The Creativity Elixir: Is Genius On-Demand Possible?

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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?

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Posted on: August 25, 2007.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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

  1. Even though I’m an extremely visual person, the noise in my writing environment (or lack there of) has proven to be the biggest distractor for me. I listen to E.S. Posthumus turned down very low. If I don’t have the CD with me, I stream some kind of vocal trance techno off of DI.FM and play it very low as well.

    -Richard Lee

    Like

    • Most definitely! The biggest problem is our environment, myself trying to keep it quiet as possible!
      I really like to put some anigma music in the background…

      Like

  2. Great information! I find it hard to be consistently productive at times. So, figuring out when i have the most energy and best active will help me get a lot of important things done.

    Very informative blog (as a whole)

    A.

    Like

  3. I’m not sure why it is, but I cannot write a word without complete and utter silence. On the other hand, I can’t do anything creative (drawing, design) without a TV blaring or lots of distractions.

    I think every single person is different in the stimuli they need to activate parts of their brain. The best takeaway from this post is that it’s possible to figure it out for yourself.

    Like

  4. I still have to figure out the best times for myself but I’m slowly getting there. I know that the middle of the day right after lunch is not a good time but other than that it’s a bit of a toss up.

    I couldn’t agree more on the white noise but I can’t have anything that might draw my attention too much. I listen to trance music, I’ll download the A State of Trance hosted by Armin Van Buren and I’m off to the races. The music is very rhythmic and I can focus my mind completely.

    Thanks for sharing your approach, its always interesting to see how others write or work – you never know where the next idea will come from.

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  5. Great post Tim…

    For me baroque works best…especially baroque harpsichord.

    In terms of time management, I’ve found that Dan Kennedy’s advice to write one hour per day, every day, no matter what, is the ideal for me, although I do believe in “striking while the iron is hot:” if you’ve got a creative flow at an odd time, take advantage of it.

    Finally, I do admire Steve Pressfield’s (The War Of Art) take on creatvity- namely, just suck it up and get it done…

    Like

  6. I seem to do my most productive writing with the tv on some random station. Complete silence definitely doesn’t work. Music is ok.. Maybe it’s the product of several years of working in cubicles with all sorts of stuff constantly going on around me that I have to “block out”…but now I just need background noise to stay focused.

    ZZ

    P.S. Just wanted to thank you again for your book…it’s truly inspiring. I recently took my first big step toward my own 4-hour work week by making the decision to exit the military.

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  7. Last year I also spent several months in Argentina as I was working as a freelance designer. During the day my brain conceptualizes pretty well, but nothing really solidifies until my prime time (11 PM to 4 AM). I spent the days watching people, exploring the city (Córdoba), its architecture, and brushing up on my Spanish. Although my main intention of being out was to psychologically separate work from LIFE, I think seeing new things and learning new words here and there were a good subconscious primer for the evenings of creativity. I can also attest to Yerba Mate being a miracle drink. I had about 3 cups of it every evening during work time (Orange flavor being my favorite) with a few criollos (think biscuits).

    I am now working in Las Vegas and have found an Argentine store that sells mate, and make sure to spend time away from the desk, and the results have continued.

    I think everyone is obviously different, but the key elements seem to be understanding your body’s natural cycles, preparing your brain for the intense work hours, and spending time soaking in your surroundings away from the desk.

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  8. Another blinding post, thanks for the tips.

    I have only just cleared a major psycho active drug from my life so not sure I will be chasing any theobromine or other Caffeine infusions in the near future. The buzz I got from Coffee/Tea was short lived and I had to increase the dosage to get the same results but I didn’t like the other side-effects. I am intrigued by the ‘espresso nap’, how did you find out about that?

    The ‘circadian cycle’ theory definitely rings true for me. It’s important to accept you have a cycle to be able to master it. I am savouring power naps at the moment coupled with a lucid dream every now and can really fuel or seed new ideas (I recommend ‘Lucid Dreaming for Beginners’ by Mark McElroy, read a chapter or two before you go to bed every night).

    Gretel Ehrlich said that ‘Walking is an ambulation of the mind’ and for me the majority of my creativity appears when I am walking – but it has to be a route I have not walked before or I need to consciously observe different things: clouds, bricks, shadows – stuff most people take for granted.

    ‘The Power of Your Subconscious Mind’ by Dr Joseph Murphy, although covering other issues is one that helped me tap in to my subconcious for creativity. Also, the book you recommended in ‘Restricted Reading’ – Make Millions With Your Ideas – has a hilarious chapter on coming up with inventions which I have applied to idea creation; it is amazing how simple the process is.

    A piece of paper and a sharpened pencil, writing or drawing – it focuses my thoughts.

    Enforced solitude is a must. I also need to have a break, regularly.

    And collaborating with Mozart has its moments too…

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  9. From 10AM to 1PM, coffee, then ice water with lemon, any good classical music, but I prefer the baroque period (Bach, Pachelbel, Albinoni, Vivaldi, Locatelli…). Rewrites or different topic from From 6 PM to 9PM. After dinner of fish or steak, usually bbq’d, with a couple shots of Knob Creek Bourbon, some hot tea or ice tea depending on the humidity, and more classical. If there’s a good Western on TV I can watch it while writing technical stuff.

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  10. @Zen Zoomie

    Congrats on accepting the challenge. Best of luck to you along your path. You’ll never regret monetary sacrifice if you use your time effectively to pursue what is important to you. Look at most people with a million or two in the bank… the majority wish they have ten.

    RM

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  11. Large quantities of chocolate! What movie was it where they said that eating large quantities of chocolate was biochemically identical to falling in love? ‘Devils Advocate’ with Pacino was it? Anyway, yeah, I’ve found that works better than caffeine, the only problem is you can’t do it too often because you’re also consuming a lot of sugar and therefore calories while you’re at it…

    Cheers,
    Andrew

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  12. I feel I’m more productive later on in the day. I start work (I own a landscaping company) at around 10-11am and work until 6ish. If i’m busy, I work ’till dark. Coming home that late is rewarding to me.

    Also, why isn’t there a “Under 18″ age selection on the poll?

    -Tom

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  13. Hi Tim! I think Mary-Jane has co-authored more most creative stuff. Of course it requires some serious editing the next day. I like to get intensely passionate to write a great sales piece, and The Cranberries is great music for that.

    Can you explain the chemistry behind espresso 20 min nap? I thought caffeine kicked in within 5 minutes. I know it works because I’ve done this unintentionally, but it doesn’t make sense! And wine and tea?

    p.s. your favorite 4HWW Ning group is up to 161 members! (click my name above!)

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  14. I agree on the music without lyrics. I tend to sing along with everything, and if the words mean something (english) to my subconcious it distracts from my own inner dialog. Music as opposed to random sounds is definitely desirable because it is predictable, and rythmic. I think the main thing I need to be able to write well, is to really feel what it is Im writing. If Im in a bad mood, tired, stressed, or otherwise out of synch with the type of piece Im working on, then it becomes too mechanical. It loses the conversational feel that keeps things interesting.

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  15. When I wrote the first draft of my first book I found that writing 2 – 4 pages per day was the best tactic. Sometimes, if motivated, I would do more…but that was my minimum. Also, like you said….it was okay (infact a good idea)to write the sections of chapters out of order…when I was inspired by the theme of that section.

    Finally, remember that the first draft is just that…a draft. I did better work when I realized that there was a lot of time to edit the book. I could add or delete things throughout the process…but the goal of the first draft was to get it done so the editing phase could begin.

    thom

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  16. Tim,

    Great stuff. I always appreciate your approach and application to things. For me it seems as though I get ‘creative dumps’. Meaning I can write 10 articles, 3 newsletters and a few other work projects in a few hours with white noise and a good natural stimulant as well, rather than locking myself in a room attempting to write. That is a prescription for serious brain block for me and too much pressure. For me, IMHO, pressure too many expections = little output. That’s why the 4 hour workweek has helped me tremendously to accomplish more and LIVE!

    I also notice having good protein that morning, not alot of grains, enough water makes a big difference. Clear mind, clean body- makes for great creativity.

    I set a task list but also am cautious to not be overly disciplined. Too much discipline in my writing with no fun makes for no payoff and pathetic writing. So I have to do something fun that day- play with kids, dance around my house ( lol), workout, watch something on TV that I would otherwise not take time for ( like a cooking show!)..and then I brain dump.

    Blessings!
    Sandi

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  17. I find that 1-5 are usually my most productive hours as well – which is unfortunate because as a college student I have to be awake at normal hours in the morning. Also, I never feel like doing anything during the day; I save most of my tasks to do at night and when I do this I find everything to be more enjoyable as well.

    I wish I had a better sleep schedule, and so I think I’m going to look into your nap ideas. I never took naps until last year so it’s a hard schedule to get in to, but I feel like it would be worth it.

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  18. GETTING IN THE ZONE ANYTIME, ANYWHERE IS KEY…

    I’ve done a lot of writing, both creative and technical, for my collegiate education and the deadline-driven world of marketing. Similar to Mr. Ferriss, after the midnight hour seems to be my most productive. As we are all aware, the realtime demands of our professions may not afford us this luxury of choosing when, where, and how.

    Throughout the past couple of years, I’ve come across a few strategies that I utilize for both pressure and non-pressure situations:

    1. PROPER WARM UP — start with free writing, where you start writing and don’t stop, even if you have nothing to say, just babble! This forces your mind to spit out content, getting your creative juices going! By the time you start the writing process, you’ll be distraction free – no matter the environment.

    2. ADDRESS THE READER’S NEEDS — put yourself in the eyes of your audience, what do THEY hope to learn and gain from your insight and fulfill their desires.

    3. PROPER ENDINGS — end with a call-to-action, what is it that you want your audience to do or think.

    Hope this helps! I’ve tried these techniques working next to a full force of copier sales reps and it hasn’t let me down yet.

    PS – try not to multi-task! Getting in the zone is half the battle, staying there is the other.

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