The Creativity Elixir: Is Genius On-Demand Possible?

147 Comments

vmull11.jpg
1 part stimulant, 1 part loco pro, 1 part…((c) leptonsoup333)

I celebrated when I sold my first book. For about 5 minutes. Then I panicked.

My senior thesis almost killed me, and now I had an entire book to write. I interviewed close to a dozen best-writing authors (Pulitzer Prize winners and New Yorker staff writers vs. best-selling authors) about their writing processes. How did they churn out high quality work day after day?

“Sit in front of the typewriter or computer from 8am to 6pm each day, with a short break for lunch and the gym. Just put in the your time no matter what,”
one said. I tried that and almost pulled a Hemingway.

Another suggested that I write from 5-7am, write chapters out of sequence (which ended up being great advice), and asserted that writer’s block was a myth. My brain gremlins disagreed.

And on and on and on.

After much experimentation, I figured out my personal recipe for creativity on-demand: circadian scheduling, altered states, and white noise. Huh? It’s actually simple…

1. Time it: Determine your most prolific creative period during a normal 24-hour period. It took me a long time to accept 1-5am as my best hours, which was the only timing that provided consistent progress. I also distinguish between idea generation and idea “creation” (combination into a meaningful whole). 1-3pm was spent brainstorming fragmented concepts and anecdotes, as well as interviewing and note taking. I would circle the best ideas and then put them in order at 1am for an attempt at synthesis.

I don’t believe that it is possible to do more than 4 hours of good creative work per waking cycle. This can be extended only slightly by caffeine power naps (down a cup of espresso and then take a 20-minute nap) or “ultra-naps” that are multiples of the 90-minute ultradian cycle (I prefer 90 minutes or 3 hours).

2. Biochemically Fine-Tune. I found by accident that my best sessions all followed a specific ratio: 3 cups of yerba mate tea for each glass of wine consumed. 3:1. I also like adding a little theobromine with a few E. Guittard 72% cacao chocolate cooking chips every 20 minutes or so.

Nothing illicit is needed, and it doesn’t become an addiction. In 2001 I was a caffeine/coffee addict because I “worked” 14 hours a day and coffee high only lasted 1.5-2 hours after I’d built a tolerance. I could have up to 8 cups in 24 hours. For a max 4-hour session, you wouldn’t consume more than two cups, so chemical dependency doesn’t occur. I use tea in place of coffee when possible because caffeine has a sharp crash for me, whereas yerba mate (which includes caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline) does not.

My favorite inexpensive wine in Buenos Aires, where I wrote more than 1/2 of the book was the delicious 2004 Finca Flichman Malbec (Here’s the 2006)

This was paired with my two favorite brands of yerba mate, Cruz de Malta in far first place:
Cruz de Malta Yerba Mate Tea
Rosamonte Yerba Mate Tea

If South America isn’t your style, my new alternative will appeal to your inner Confucian:
Honey Dan Chong Tea (I found this at the incredible Modern Tea in SF)

3. Block Distraction and Stimulate Brain Activity with Musical White Noise: If I attempt silence, I will obsess on random noises, whether dripping faucets or — in the case of earplugs — the heartbeat in my inner ear. On the other hand, I can’t write while listening to new music with clearly enunciated lyrics or, for some odd reason, English (but not foreign) vocals of a deep pitch. After much experimentation, here is my all-star iTunes roster for creative flow, listed in order:

Corazon de Oro – Vals – Tangos Grandes Exitos Oro: Tangos, Valses, Milongas
Our Truth – Lacuna Coil – Karmacode
Pain – Three Days Grace – One-X
Animal I Have Become – Three Days Grace – One-X
Ich Will – Rammstein
Falling To Pieces – Faith No More – Who Cares A Lot Greatest Hits
Elba Ramalho – Forro Legal
Postmortem – Slayer – Soundtrack To The Apocalypse
Name of the Game – The Crystal Method – Tweekend
Blowin Ya Brains – Freestylers – Pressure Point
Loco Pro – Animal – 1998 Poder Latino

I also put a TV on in the background and mute it, but that’s more a social coping mechanism, since most people sleep from 1-5am.

How do you flip the switch? What are your routines, tricks, and tools for getting in the creative zone?

###

Subscribe to the Experiments in Lifestyle Design blog now!





Posted on: August 25, 2007.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

147 comments on “The Creativity Elixir: Is Genius On-Demand Possible?

  1. Sound advice! Dark chocolate and yerba mate are my busom friends. I was recently so overcome with affection for the latter that I had to blog about it last night (when yes, I suppose I could have gotten another ten pages of novel revisions done…). –Robert V.S. Redick, author of The Red Wolf Conspiracy.

    Like

  2. This is great, especially the first two recommendations. Finding the time when your mind is at its optimum creativity is essential, although in my experience this “window” as I think of it tends to undergo shifting from day to day. Sometimes I work best in the morning, but usually I feel the most inspired late in the evening. Occasionally though I will experience such windows in the middle of the day or when least expected, and that’s when I have to scramble to make some free time for work.
    As for biochemically fine-tuning, I think the biographies of many eminent writers would attest to its usefulness, whether its Balzac with endless cups of coffee, Byron with green tea, or Schiller with cocoa, coffee, and champagne late at night!
    I actually wrote an article recently about 6 natural ways to increase creativity and had a couple of similar suggestions:
    1. SAM-e
    2. NADH
    3. Diet (as in finding the optimal one for energy, mood, etc).
    4. Stimulants (as in coffee, cocoa, green tea, red wine or whatever)
    5. Circadian Rhythms (finding the daily creative window)
    6. Embracing your desire

    Like

  3. Great article… I don’t necessarily write in an editorial style (i’m a programmer primarily), but the “genius on demand” idea still rings true. I find my optimal “grunt work” cycle (calling clients, meetings, customer service calls, e-mails, etc) is right when I wake up to about 4-5 hours later. After that, usually around 12pm – 3pm, I need a break for a few hours… go out, get a bagel or a sandwich, call some friends, etc. Then it’s back to the desk around 7pm-9pm until about 3am. This is my primary creative time. I literally explode and find it easy to write methodical, error-free scripts and create intriguing designs.

    As for stimuli, I usually play South Park episodes or stand-up comedy. For some reason they seem to stimulate me the most… this is just from trial and error throughout the last year or so. They are easy to block out, but still make me laugh and keep my spirits high. Coffee I usually only drink in the morning, with beer or wine (sometimes a spot of bubbly) and cheese during the night. I also find it very therapeutic to take at least a single break daily to cook. Regardless, I feel that holding myself against too strict a regimen will have the reverse effect from what I’m trying to accomplish, and make me feel like I’m chained to a desk again. I honestly think that not only feeling free, but having the flexibility to go along with it is very key to letting the creative run loose.

    After reading this article, however, I am much more inclined to study myself on this… and try some Yerba Mate!

    Like

  4. Hi,

    This is ridiculously pedantic – sorry – but I'm one of those people who can't help noticing typos. In this case it's 'inunciated' instead of 'enunciated' in part 3.

    Just wanted to let you know,
    Seonaid

    Like

  5. I’m VERY interested in optimizing my productivity using the kind of fine-tuned chemical input Tim has described:

    ***3 cups of yerba mate tea for each glass of wine consumed. 3:1.
    ***A little theobromine
    ***A few E. Guittard 72% cacao chocolate cooking chips

    So…for starters, what kind of wine & how much would you say you are you drinking in a week. I don’t want to become an alkie! haha

    Right now my regimen includes a LOT of capp (pricey too) & Myoplex Ready Made (also not cheap but not too bad.)

    I think I can do better…

    Big Daddy

    Like

  6. Just bought some GUAYAKI Yerba Mate Tea from Trader Joes.
    Ten bags for about $4.59.
    So far I like it, but I want to fine tune my recipe w/the wine, theobromine & cacao chocolate cooking chips.

    This may be a dumb question, but I have some FRE Whine Zin lying around.
    Any good?

    FRE = Alcohol Free

    Like

  7. Hi, millions of people drink yerba mate for life in south america and there is no epidemiological data to show a higher incidence of oesophageal cancer. I would just use water that it is not too hot.

    You can also search for coffee and cancer and get results.

    I would like to see any good study.

    Like

  8. Tim, Can you comment on your experience with mp3search.ru or ledokolmp3search.com ? They request min payment of $50 to start an account. It is compelling whereas songs are 9 cents compared to 99 elsewhere. How was your experience? Cheers! Andrew

    Like

  9. You said in this post, “I don’t believe that it isn’t possible to do more than 4 hours of good creative work per waking cycle” — you meant don’t believe it IS possible, I think, judging by the rest of your site — is that right?

    Like

  10. What’s your impression of BSN’s N.O.-Xplode for an intellectual energy boost? I’m impressed your writing stays focused while listening to Tweekend. I save ‘The Winner’ for the heaviest bits of my resistance workout.

    Like

  11. Tim… just referring back to this article for the 50th and wanted to comment… I’m an aspiring music producer and DJ and these tips are absolute gold! I tend to think no matter how good people are, everybody loves reinforcement, and I want you to know your book has changed my life and the lives of everyone I’ve given it to. You rule!

    Like

  12. I was a night owl through all my life, studied and worked best when everyone was asleep. For a few months I try to change that and I must admit that I’m failing. I think it is high time for me to accept that I work best after the sun has set till 03.00 and live with it, even though it gets difficult to get up for the morning prayer.
    Otherwise I get up early, spent some time doing nothing, then feel bad for having done nothing, do some work half-heartedly, then go to sleep because it is midnight, just when I was getting productive.

    Back in school I used to buy myself new pens to get motivated to study more … or thick test books out of recycled paper that looked as if they contained more knowledge and definitely smelled like that.

    Another way of getting productive quickly is for me to set up an environment (pens, tools, music, etc.) in which I remember being productive in the past. It puts me into working mood with nice memories. For me, Elton John’s Big Picture album does that, or some REM and Coldplay songs.

    Like

  13. Interesting. My most creative, and a lot of the time, most productive periods are between 1am-3am. I’m not sure whether it’s the absence of distractions I would otherwise have during “normal” working hours or my thoughts and emotions less inhibited past midnight. Probably a combination of both of factors.

    Like

  14. I discovered the caffeine “espresso” + 20 minute nap deal a few years back by trying to fight shear exhaustion, trying caffeine then taking a nap any way. Works wonders!

    I was also a child of the “open classroom” phenomena back in the seventies where both my elementary and high schools were “shells” with soft dividers as room differentials. I’ve always thought that was the reason I could never study in a library or pure silence. I always need background noise to think, music or other, noise is my silence.

    As always, great information Tim! I recommend your book on a daily basis.

    Like

  15. I started listening to rainymood.com while I work, and have recommended it to some friends and co-workers. The website Just plays a loop of recorded rain sounds. It works wonders to cut the silence and provide some non-distracting white noise!

    Like

  16. My dear husband forwarded me the link to your article, as he is always looking for ways to help me become more productive as a writer (read: less of a procrastinator). Unlike many of the other tidbits he sends me, this one really resonated with me. Great tips! I really perked up (pardon the pun) at the mention of coffee — as well as chocolate. I also liked your soundtrack for writing — we must have similar tastes in music, as I have many of the same tunes, but hadn’t considered using them for background music. I’ve found that the music of Sigur Ros, an Icelandic band, is really great to write to — for me, anyway. But just the instrumental songs. My oldest son tells me he always plays Sigur Ros when he has to write a paper at college. I also can’t write in total silence — which I learned after taking myself to Starbucks one day in an attempt to jump-start my writing for the day. I now work at Starbucks — as a barista, not a writer — but I need to get in habit of bringing my laptop with me to do some writing before or after I start my job.
    Anyway, just wanted to let you know that your article was well-written and useful — now I can justify those 90-minute naps I’m prone to take — as long as I get some writing down, too!

    Like

  17. I agree with the comments about finding out what works for you; I like the idea of ambient music, but in practise it seems that I’m really just using the task of choosing the right kind of music to play in the background as procrastination. When I’m doing my best work I’m in a flow and unaware if there’s music or not, and can ignore rowdy drunks down on the street below :)

    However, I like the idea of the wine. Not sure how accurate it is, but I think the alcohol in one glass is enough to kick the fear of starting a task. And for me starting’s usually the hardest part.

    Like

  18. Great blog post, I think there is just as much substance in the comments as the actual post.

    I recently started training with a kettlebell, I’m used to sets of 10-12 any advice how to transition, work until failure? Sets of 20-40-50? My goal is 80 snatches with a 24kg.

    Lastly, my GF gives me a lot of crap saying everyone (Nassim, Rolf, yourself…) I respect and listen to doesn’t have a wife and kids, which changes everything. Mostly from a time and commitment standpoint. Is it selfish to do what I want and not worry about her / starting a family. I’m 23. Any advice?

    Can’t thank you enough for all your work and thoughts.

    Cheers,
    jeff

    Like

    • Hi Jeff,

      I wouldn’t work kettlebells until failure! The only exception might be bent rows, but otherwise, ballistic to failure = injuries.

      To your GF, I don’t think it changes everything. Search “cold remedy” on my blog to see examples of families. Nassim also has kids. Now, whether it’s selfish to do what you want and not think of your GF’s biological clock, that’s something for you two to decide :)

      Tim

      Like

  19. In one of your videos with Ramit Sethi you said that most creative writers you spoke to were most creative between 2am-8am which I found quite interesting.

    I find most of my creativeness comes during the early hours of the morning, especially if I’ve slept a maximum of four hours. So unfortunately being very creative often involves me sacrificing my sleep schedule, even if I never do it on purpose.

    Anyway I love your blogs and books and website, and all my friends have heard of you at least once. You seem like a great man and you have achieved many things that I want to achieve in life.

    Keep on writing and thinking,
    We all benefit from it.

    Like

  20. I found the best recipe is to not have a recipe. If I’m writing music, if I pick up the guitar or sit down at the piano for the purpose of creating something, it doesn’t work. A formula to me involves thinking through the process too much. Again, i’m sure it is very subjective and a personal methodology and differences are to be expected.

    The best way I can describe my “process” of creation is that I ideate and create from 2 different places. Ideas come from a spiritual quiet that many times comes on as a result of music. When it starts flowing, it doesn’t stop until I jot it down. But the part of taking that spark and putting it into a concrete piece of writing or music seems to come from a more technical part of my brain. The technical part cannot work alone and cannot initiate. It has to be stimulated from an idea generated from the surreal, blue cloud of spiritual inspiration. OK, that’s enough on that.

    Enjoy your blog, by the way. Always intriguing.
    YvF

    Like

  21. (“Brainwave Entrainment” It is also an effective aid for focus, lucid dreaming, boosting energy, and a compelling number of other things)

    I’m a freshman in college with ADHD related tendencies, and use it every day.

    Like

  22. The very core of your writing appears wonderful and settles properly with me. Throughout the sentences you actually were able to make me a believer. I however would like more information and would like you to write more as often as you can. In the event you accomplish that, I could definitely be amazed. I may come back again to view your updates!

    Like

  23. Tim, thanks to you Yerba Mate tea has gone from being a hidden gem for a select few to main stream. I have two questions for you in regars to your own experience of Yerba Mate:

    1. On binge day, you mention in the 4HB that you will have 16 oz of Yerba Mate during or before the start of your binge meal. How much loose leaf Yerba Mate are you using in the 16oz of water to extract the maximum effect.

    2. On non-binge days, how much Yerba Mate is “enough” to get the maximum effect, how much loose leaf Yerba Mate are you using as well as how much water is being consumed.

    Thank you.

    Jeffrey

    Like

  24. Oh man. Sweet article.

    I now combine
    -Yerba Mate (cruz de malta tea bags until I can source a gourd)

    – White noise generator iPhone app (I found ‘brown noise’ is the easiest on the ears. Snigger.)

    – 10xBreaths at ratio of 1:4:2 (Usually inhale 6. Hold 24. Exhale 12). Before any activity. Clears my mind, relaxes my body, helps me get more focussed.

    – Power Moves. Yes. I know. Feels ‘self helpy’ but it works. From watching your Yabusame video and then going to a Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within, I’ve found it’s basically the same as the ‘innnyooooinnyoooinn’ except you’re using your body and sharp breath exhale, it usually snaps me straight out of the ‘Oh, I don’t really know what to do so I’ll go on facebook instead’ state. I know no one else will ever do it, but it works when you do it well. I do 5-10 ‘moves’ at a time

    Can’t wait for the new book! I’ve been scouring TFerriss youtube vids and Q&A’s like a stupid fanboy trying to pick out the gems of info that I can apply to ‘skill hacking’ as applied to jazz (i’m a professional jazz musician).

    If you have any book recommendations on overall life hacking, they’d be much appreciated. If not, I look forward to buying 300,000 copies of your books at your book launch!

    Like