage, complete with scattered pets and softly playing  radio. Love it love it love it.

Think of others

I work best when I am doing something that will benefit other people and myself. Just working to make my life better is not as fulfilling or as compelling. There have also been studies showing that people are more creative when they literally distance themselves from a problem and imagine other people having it instead. It’s just too visceral to think of yourself all the time – you can’t lift yourself above the fray into the abstract realm. Thinking of others not only stirs up altruistic feelings and motivations, it allows us to get some perspective on a problem.

Change your perspective

I have slowly learned that I choose how I see the world around me. This is not what I thought when I was 25 – I figured the world was just how I saw it. The fact of the matter is that my assumptions completely color what I see, so I have to take responsibility for those assumptions. I have to work to bolster my ability to make them, strengthen my power to observe and draw conclusions. I have to learn to perceive my own perception, if you get my meaning. I have to be able to examine my seeing of the world as being dependent upon the lens through which I look, and I have to be willing to change that lens from time to time. 

Articles used to write this essay:
Best Rest Practices for Optimal Productivity and Creativity 
Psychology Today, Jeffrey Davis, M.A, April 30, 2012
Boost Creativity: 7 Unusual Psychological Techniques 
Psy Blog,  Jeremy Dean 
Why Thinking of Others Improves Our Creativity
Creativity Post, David Burkus, Jul 26, 2012 
Change the Way You Look at Things and the Things You Look at Change
Creativity Post, Michael Michalko, Jul 11, 2012
Filed under: Writing


I am Libby Clarke, an artist, designer and educator living in Brooklyn, New York. I operate under the name Monstress, which actually started out as my zine label in 1997. Since then, it has grown to encompass all my efforts.

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