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:
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?
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.