Words for busy and creative people: clarity

My last post was about setting intentions for the new year, inspired by my recent reading, and the practice of choosing three words to help focus those intentions. Here, I reflect on the first word in the list of three: clarity. What role does it play in creativity, and how do we achieve it in order to best do the things we want to do?

The clarity of creativity
In Creativity: the psychology of discovery and invention, Mihalyi Csiksgentmihalyi suggests that ‘the creative process starts with a sense that there is a puzzle somewhere, or a task to be accomplished.’ It might be a conflict, a tension, a need to be satisfied. It might be driven by the need to achieve a goal or solve a problem. Sometimes the problem, or problems, emerge through the work — in moments of clarity or realisation of what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘a gap in the network of knowledge.’ For artists, unlike scientists, the ‘goal’ may not always be apparent. Csikszentmihalyi gives an example from the career of Robertson Davies, a writer who, in the early stages of thinking about a novel, kept coming back to an image of two boys in a particular street in a village in Ontario (the village where Davies was born), one about to hurl a snowball at another. That novel would become Fifth Business, the first in a bestselling trilogy. Davies’ goal, Csikzsentmihalyi suggests, was to discover — through writing, not just of that book but of the others in the series — the significance of the setting, of that image and of the implications on the characters (and the story world) of the snowball being thrown.

Getting clear
Isn’t creativity, then, rather about the lack of clarity: the need to be (and be comfortable) with uncertainty until the insights arrive? Doesn’t it require the faith to keep doing the work, even on days when the work doesn’t yield anything certain? The answer is: yes, of course. Anyone involved in creative activity of any kind will recognise this condition. The true question is: how can we make the uncertainty bearable so it doesn’t paralyse us?

One way to achieve focus in the midst of uncertainty is to get clear about why we’re doing what we’re doing; cultivating awareness about how the work connects to our broader context — the who of who we are. According to Grace Marshall in How to be really productive, when considering the work we intend to do, we should first take an audit of our core values and assess the purpose of our projects. Everything starts with why, Marshall argues (drawing on Simon Sinek’s TED talk, Start with Why, which is well worth a watch if you haven’t already).

Flock of White-faced Whistling ducks flying in arrow form

But what about the days when the chaos in our heads takes over? When our heads are too crowded with other things: worries, concerns, things we need to remember, tasks we need to do? Marshall suggests that we remind ourselves of our ‘territory’ — by identifying those things we can control or do something about, and those that are beyond our remit.

To help with this, Marshall suggests an exercise adapted from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. First, write a list of everything that is on your mind: tasks to do, projects you’re engaged in, things you’re worried about. On a large piece of paper, draw two circles, one inside the other. Assess each thing on your list, asking: ‘can I do anything about this?’ If you can’t, put it in the outer circle. This is your Circle of Concern: things that worry you, but over which you have no control. The inner circle is your Circle of Influence: things you can act on and do something about. This visual tool is a brilliant way of mapping your inner headspace, of assessing where your time and effort is going. How much wasted energy are you putting into things you can’t control? Once you see where you can exert your control, your purpose should be clearer.

With the best intentions, even when we feel clear in our creative purpose, it’s easy to get distracted. We all know that temptation to do anything (the washing up, the laundry, checking our emails) other than work on the creative task in hand. Marshall links this avoidance to clarity, too: that impulse to do the washing up/laundry/emails is simply a craving for a task that is clearer in its outcomes. Washing up is more certain and less scary than [insert whatever creative task you’re working on and struggling with here]. It isn’t necessarily that we need more patience for the labour of creative work, but that we need more courage. Recently, I’ve begun a habit of recording in my process journal when I feel the impulse to pull away from the writing, and noting the conversation I have in my head to keep me focused.  I’ve found this a positive step to helping me get clear about my fears around creativity.

Staying clear
Being creative, then, involves being clear about the process and about why we are doing it. It also involves being disciplined with ourselves and others about what we can achieve in the time we have, preserving boundaries in order to achieve those things. It sounds easy in principle. So why do so many of us struggle to set boundaries? Because, as Marshall points out, ‘we think they are about keeping people out’ rather than protecting and valuing what is on the inside. In How to be really productive, she offers a whole range of practical suggestions for establishing clear boundaries and sticking to them (my personal favourite: practicing stealth and camouflage by finding somewhere away from your desk to work undisturbed).

To do our best creative work, we need to build what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘habits of strength’: take charge of our schedules; carve out time for ourselves (especially when our energy is at its most efficient); to cut down on the energy of decision-making. Albert Einstein, for instance, always wore the same sweater and trousers — for the simple reason that wearing the same thing reduced the time and energy taken on deciding what to wear so that he could focus on the important things.

Ultimately, these habits can provide a scaffolding for our creative process, a support mechanism to lend certainty in the midst of work that is predicated on uncertainty. Above all, it helps us protect the work. Because, as Csikszentmihalyi writes in the conclusion to Creativity, what really matters is not the acclaim or status we’ve achieved but having lived a full and creative life.


For more on the work of productivity coach Grace Marshall, read her interview with @beprolifiko here.

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