1. WHAT WE KNOW: FLOW & LOSING TIME
This is a story of two different but complementary creative encounters with time. One of losing it. The other of creating it.
Conventional Encounter Number One: The poet sits down to write, little more than a faint line humming in his mind. He follows the line and finds in the lines that follow the possibility for music and meaning.
When Mark Strand’s mind immerses in such trains of lines and images, he says “you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing, and you’re sort of swayed by the possibilities.”
Strand’s description of “losing” a sense of time is common among scientists, entrepreneurs, and other creatives in what Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (cheek-SENT-me-high) calls flow.
Many of us are familiar with this sense of “losing” time. It is, I think, a description of wonder and of tracking wonder. But our tracking time and wonder doesn’t stop here.
2. WHAT WE’RE DISCOVERING: AWE & TIME
What about expanding time? Shaping time? Art coach Marney Makridakis wrote an enchanting book called Creating Time, so it seems possible for the creatives at heart.
But I’m thinking here about non-poets and non-artists, the busy guy juggling clients and meetings and overhead budgets and snarly teenagers who still yearns to feel more intellectually and creatively engaged with his own ideas and projects. How does he make creative time?
Unconventional Encounter Number Two: Before the cacophony of family breakfast and your commute, you sneak a rare walk in the early morning light, cicada rifling the air. From nowhere, it seems, a faint line of words arises in your mind, a possible solution related to a problem at work, a solution you’ve sought for over a week. Before you lose it, you pull out your pocket notebook and scribble the line that leads to more clarity. A five-minute walk, you think, saved you hours of grief at work. You head back home, ready for the squawl of pre-school talk and eggs and traffic.
This is an experience of shaping time (taking a five-minute walk), experiencing the mind’s wonder in an ordinary setting (a neighborhood road), and actually making time (the time-saving solution arose effortlessly).
For the past several years, I’ve been tracking how deliberately shaping such moments in time, experiencing wonder, and creating on cue reciprocate. One complements the other, I’ve found.
But before I elaborate on my explorations, I want to acknowledge others following similar paths and joining the tracking party.
Namely, for now, three scientists — Melanie Rudd of Stanford University, Kathleen D. Vohs of the University of Michigan, and Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University. Their recent study: “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision-Making, and Enhances Well-Being.”
Rudd et al explain the studies and theory that led them to this experiment:
“The ... extended-now theory (Vohs & Schmeichel, 2003) ... suggests focusing on the present moment elongates time perception. Awe captivates people’s attention on what is unfolding before them, which the extended-now theory predicts would expand the perception of time. The second is Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (SST), which posits that people are motivated to acquire new knowledge when time feels expansive (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999). Awe triggers in people a desire to make new knowledge structures (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Thus, a speculative suggestion from SST is that awe’s ability to stimulate the creation of mental schemas may be a signal that the mind perceives an expanded amount of time in response to awe.”
In short, stand before the Grand Canyon or watch Cirque de Soleil performers, and your presence of mind combined with curiosity prompts you to feel as if you have more time.
The scientists showed participants awe-inducing commercials and gave them surveys. The participants in the study who described themselves as awestruck indeed said they felt as if they had more time. These same time-rich participants also were more likely than others to make choices that benefited their health and well-being. So, we might surmise that awe puts time in your pocket and antioxidants in your bloodstream. (Don’t quote me.)
But they also were more productive on tasks that matter to them.
They made time, in other words, for what matters to them. They are not so much time-bound as time-bountiful.
If you want your own experience of awe, gaze at psychologist Jason Silva’s video in which he makes the case for the biological advantage of being awestruck. Watch it and see what happens to your sense of time. And then note what your next decision is.
3. SHAPING TIME WITH MIND TIME ZONES
Interesting, you say, but you have a meeting to attend in an hour and by tomorrow you’re supposed to have a pitch for a new client. And what about that book you’re going to write?
Fine. Let me introduce the practice of shaping time zones for your mind. Whether you’re a scholar or business person with too little time or a hungry poet with too much time, you can benefit from shaping time with Mind Time Zones.
We have various time zones by which we set our clocks — Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific. But what about time zones by which we set our minds? A Mind Time Zone is a time of day you intentionally and regularly shape for designated mental activity.
There are three Mind Time Zones that I invite you to pay attention to if you want your mind to create on cue — whether you’re a poet whose mind gets entwined in language’s textures or you’re a manager whose mind needs a fresh way to handle personnel.
Pre-Dream Time Zone (PDTZ): You’d think I’d start with mornings. But the Pre-Dream Time Zone primes the mind to be optimal in the morning. The Pre-Dream Time Zone is 10-15 minutes at least set aside before falling asleep for quiet, non-screen activity. Reading something not work-related, having a calm conversation with a loved one, or recounting a day’s highlights are each ways to prepare the creative mind for one of its most important functions - to sleep, perchance to dream; to dream, perchance to create.
Then just before you go to sleep, center your mind on one project or problem you want your mind to work on or play with. Keep the focus simple, low-pressure.
At least three times a week, note in your iCal or Outlook Calendar or scheduler, “Pre-Dream Time Zone.” If it’s scheduled, you’ll remember.
Wake-Up Time Zone (WUTZ): For most of us not on night shifts, this means morning. The Wake-Up Time Zone has been found universally to be among the most fertile for the creative mind’s activity. Why? Because it’s when we typically are most aware of unconscious associations and combinations — a hotbed for creative solutions and insights.
When you wake up, try to stay in bed for a few minutes. If you can wake up without a jarring alarm clock, all the better for your awareness to hover between dream and wake. (Try Salubrion’s Enso Timer and Clock for the most calming audio alarm signals on the market.) Simply observe your mind’s activities. Cue your mind on its creative focus.
Everyone’s morning obligations fluctuate. But even if you have a baby or an ailing parent to care for or a hectic work project, you can designate 10 minutes to check in with your day’s intentions. Take one cup of tea or coffee, sit alone, notebook in hand or not (no screen preferably), and cue your mind for the creative project or work-related problem you want it to still be working on. If you can sneak away on a five-minute walk, even better. You’d be surprised what a simple, short walk outdoors in the early morning can do for your creative mindset.
Create Time Zone (CTZ): A Create Time Zoneis designated time for you to focus on a creative project or problem.
Here’s the thing. We think of “being creative” only when we’re at the studio designing or dancing or writing or painting. Not so. The creative mind is at work more often than not when it’s not in designated “create time.” That’s why the other two Time Zones are essential: They prime the mind and help the mind do its creative work without your rational mind having to control outcome.
Even though we know a lot of creative work happens unconsciously and in showers an don walks, the mind that creates consistently and prolifically still needs time shaped for conscious creating.
Three times a week, 15, 20, 25 minutes with the right shaping can produce astounding results.
Here’s how you shape the CTZ:
- Set a timer if it helps. If you’re pressed for time, setting a timer assures your mind that you won’t “get lost in time” and forget about your other obligations for the day.
- State an intentional focus. Simply calm your mind with a couple of easy breaths, and say to your mind, “I am open to insight to solve this problem” or “I am playing with ideas for this design” or “I am open to insight for this chapter.” Keep the language simple. Stating an intentional focus has been shown to stimulate the pre-frontal cortex, which correlates with heightened awareness and focus that overrides those impulsive distractions that sabotage our work.
- Then work. Draft. Sketch. Brainstorm. Keep breathing. Keep the mind alert but relaxed. Stay with it for your designated time.
- Don’t expect the big Eurekas. They’re actually more likely to come during the other Mind Time Zones. But this work helps your conscious mind notice and capture your flashes of brilliance when they strike in the shower or on the walk.
- Bow out. In whatever simple way, acknowledge the end of your CTZ. Be grateful to yourself for shaping the time. Taking this simple act signals to your mind that you’re doing something good and enjoyable, and you’re priming the mighty (and distractible) unconscious to come back for more the next day.
4. WHERE’S THE WONDER?
And here’s the curious thing I and the scholars, business people, and creatives with whom I’ve worked have discovered. The more you shape time in ways that are flexible and artful instead of rigid and managerial, the more your mind actually looks forward to certain times of day, certain Mind Time Zones. Your experience of time shifts. Your experience of your mind shifts.
And even for a moment — before the mewling babe calls for you (yes, I’m speaking from experience this very morning!) — you’re a little astonished by what you can do and how huge a patch of time can feel.
Experiencing awe expands time. But intentionally shaping time in turn invites wonder.
Last month, as my wife and I baked in the Texas heat while organizing my father's memorial, we set aside time each day to read and relax. She was reading a book, it turns out, that speculates about time and beauty and ritual. Ritual, my wife said, feeds time with beauty. And there you have it. Instead of cursing Time, you can feed it.
Practitioners & busy people, what are your stories & practices with time, wonder, & creativity? Scholars, what can you add to this conversation about time, wonder, & creativity?
See you in the woods,