Better Creativity Through Better Rest

I haven’t been sleeping well lately. It’s partly my fault since I’ve been staying up late watching pointless TV shows on Hulu. When I do go to bed I end up thinking too much. I usually come up with ideas that I feel I have to write down. So I get up and write them. Or worse, I use my note taking app on my phone. That kind of late night screen time, even a few seconds, just wakes me up too much. Unfortunately, this behavior can be a detriment to creativity. 

I used to not even bat an eye at not getting enough winks. But it’s been affecting me more lately. When I’m tired and sluggish I have little capacity for creative thinking or doing. I’m OK working on left brain analytical projects which is a lot of what I do for my job. It’s after work when I have time to write, build or edit that I find myself flagging with little motivation to do the things I really want to do.

I started thinking about this today after coming across an article on the London School of Economics and Political Science Review website (LSE). The article asserts that creativity isn’t a fixed commodity. It waxes and wanes based on several factors including rest and stress.

Stress is another big creativity killer for me. I get really nervous when preparing to speak publicly. When I’m prepping to give a talk, that’s about all I can do. Forget writing poetry or sketching something the night before an event.

After a stressful event, my mind relaxes and it more easily shifts to creative endeavors. The same thing happens when I’m more rested from adequate sleep. The key, according to the LSE article authors, is in allowing physiological recovery, primarily through sleep.

Of course this isn’t anything new. Last year I read an excellent book called Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Pang makes the case for not only a good night’s sleep but resting throughout the day to allow your mind the time it needs to work on problems and ideas subconsciously. There’s a lot more to his book and I highly recommend you read it. It’s one of the rare books that I actually read all the way through.

Ultimately, the point is that we’re much more creative and productive when we aren’t running ourselves too hard. Putting in more hours to the detriment of rest and reflection will only make you less effective at what you’re doing.

Now I have to heed this advice, keep Hulu off at night and get more sleep.

How To Add Custom Windows System Sounds

It’s really easy to roll your own custom sound scheme in Windows. First, in the Control Panel, open up the sound window. From there click on the sounds tab. Under program events click on each even and click the Browse button under Sounds. Browse to where the .wav file you want to use for that event is located and select it.

Once you’ve customized all of the events you want, make sure to click the Save As button under Sound Scheme and give your scheme a unique name. 

I’ve put together a few .wav files of sound clips that can work for some computer events. You can download them from GitHub. I use about 15 of them on my computer and always get a smile when I hear that files in my recycle bin have been exterminated.

Here are a few of my other favorites that I use:

 

Dare to Sketch

I’ve always done my sketching and drawing in lined notebooks or on plain printer paper. I’ve never bought a sketch book. I must have been scared to make less-than-perfect drawings in something that costs more than, well, free.

If you draw on a sheet of paper you can just crumple it up and throw it away if you don’t like it. In a sketch book, you’re committed.

Fear of imperfection is a terrible thing. It’s hard to overcome. It can affect all areas of your life. And it can keep you from realizing your life’s full potential. Even if you’ve determined not to let fear rule you, it often creeps up stealthily. I see this fear in myself when I don’t want to commit imperfect code to GitHub. I even recognize fear when I keep interrupting myself while starting a good book. I’m afraid I might not be able to understand it or finish it or accomplish what it’s trying to teach.

[bctt tweet=”Fear of imperfection is a terrible thing. It’s hard to overcome. It can affect all areas of your life. And it can keep you from realizing your life’s full potential.” username=”Ryan_Random”]

A book I found recently at the library has started to change the way I think about sketch books. Dare to Sketch: A Guide to Drawing on the Go, by Felix Scheinberger is a great motivator for starting to sketch in an actual book. Scheinberger gives the reader permission to make mistakes with sketches and to not make the images perfect.

Sketching isn’t fine art. It’s a way to capture the world around you in a personal pictorial narrative. Scheinberger emphasizes the personal aspect of sketching. It’s for you and no one else. These are your own private drawings, almost like a journal, that documents your own private artistic journey.

Sketches may be personal and private but of course you can show them if you want to. Scheinberger puts plenty of his own sketches in the pages of his book. It’s encouraging to see just how imperfect they are. By seeing the author’s rough line work and often disproportionate shapes, it gives the reader confidence to start sketching even if they don’t think they’re very good.

So I went out and got a sketch book. I’m determined to use it as an exploration tool for my drawing art. It won’t be a “public” book so I can make terrible sketches and not worry about what other people think. Instead, the challenge will be in not judging myself too harshly.

The Game of Everest

I love it when my kids go from “I’m bored” to “I’m making a board game”. This is one my older son prototyped with cardboard. It’s called Everest and the premise is that you’re part of a mountain climbing party trying to reach the summit.

The cool thing about it is that it’s a cooperative game so you’re not trying to battle each other. Each player has health, hunger and warmth points that go up or down based on cards you draw when you land on certain parts of the board. Even if your character dies, you can win the game if someone else on your team makes it to the top.

It’s kind of like a monumental Chutes and Ladders type of game only instead of playfully being sent down a slide, you starve, get hypothermia and get buried by an avalanche.

Taking Time To Tinker

In his famous lectures on creativity, John Cleese says that if you play around with a problem and put off calling it done for a while, you’ll often come up with a better solution than if you simply took the first solution that came to you.

Tinkering with an idea or a map or a code base is a great way to not only develop it but to develop it into something better than it had been before. It’s taking something that could be called complete but then further playing with it and manipulating it until it becomes something else.

This is an approach I take with application and code I’ve written. Even after I’ve finished a project, I’ll let it sit for a while and then come back to it. When I do, I try to reimagine its uses or how it can be written. I went through this process today with a code module I had written over a year ago. With fresh eyes I was able to play around with the code. I asked myself why something was written a certain way. I tried things like stripping out important lines of code just to see if it would improve performance in other areas. I also had fun seeing just how massively I could make the code fail.

The result of my playing around with my code wasn’t as dramatic as an entirely new application. But I was able to reduce its size and rewrite parts of it more elegantly. Well worth the time it took to tinker.

Simple Design is Usually Best

You can design things for a variety of reasons. You might want to create something to be the tallest or the widest or the most efficient of its kind. But unless you’re specifically trying to design complexity, the simplest and most straightforward design is often the best. My son demonstrated this recently in his design of a Pinewood Derby car for his AWANA group.

He started by determining the purpose of his car. Awards are given for the fastest car as well as the most creative. Because we were a little short on time this year he decided that he wouldn’t be able to put the level of commitment in to win the creativity award. Speed became the only consideration in the build at that point.

The classic Pinewood Derby car shape is the wedge. There are endless variations of the wedge shape but basically, you’re just cutting off half of your pine block at an angle from the bottom front to the top rear. We made a further weight reduction by removing a portion of the block on the bottom rear. At this point, we added lead fishing weights to the bottom of the car by drilling holes and gluing them inside about an inch in front of the rear axles. The wheels were installed with a slight cant so only the outside edges would be in contact with the track to reduce friction. Finally, one of the front wheels was installed high so it wouldn’t contact the track at all.

Our purpose was speed and our design reflected that by taking the most direct route.  The simplicity of the design allowed for a fast prototype and build and at the end of the night, resulted in a first place win.

The winning car

I think the principle of simplicity in design can be extended to almost anything you are trying to design. Buildings, vehicles, and story plots are all more enjoyable when their structure isn’t convoluted.

When too many different things are attempted and not allowed to stand on their own, the user gets confused. No matter how smart they are, they will get confused, if only for a few moments. Those few moments are enough to lose someone.

A perfect example of this principle is a web site. You only have seconds to capture someones attention on a web site. If your site is difficult to navigate, takes too long to load, or doesn’t immediately provide what the reader is looking for, they will quickly go somewhere else.

Ask yourself what’s necessary? Make a list and whatever isn’t on the list is something that can be removed. People think they want bells and whistles, add-ons and upgrades but what they really want is a great experience. If my son and I had complicated our car design, our experience probably would not have been as great as it was. Simplicity won the race.

Of course, if you are trying to set your work apart, designing purely with usability in mind might not be good enough. Sometimes beauty is the goal (although I would argue that simplicity is beautiful) and practicality takes a back seat.

There were many pinewood derby cars at my son’s race that were designed without a thought to speed or to winning races. Instead, they were designed to delight people who looked at them They were an extension of the designer’s personality. They made a statement about the designer’s interests.

But even right-brained artists have to be careful not to go overboard. A painting can have many different shades of color and layer upon layer to build up a scene. But there comes a point when the picture is done and even a single stroke more will ruin it.

 

The Power of Story

This pencil sketch was hand drawn by my 10 year old son yesterday. He’s been reading a lot from the Warriors book series by the multiplicitous and pseudonomous Erin Hunter. After each book he tends to get inspired to create fan art like this. Now, he’s a great artist but it’s still hard to get a 10 year old boy to sit long enough to put in that amount of detail. It goes to show how a powerful story can be the genesis of further creation.

How Observation Influences Art

For my birthday yesterday I went to a lecture by mixed media artist Mary Robinson called Shifting Perspective. She talked about the role  our environment and experiences play in making art.

www.marysdrawings.com
I sat next to this enormous print during the talk. It was either inspired by the swamps in the authors home state of South Carolina or a crime scene in CSI New Orleans.

The writeup in the paper for the lecture used the word observation to describe this. However, I found it interesting that Mary never used the word observation in her talk (unless I was hearing but not really listening). We so often go through our days seeing things without really observing them. It takes a concious shift in thinking to truly observe our surroundings and understand what we’re seeing.

This is the same concept Maria Konnikova writes about in her book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. I wrote a post about this book a few years ago and just started re-reading it earlier this week. It surprised me to spot the apt description of this lecture in the paper on the morning of the talk.

We see things every day but we rarely observe. Yet true mindfulness and observation of our surroundings and interactions are so important for everyone from photographers to programmers and everyone in between. It allows you to discover new ideas, methods of implementation and more efficient strategies to accomplish goals. At the very least you’ll get better at Trivial Pursuit.

How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Mastermind

I often go to the library to try and find something entertaining, intriguing or just different. Last week I found just the thing. It was a book called Master-Mind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova. Now this is the kind of book I love to find. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to think like the famous detective of 221B  Baker Street?

The title itself intrigued me enough to take it home right away. It promised to free my mind from being common and show me how to be a logical processing machine. Perhaps I could become as great a thinker as Holmes was portrayed to be in his stories.

I won’t go into a deep book review here. If you want to know the details you will have to read it yourself.  I will tell you, however, that after reading the entire thing, my brain is not yet governed by a Holmes-like system of thinking. I have not yet mastered the skills of observation, imagination or deduction that it takes to become a master thinker. But I am further along that road than before reading Mastermind. Many of the book’s insights have actually already helped me solve problems with my programming using the methods that Holmes used to solve his own puzzles.

The book was a fun read. I would encourage you to buy a copy or go to the library and check it out.