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.
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169 Replies to “The Creativity Elixir: Is Genius On-Demand Possible?”
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.
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…
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)
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.
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.
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…
Why do you use such a small font for your blog? It makes it harder for us old farts to read.
Font sizes on your browser can be easily changed by clicking on the “view” tab at the top of your screen, and then zoom in. If you’re on a mac you can simply hit the command and – (minus key) at the same time. Pc it’s the window key and plus/minus key. Enjoy:)
While that’s true, Tom is also correct. The body font size appears to be 13px. On a mobile right in front of your face, this is fine. On a laptop/desktop that is simply too, danged small. I’m a huge fan of the 100% easy to read standard, and relative font-sizing. Then the site conforms to our browsers and displays in the sizes that are most comfortable to us… without the need to always zoom.
Better than zooming, is to use the CTRL and + (plus) sign, at the same time (on Windows systems). This is a universal method to increase font, w/o zooming. I have bad eyes, and I NEVER zoom because it’s too distracting, out of context, and difficult to escape from. I don’t know what the equivalent of that is on Mac system : ( Other than that, I like your site and your ideas! I, too, write best from 1-5 AM : ). Also, I tend to use white noise or classical music.
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.
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.
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 (CÃ³rdoba), 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.
I almost forgot…a fresh-brewed pot of hot coffee on standby is an absolute must too… 😉
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 didnâ€™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. Itâ€™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…
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.
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.
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…
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?
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Charles, I agree with Pressfield’s “just get it done” mindset when it applies to idea generation, which is more mechanical for me, as opposed to organization or synthesis (e.g. putting the ideas into prose).
Tom, sorry about the small font! I’ll look into it.
Dan and Victory, the espresso power nap is something I’ve experimented with. First, the duration of the nap — 20 minutes or less — prevents you from entering sleep cycles that would leave you feeling fatigued upon waking (60 minutes kills me). Second, caffeine inhibits adenosine, which makes you feel sleepy. Here’s some of the research: http://www.sleepdex.org/caffeine-nap.htm
Tom B, sorry about neglecting under-18 in the survey! I was experimenting with lucid dreaming and woke up last night after 4.5 hours to help promote lucidity upon going back to sleep. I just missed it and won’t next time.
Keep on rocking!
Hey Tim,little off topic,but would you know if terere, the cold version of mate,would have as much caffeine??My Argentine wife is home there on holidays with my 2 year old son and has him drinking terere! She tells me that when it’s cold it doesn’t have same levels of caffeine? hmmm I’m not sure. annd it’s often with fruit juice, unsweetened she says. Help me out! With your backround in nutrition and mate can you advise..
Some interesting points here. I find I’m most effective from 9-12am, then it really wanes until about 4pm – 7pm. That makes it tough to have an office job.
I try not to fight it; I try to allocate my “down” hours to non-demanding production work, email, or research. Often I’ll go do equipment maintenance or other chores that need attending to. I’ve started quitting my email app during those windows (hard for me, and I still have chat open, that one’s harder).
I really need more sleep. As Dan above mentioned, I should probably drop coffee and move to some other stimulants (I do find they have a positive effect on creativity).
One other tip for creativity on demand: practice. This was hammered into me in school: designers must be creative on demand. We can’t wait for the “mood” to strike, unless you enjoy not getting paid. Cultivating the mental state – and building up those neural pathways in the brain (practice) – allows us to be creative on demand. I think it’s similar to meditation and the mental state that can be arrived at after much practice. Experience, too, allows us to recreate the conditions that foster creative thinking and doing.
Pop in the Vegas CD from the Crystal Method and start working with the CD on loop. The first track gets me focused the next tracks is when productivity happens. When I was in my dilbert cube people used to laugh at me when my headphones were on and I was doing work. Ohhhh if they only knew..
I am a musician, writer, painter and animator. All of these are related in theory but very different in practice with different creative processes and practices required for each. My approach in regards to creativity with all these art forms is the same.
I find there are two types of creativity with any project. The first type is fantastic, you are simply dictating your thoughts that are flowing freely onto the page, piano, screen etc. You feel you are at the top of your. It feels natural.
The second type requires manipulation and sometimes aggressive attack. You are sitting there, staring at a blank page, screen or guitar. Nothing. The slight terror sets in, maybe you will never write again.
Fortunately there are a number of techniques you can use.
1. Forget about your goal and just start to write, make a mark, paint or hit a note. Don’t stop. Don’t evaluate. Usually it will trigger something, a note, a phrase, a mark that suggests something else and you are off.
2. Do something physical and intense for 15 minutes. Return and straight away start into the project. Again don’t evaluate.
3. Work on an opposing or different project. If you are writing a non fiction piece and hit a blank put it aside for a few minutes and start to write a piece of unbridled fiction. If you are painting a wildly expressive piece of abstract art and hit a block, do a focused 10 minute study drawing.Or swap disciplines altogether, art to writing etc.
Again these are just tricks to reboot your creative mind. Don’t worry about the result of the experiment (although sometimes they are fantastic)
4. Break out of comfort skills and patterns. As you create you begin to notice that certain methods you have for expressing yourself begin to repeat. Of course they work. But if you force yourself to draw for instance with a new medium or in a new manner you will create many new creative ideas and pathways. The same applies to any creative form or process.
1. Food and physicality have a massive bearing on creativity.
If i eat huge heavy wheat and dairy laden meals i will feel stodgy, sluggish and uninspired. All of a sudden I’m in that dopey haze clicking on another you tube video.
Small meals throughout the day work best, lots of water.
I’m a junkie. But i have quit before and i hate to admit it but i was firing on all cylinders after the two weeks of hell coming off coffee. Yerba Mate i find much better.
The optimum temperature for the mind is 19 degrees celsius. (I swear the only reason there are so many writers in Ireland is because it’s cold and wet!)
Full spectrum bulbs that simulate sunlight have a massive effect on outlook and creativity.
This is obvious. Avoid distractions and try to simplify the environment you work in so you focus and get lost in your project and not in the latest text message or You Tube video.
6. Mozart effect
I have not tried this but it sounds interesting. Mozart’s sonata for Two Pianos in D Major supposedly stimulates brain activity. Google “Mozart effect” for research.
7. Sleep and energy cycles.
As well noted in the other posts.
Oh and always carry a small notebook with you to capture ideas and thoughts good or bad and review them once a week.
(You can click on the name above if you like for other posts on creativity, writing etc)
Best reply award, most useful reply to this excellent article, thanks for the tips
Haha! I find that I only comment when you mention the Yerba Mate tea… I can’t help it, I love Mate! You and I share almost identical rhythms. I too work at night, live on Mate and dark chocolate, and listen to music without (recognizable) words. Luckily, I am an avid fan of experimental electronica, so I never run out of white noise. If you like metal though, you might try some of the “drone metal” or “ambient metal” like Earth, Sunn O))) or Boris. Excellent minimal music, perfect for writing sessions.
I thought I was the only one who did the “caffeine power nap”! It’s not even like sleep–it’s like taking your brain offline and rebooting it. I usually don’t even need an alarm–I “program” my brain for how long I want to be out, and usually get up right on time, for some reason.
The yerba mate I have tried in the past made me feel spacey–I may have to try it again and see if anything has changed.
As for music with unintelligible lyrics, Cocteau Twins are my #1 fave in that realm. “Heaven or Las Vegas” or “Blue Bell Knoll” for mellow moods–the older stuff had crunchier guitars, but is still quite good. Sparkling and layered sound. Depends on what tones you prefer in voices, though–some men find Elizabeth’s voice to be too high. Definitely worth a try, however. “The Moon and the Melodies” was a primarily instrumental side project that was very atmospheric as well.
Crystal Method definitely does it for me too!
I work best around 8-11 a.m. Never in the afternoon.
How in the world can you drink espresso and sleep immediately afterward? I feel that it peps me up immediately.
I’m a big fan of green tea but I do like Yerba Mate and will have to mix that in a little more often. The coffee shop I go to sells Chocolate Mate, yum!!!
What is lucid dreaming? Isn’t that what the movie Vanilla Sky was about?
Interesting. I’d come to the same conclusion (4 hours’ good creative work per sleep cycle) independently – I’ve noticed before I can’t edit or write scripts (the two most creativity-intense processes in my job) for more than that time. Very interesting to hear someone else confirm it from a different field – thanks.
How do you make your Yerba Mate? There is so many instructions online and I have been experimenting with my new red Cruz de Malta, but so far I have not found the right proportions temperature. I had a generic lemon scented one before (only one that was locally available) which was a lot less bitter and made me much more alert.
No matter what else I do, I cannot write with music playing. It messes with my mind and distracts me!
Wanted to let you know that I loved this post–these are really good ideas.
Are you a go player? I ask because something about a ‘go board from the 1800s’ snuck its way into 4HWW and I was wondering if this was your own interest.
Yessir. I love go — more as a game theorist and not as a player, as I only learned the basics in Japan — but have some serious skills to develop before I can pose a real threat to anyone good 😉
my masters thesis is currently killing me. How do you make your yerba mate? my red cruz de malta just arrived, so i have been experimenting with different quantities and water temps. there are so many recipes out there…
I wonder what Brian Eno’s ambient stuff does to creativity? I’ve started collecting his works and find them quite nice as background to focusing on productivity and creativity. I’m surprised no one has mentioned his stuff yet: specifically music for airports.
I use classical music for white noise. I also use Atmosphere lite to create custom sound scapes that I use when relaxing or studying. The program is a free download and free to use.
To help engage creativity I use Shakti. Shakti is an electromagnetic brainwave entrainment device. I can’t really recommend it enough. Todd Murphy developed Shakti and it is heap big medicine so use carefully.
For mentally processing large amounts of data I’m fairly old school I use mind maps and notecards.
Woops, I actually meant ‘How to Licence Your Million Dollar Idea’, sorry – needing caffeine perhaps? 🙂
Reece’s I.C.I.C.L.E. method:
1. Identify your goal or objective
2. Concentrate on developing a solution
3. Identify your goal again
4. Concentrate again
5. Let it go (go party and let your subconscious go to work)
Tim, the site and blog are both very slow at rendering over the last 2 weeks – not sure if your other users are experiencing that too. You might want to look at a caching plugin now the database is getting bigger?
Also, let us know how you get on with the lucid dreaming…
I like your blog and have enjoyed your interviews. I’m looking forward to reading your book soon. I’ve been writing for a couple of decades and agree that the process is usually very different for each individual.
I’m a late night writer too. Unfortunately, my radio show has moved to 7 AM Monday through Friday on CNN 650 in Houston. This means I have to be up by 5.40 and I’m in bed (often rolling around for an hour) by 11 PM (which is when my creative periods usually began).
However, I have notice that are amazing minds bounce back and do so rather quickly. I’m finding new periods of creativity beging to perk up (although I’m not ready to define them yet.
I suggest people do an inventory to determine when they had their most productive moments by reviewing the times they naturally pursue being creative. For most people, that will be the time they need to take care of and plan to use for such purposes.
Great blog and excellent post!
Off topic, but its your own fault Tim, because you brought it up 🙂
Any success with lucid dreaming? I would love to master it. Not only would it just be really cool to control your dreams, it would be extremely productive as well. You can really aid a positive mindset when you constructively utilize your dreams to play out positive situations.
Any good resources?
Simon, I now make my yerba mate tea is a way that is sacrilege for any true Argentine. First, I just boil the water (a HUGE no-no for real mate drinkers), then I wet about 1/2 of the yerba leaves I have put in a metal mate cup (purists only use gourd or special wood). I use the mate “con palo” (with stems) because my “bombilla,” or mate straw, tends to get clogged otherwise.
Sara, for lucid dreaming, just get LaBerge’s books and you’ll be set. I used to reach lucidity every night while keeping a consistent sleep journal, but it’s very easy to look the skill, which hinges on cultivating visual awareness during waking hours.
Good luck to all!
I am going to bed late so I wanted to clarify the sleep trick. Should you sleep in 3 hour or 90 minute increments if you only have limited time to sleep? Does anyone have experience with this. And do we really need 8 hours of sleep or can we “trick” our bodies sometimes?
Thanks for the great blog Tim!!
I drink yerba mate everyday. Surprisingly that little gem from South America packs a big punch on alertness and overall functionality….at least for me 😉
First of all, thank you for the excellent book. I have really started to re-think a number of things in my life as a result and my clarity has improved considerably. I also bought the Rolf Potts book on vagabonding, and it’s been an eye-opener, too.
When I wrote my first book, I found (to my ‘love to sleep more than anything’ chagrin) that I worked best between about 4am and 7am. The first half of that was (like with Tim) brainstorming and collating information. The rest was what I think of as ‘stream of consciousness’ exploding all over the page. Later I could go back and do a re-edit, but learned early on not to overthink — which is my biggest issue.
As for music, for me it had to either be non-specific New Age music or instrumental “classical” music. I found that I wrote really well to Ralph Vaughan-Williams, so I listened to alot of that. I think I could hum the entirety of “Lark Ascending” now. LOL
Most of my writing now is for work, not particularly creative (except for press releases which, for theatre, are always kind of fictional…lol). But I try to get it all done in that early morning time as well.
P.S. I am kind of a coffee addict, but also love yerba mate. I used to work in an herbal apothecary in Portsmouth, NH and she sold some amazing mate. I do have a gourd and bombilla, but must confess like Tim that I ‘cheat’ on the traditional method. Regardless, it’s great stuff if you haven’t tried it. I find that it’s an acquired taste for many people, but almost everyone I’ve introduced it to has loved it!
I’m a “gringo” who’s been drinking yerba mate for over 5 years, I drink the way South Americans do but without the “palo”. I drink a finely ground yerba. I used to have the problem of clogging the bombilla, but discovered that if you let the water soak on the leaves for at least 5-10 minutes before putting in the bombilla, clogging and sucking through yerba leaves is rarely a problem. My theory is it’s because the leaves expand when they hydrate.
It may be a bombilla issue too.
If you want one the best bombilla’s in the world, email me. And I will track one down for you and send it to you as my thanks for putting together a great book that is already proving to let me live my dream life.
Have a Nice Yerba Mate!
“The Happy Gaucho”
Three techniques that consistently produce good writing time for me:
1. Digital dictation– I record novels and non-fiction while on the road, on the jogging path, with the kids in a stroller, etc. Then I upload the digital files to an Elanced assistant (who can spell and punctuate) who transcribes them and sends them back to me as my draft. I then take the creative “dough” and edit it before it goes to publication. Two-step process: record, edit…rather than type, fret, edit, type, type, fret, fret. This method is basically direct from my brain to pixels on a screen with no interference of fingers!
2. When I’m writing multiple novels at one time (or when my editor will want revisions on a novel every 3 months) and I need to get into the zone quickly, I make iTune soundtracks to write to, one for each book. The songs set the mood very quickly and I’m right back into that particular creative space, almost instantly. For non-fiction, it’s usually a BrainSync CD.
3. If I must nap, I instead do a 20-minute meditative nap (if I drift off, I have a timer set). I lie flat with one hand on my 2nd chakra (just below navel) and one hand on my 3rd chakra (just above navel). This combination stimulates these energy centers and I’m as refreshed in 20 mins as I would be in 2 hours or more of sleep. And with no caffeine, drugs, herbs, etc.
Tim, I’m about half-way through 4HWW, and have been loving your blog posts. Maybe you get to it in the book, because I know you talk about Drucker’s quote that “what gets measured gets managed,” but I think it might make for a great post to share HOW you measured your productivity and decided what hours you do your best work. I’d be really interested in how I can figure this out…
Thanks for all your great work Tim, all the best.
I’ve used olfactory association to great effect in the past. It’s an effective way to “get in the zone” by tapping the most powerful parts of your brain. Here’s how it works: Take a unique-smelling substance that you don’t encounter regularly in your day-to-day (like a perfume, scented oil or candle, etc.). Next time you find yourself jamming along in the zone, smell the scent (or light the candle, etc.). After a few sessions, if you hit a ‘roadblock’, just use the scent, and you will be instantly transported into a productive frame of mind.
I used this trick in college all the time studying for tests. I’d have a bottle of cologne around while studying, then apply it to the back of a wrist on test-day. Sometimes, the association was so strong I could literally see the pages, charts, formulas, etc. quite clearly in my mind’s-eye.
A few additional items:
I’ve found that computer eye strain can cause problems over time. I purchased sunglasses with light pink tint and reflective coating that do the trick quite well. An added benefit is the embarrassment factor for my family (think Elton John circa ’73 if he worked from home).
I’m surprised more folks don’t mention exercise, specifically yoga. I throw in 10-15 minutes right after lunch and it keeps me going through my 1-5PM drop-off. I also take a preventative single Advil at around 2:30 (to avoid headaches, but I’ve seen research that shows it discourages Alzheimer plaques)
As pertains to “musical white noise” I completely relate to the sentiments about lyrics. I generally write to either:
1. Unintelligible Heavy Metal
2. Lyric free dance type music
The driving fast past rhythms of both types of music keep my energy level high while the lack of discernible lyrics doesn’t distract my focus.
Glad to see there are others out there who work best at night. Many articles abound of those like us.
Try holding down CTRL and the plus sign if you find the font too small.
Agreed as far as the non-English music goes! I had to give up listening in Spanish or French while I work because I understand too much and the words intrude on my thoughts, so now I’ve switched to German… the language I consistently fail to learn well. My recommendations (these are a bit softer than Rammstein, etc., maybe more for the female taste) — Juli (Ein Neuer Tag) and Silbermond (Silbermond).
“Try holding down CTRL and the plus sign if you find the font too small.”
Yeah, users CAN do that – but they shouldn’t have to. Many browsers don’t do that perfectly, either. Tim, another call here for increasing the text size, esp. on the comments. They should be the same size as your main post, which I think is an optimum size. My eyes are decent, but the size is killing me. The font “Century” isn’t the best for this, either (a bit too thin, not enough weight).
Consider increasing the base font size, or increasing the font-size percentage in #post-comments.
I’m working on my ninth book and also find that I’m good for about four hours of good work a day. I handle white noise with a big floor fan that I also run when sleeping. For some reason it really helps – I can’t have music on. Now I work from noon till about 4:00, but in the past I have also worked well from midnight to 4:00 AM.
I found out years ago that I need to divide my thinking time and writing time. So when I start to work, I spend the first hour or so planning out what I’m going to write. Making notes, listing key words and ideas, just thinking. I arrange what I have into a logical structure then take a break and leave the house. I’ll go walk around the mall or a park and let my subconscious crank for a while. When I come back I jump right into the writing. This is the hard part for me and I find that having a roadmap really makes it less painful and more productive. I spend much more time actually writing and less just sitting there rethinking the problem over and over.
Thanks Tim for the great ideas!
seems we have the same music tastes 😉
I just cannot work (brainstorm, write, design, network) if there’s no music. I find myself to be the most creative when I come back from the recording studio after a session, that definitely helps keeping me sane (or not, hehe) 🙂
Two thoughts. One related to the post, one not so much.
1) Faith No More rocks. If you like the single “Falling to Pieces,” treat yourself to the whole album, The Real Thing. That, and the album that follows, Angel Dust (one of my all-time faves) are masterpieces, in my opinion.
2) Just watched your video from the Today Show in the media section. Congrats on getting that publicity. I found Donny D. quite patronizing (“you’re a nice young man,” and a little pat to boot) for a fellow who clearly did not read your book.
Your title is brilliantly provocative (and yes, controversial for some). Looking beyond the cover, I believe that the real brilliance of your work is that you stretch people’s beliefs as to what is possible. In doing so, you challenge the way people are conditioned to think about the roles of life, work, and fun.
Not everyone is ready to be stretched in that way, so there will always be push back. But as you know, stay true in the face of that resistance, and hordes will follow you.
I do not know Donny, but from that clip, it would seem that his whole identity is connected to what he DOES. Because he works hard and is “successful,” he is good or worthy in some way.
Perhaps it’s true that there is a correlation between many people who work long hours and bring in big dollars, yet in my experience, any time you define who you are with what you do, a rude awakening awaits you somewhere down the line.
Well done for keeping your cool and not reacting to the bluster. You done good.
Great read, as always thank you. If you like Lacuna Coil & Rammstein you should definitely explore Within Temptation and Theatre of Tragedy (their stuff varies greatly depending on the time period). As a fellow Latin dancer, Iâ€™ll also listen to Samba music while writing.
For organizing your thoughts i’d recommend mindjet or one of the other similar products. I’ve always been all over the place, and been horrible about re-organizing my ideas/getting them all written down. This software is incredible. The idea behind it is old as dirt, but to be honest until my boss turned me onto it, I always found that similar pen and paper techniques wasted more time than they saved.
For naps – great info on how/why those 20 minute caffeinated power naps work. Towards the latter half of my college career I would study for 10-15 minutes, then nap for 20-40. Wake, spend 10 minutes adjusting, then 10-15 studying, then another 20-40 napping. It worked when I was writing and researching as well. If not for that approach, there is no way I would have gotten my honors thesis written in a month. If i remember right, another added benefit is that memory is transferred from short term to long term during sleep. So, by working in a nap when you’re starting to feel glossed over you can be twice as effective in half the time.
I’ve also found that that 12:30-3:30/4:00 AM period is my most effective/creative. Perhaps it’s tied to the body normally dreaming during that period? Or that the world is asleep and we don’t feel like we should be somewhere doing something?
Thanks for another great post – informative as always.
Personally I have yet to find my exact ideal time for creativity; I don’t have much trouble tapping in so long as I have a pen and blank sheets of paper.
I wholeheartedly agree with you on the white or background noise. Typically I’ll listen to classical music or foreign singers; it seems to put me in a trance of sorts. When I’m refining a piece of my written work, I can listen to any type of music.
Total silence never works for me, I feel too isolated…like you, I sometimes mute the TV for that very reason.
Again, many thanks. Love your blog, love the book – both inspire me and keep me on track!
All the best,
I wrote mine during my daily commute on a ferry. 30 minutes each way of dedicated time each week day. I couldn’t concentrate with all the loud talkers so I got some noise-canceling headphones. Just wearing them without playing music helped reduce the noise and kept people from interrupting me.
An author friend with half a dozen books under his belt suggested stopping writing mid-sentence and in the middle of a topic so it’s easy to pick up where you left off when you return to it. I found this helpful.
Another thing that seemed to help me when writing at home was to write standing up at a high kitchen counter. I’m not sure why but it seemed to help.
I eat well to keep myself rejuvenated:
Breakfast: Fresh fruits, smoothies, ocassionally healthly breakfast buns or bagels (sometimes with a smathering of peanut butter)
Lunch: Bagged. Usually the previous days leftovers or a hastily prepared salad before leaving home in the morning. If no time, take something from home, bread, carrots, lettuce, to eat with your purchased meal.
Dinner: Grilled meats (chicken, lamb, beef) with stewed vegetables (potatoes, greens, carrots, squash, onions, etc – mostly added to a huge pot and simmered with the meat)
I enjoy good whole-grain breads (with butter) and (usually homemade) desserts as well.
My active lifestyle (long walks outdoors a few times a week) allow me to EAT. There is no substitute for keeping it together.
In the past I have missed meals while working and attending school over a ten year span. The condition of my mind and body improved when I returned to eating 3 “squares” a day!
The key is to add fresh fruits and vegetables along with pure water (not reverse osmosis or distilled – too acid) to your diet.
By the way, my age is 50 .
Thanks again Tim for sharing and opening up possibilites for the rest of us!
I get ‘in the groove’ on programming or writing by forcing my self to work no matter what, and after a bit it just flows.
Sometimes it take extreme concentration to get started.
Before I forget, I’d like to interview you for my newsletter. If that works for you, please contact me, thanks.
Anyway, I have been re-reading your book and recommending it. Love it, of course. Re: the creative time, I firmly believe in understanding your natural body rhythms (sounds kinky, but not in this case).
I am a morning person. I try not to schedule any meetings or calls in the morning since it’s my most creative time.
My routine isn’t perfect, because my daughter is also a morning person and my husband isn’t. But I always write from 8-9 am M-Friday, because to me that requires the most brainpower, and I like to do that first thing. I used to check e-mails first, but stopped doing that after reading your book.
I then either go to the gym if I need a break, or keep working on other creative projects, and then go to the gym around noon.
I also keep a notepad and notebook on my dresser, because I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with creative ideas. Then, even though it’s not my “peak” time, I spend time writing the info down, cuz you got to go with the flow. Then I either alter my schedule the next day or do what I feel like doing if possible.
A comfortable desk chair is NECESSARY! I did my best work when I was comfortable to sit at my desk for long hours. If I take the laptop to the couch, it’s all over. I have to be at my desk and comfortable. I also have a leg heater to keep me comfortable.
My first comment on your blog, my fingers are shaking over the keys with the emotion 🙂
With 6 books under my belt and 3 blogs going on (all of them making money, I discovered after reading your book I was a PR, lucky me) I had to develop a few technics to keep writing wherever I was in the world :
– Always finishing my work session knowing what I was going to write the next time.
– Write off line to avoid being tempted of surfing the internet.
– Starting with a summary or the progression I want to write. It won’t be the same at the end but it helps to start the writing process
– listening lounge music as the “buddha bar” collection for example
– Following my creative moments as you put it. It can be a bit tricky when you live in several countries. For me France and Australia.
– My secret drug is Coke. I am completly addicted to this and need a glass before to start. My dentist and my personal trainer like me for that!
Sorry for my english folsk, the only excuse I got is that I am French.
* First thing in the morning is best
* Stacking caffeine with chocolate can give a huge surge, but there is a crash. Raw chocolate is more powerful than cooked. (Caffeine should be cycled to maintain potentency. One day a week with no caffeine or just some green tea is essential.)
* Outdoors in a lawn chair is best when conditions permit.
* Always do first drafts by hand, never on a computer.
Piers Anthony mentioned a trick in one of his books that I find very useful: if your brain comes up with ideas for a different chapter, or even book, write down those ideas — either in the margin or on another sheet of paper. To stifle an idea is to switch into editing mode.
Outside of main writing time, keep writing materials handy to record brain farts. Use a journal, note cards or post its. But don’t use categorized files or the like. Sorting and creativity are different brain functions. Jot now, sort later.
I’m going to try this method for writing my dissertation…..hope it works!
I’m interested in starting and automating a domain name selling business. Tim, can you advise me on how to get it started (cheaply, if possible) and keep it running on auto?
All marketing assistance welcome.
Nice post and comments, particularly on the physical rhythm stuff. Like at least one commentor above, I thought I might be the only person in the world who took espresso-fueled power naps. I also do the chakra thing when I nap, though I had never thought of it that way — it’s just how I’ve done it since I was a kid.
I have a few warm-ups that double as means of breaking the occasional creative block:
A quick reading fix I try to always have a few books on hand that I like so much I can’t help but be ready to write after I’ve spent a little while reading one of them. Usually these don’t include the book I’m reading for reading’s sake, though if I’m into something particularly good I’ll make an exception. The idea is to read only until my own thoughts start to coalesce into prose form — 10-20 minutes is generally enough if I have the discipline to stop at that point.
A quick writing fix Prose begets prose, and while I’ve never been particularly into free writing (though I know it works very well for many), writing a very short focused piece on something that’s on my mind is almost always enough to gets my lexical gears turning. If I’ve just woken up and my mind is a blank, finding an interesting blog post and commenting on it usually does the trick (guess who just got up from a nap).
Meta-writing If the problem is more one of direction than of simple momentum, I usually put my current piece aside for a few minutes and start writing about it — where I Want to go with it, why I find it so interesting, etc. This usually gets me back on track in a hurry, and I often find myself with a better sense of the overall project to boot.
Going back to the source If I get seriously stuck, I revisit whatever inspired me in the first place. Maybe it was a conversation, a book, a film, but whatever it was I go back to it — I read, listen or view it again if possible, or else I just think about it for a few minutes. If I don’t remember exactly what I was doing when I got the idea for my project, I spend a few minutes trying to recall the moment it first came to me. This alone is usually enough to get me back on track in a few minutes.
The one caveat to all of these tricks is that they can easily become excuses not to write. I generally alot myself 10-20 minutes for warm-ups (but up to an hour if I know I’m really struggling), and then spend at least an hour trying to work before I do anything else.
Thank you for the incredible information on creativity stimulation. I am actually moving to Buenos Aires in two months and plan on taking steps in writing my first book. I’m glad I found your blog!
Great article Tim. I myself find that my most productive is not 9AM-5PM but between 10PM-2AM when everything is all quiet. I usually have the tv in the background but I get so much done it’s incredible. And you’re right about your burn rate being about 4hours. I am usually very unproductive after 3-4 hours of straight work.
My entire life I’ve been a night/early morning person, until the past two weeks.
I like staying up late and doing fun stuff, but I cannot stand to “work” past 3:00 in the afternoon because that is “play” time in my mind. I blame all those years of school.
However, two weeks ago I went to bed at 10:00 (I’m so old!) and got up at 4:00 am. Between 4:00 and 7:00 I ate, showered, got dressed, and accomplished more work in the remaining time than I had in the past week.
Why am I more productive at 4:00 am?
Because the day has started for me, and I’m in a “get things done” mindset, instead of the “play” mindset. Also, the mornings are so peaceful with no one else awake and few distractions.
This is my method.
thank you for your continuous challenge.
I’m trying to find out my way to be creative and I think what I miss more is your way to be focused.
Thank you for your big advises
Van Gogh used absinthe!
Too bad it made so many artists crazy! I agree, staying focused for creative productivity can be tough. Anthony Robbins has a session on this Personal Power 2, he used NLP. I also agree that just after midnight, caffeine and sometimes a beverage or 2 works for me. The most important aspect is to stay concentrated with excited anticipation for what you are there to accomplish, what rather than staying too focused on creating the mood. Napoleon Hill says “work yourself into a white heat of desire”.
I totally understand I have myself been in the zone from 1-5 am more times than I can tell you. I also get in tuned in for me from 4-8 pm after our office staff has left for the day quite a few times I tune in on saturday mornings from 8am till around 1 pm. I think the moral is I work better alone without distractions I turn everything off except the music, that how I tune in.
The Payroll Guys
For me, it is Mother Night. I usually enter the creative zone after reading a good book (e.g. Kurt Vonnegut)or listening to good music (e.g. Roxy Music) or watching a good (smart)movie (e.g. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). Alcohol and romance (no sex please) in moderation help.
what about the BrainQuicken we have just ordered and are eagerly anticipating – BQ sounds amazing…
I also used to drink a small amount of a spagyric herbal wine, either Arcanum VII or Red Salamander and musically Mozart for intelligent factual and Evanescence for gutsier work.. Calea tea which the shamen from Oaxaca take induces mild lucid dreaming and is very gentle on the adrenals..
great book and relevant blog..
This is interesting because I think the strange thing about writing is that success depends upon cracking the code of one’s own body/brain. I read a research study of children with “writing gifts” that suggested that they were particularly sensitive to time of day, amount of light exposure, sleep cycles, etc.
Since you found 1am to 5am your most productive time,
What is your sleep pattern? How would you suggest one discover the sleep pattern that works best for them?
I want to make the most of my time, and take the most time I can.
My most productive time is 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.- college days remnant from programming on the mainframe midnight to 6 am when I could get printouts at the same priorities as the professors. I used to love walking across the crisp campus in the middle of the night to the library basement with my Sony Walkman on with my Bowie tapes…Natch, the iPOD is a great improvement!
All-time best get-work-done soundtrack is Peter Gabriel’s Passion of the Christ soundtrack.
Loved the book and now the blog…creative juices are flowing…keep up the good PLAY (not work!).
Hi Tim, This is the book I’ve been waiting for. Always knew I never wanted to be pigeon holed. After working on cruise ships traveling everywhere, from Antarctica to Russia, lived in the Philippines for 6 months, then worked as an in-flight beauty therapist in first class for an airline. Then became a single mum, this year lived in Bali for 6 months, now in Canada (im Scottish). Your book has given me all the information I need to free up time to travel and more importantly spend time with my toddler, without the drudgery of 8hrs of mind bending boredom. Thanks again 🙂
I am thrilled to be learning the creative processes of us all in reaching a satisfying feeling of productivity. Loved the conciseness of “4HWW,”(read a part each day, 4 days finished–found that it flowed in this manner) particularly the tip for focused concentration–shorter deadlines.
It’s a relief to find a blog that mentions the connection between the writing, creating process, exercise, nutrition, meditation, and sleeping patterns.
I find deep breathing closing my eyes while gently bouncing on my Rebounder (scientifically designed small trampoline) almost instantaneously invigorates me.
Some great trance, memorable soundtracks classical, and even foreign tunes complement my personal productivity.
Free writing (especially long hand) gets the blood flowing, thereby the mind and emotions.
Reading aloud excerpts of inspirational works of your favorite authors or what you previously written jumpstarts the motor as well.
A clutter-free desk–only place that which must be done and nothing more. A blank piece of paper (or type) for an intense heart/brain storming session.
And, most important, know WHY (family, $$$, passion, inner voice, skill-builder, whatever) are you doing what you choose to do.
A many great success to us all. Tim, thanks for your continued support and, such a relatable style.
I’ve tried Yerba Mate Tea and I can’t quite describe the taste but I like it. I’d rather drink it than a beer while sitting out by the pool. It’s more refreshing!
Hell yes to all of this. I have the exact same productive hours (when my wife goes to sleep and is the only time I have to myself since I also have a 1 1/2 year old).
I have… intoxicants and rituals as well. 🙂 We’ll leave it at that. That, and music. But I listen to music all day long. So it’s usually adult swim on the Cartoon Network. Good in-and-out type stuff (since I’ve seen most of the episodes).
Then I put on a horror movie or something else to selectively watch as I finish working, from 3 am (right now!) til my wife gets up.
Good stuff. Keep it up, man. My goal for a work week is something like 4. Yep sounds good.