The Creativity Elixir: Is Genius On-Demand Possible?


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:

Cruz de Malta Yerba Mate Tea

Rosamonte Yerba Mate Tea

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?


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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?”

  1. Sound advice! Dark chocolate and yerba mate are my busom friends. I was recently so overcome with affection for the latter that I had to blog about it last night (when yes, I suppose I could have gotten another ten pages of novel revisions done…). –Robert V.S. Redick, author of The Red Wolf Conspiracy.

  2. I blast static from the radio. I hate silence and im pretty much nocturnal. I wont be able to do work until after 1 in the morning or so…

  3. You people have to take the advice on the Mate! Since I am in Buenos Aires I just cant stop drinking mate here…its not just a drink, its a whole experience.

  4. This is great, especially the first two recommendations. Finding the time when your mind is at its optimum creativity is essential, although in my experience this “window” as I think of it tends to undergo shifting from day to day. Sometimes I work best in the morning, but usually I feel the most inspired late in the evening. Occasionally though I will experience such windows in the middle of the day or when least expected, and that’s when I have to scramble to make some free time for work.

    As for biochemically fine-tuning, I think the biographies of many eminent writers would attest to its usefulness, whether its Balzac with endless cups of coffee, Byron with green tea, or Schiller with cocoa, coffee, and champagne late at night!

    I actually wrote an article recently about 6 natural ways to increase creativity and had a couple of similar suggestions:

    1. SAM-e

    2. NADH

    3. Diet (as in finding the optimal one for energy, mood, etc).

    4. Stimulants (as in coffee, cocoa, green tea, red wine or whatever)

    5. Circadian Rhythms (finding the daily creative window)

    6. Embracing your desire

  5. Great article… I don’t necessarily write in an editorial style (i’m a programmer primarily), but the “genius on demand” idea still rings true. I find my optimal “grunt work” cycle (calling clients, meetings, customer service calls, e-mails, etc) is right when I wake up to about 4-5 hours later. After that, usually around 12pm – 3pm, I need a break for a few hours… go out, get a bagel or a sandwich, call some friends, etc. Then it’s back to the desk around 7pm-9pm until about 3am. This is my primary creative time. I literally explode and find it easy to write methodical, error-free scripts and create intriguing designs.

    As for stimuli, I usually play South Park episodes or stand-up comedy. For some reason they seem to stimulate me the most… this is just from trial and error throughout the last year or so. They are easy to block out, but still make me laugh and keep my spirits high. Coffee I usually only drink in the morning, with beer or wine (sometimes a spot of bubbly) and cheese during the night. I also find it very therapeutic to take at least a single break daily to cook. Regardless, I feel that holding myself against too strict a regimen will have the reverse effect from what I’m trying to accomplish, and make me feel like I’m chained to a desk again. I honestly think that not only feeling free, but having the flexibility to go along with it is very key to letting the creative run loose.

    After reading this article, however, I am much more inclined to study myself on this… and try some Yerba Mate!

  6. Hi,

    This is ridiculously pedantic – sorry – but I'm one of those people who can't help noticing typos. In this case it's 'inunciated' instead of 'enunciated' in part 3.

    Just wanted to let you know,

  7. I’m VERY interested in optimizing my productivity using the kind of fine-tuned chemical input Tim has described:

    ***3 cups of yerba mate tea for each glass of wine consumed. 3:1.

    ***A little theobromine

    ***A few E. Guittard 72% cacao chocolate cooking chips

    So…for starters, what kind of wine & how much would you say you are you drinking in a week. I don’t want to become an alkie! haha

    Right now my regimen includes a LOT of capp (pricey too) & Myoplex Ready Made (also not cheap but not too bad.)

    I think I can do better…

    Big Daddy

  8. Just bought some GUAYAKI Yerba Mate Tea from Trader Joes.

    Ten bags for about $4.59.

    So far I like it, but I want to fine tune my recipe w/the wine, theobromine & cacao chocolate cooking chips.

    This may be a dumb question, but I have some FRE Whine Zin lying around.

    Any good?

    FRE = Alcohol Free

  9. Tim,

    If you haven’t read it already, check out “The Head Trip” by Jeff Warren. Having read and followed your work, I think it’s right up your alley.


  10. Hi, millions of people drink yerba mate for life in south america and there is no epidemiological data to show a higher incidence of oesophageal cancer. I would just use water that it is not too hot.

    You can also search for coffee and cancer and get results.

    I would like to see any good study.

  11. Tim, Can you comment on your experience with or ? They request min payment of $50 to start an account. It is compelling whereas songs are 9 cents compared to 99 elsewhere. How was your experience? Cheers! Andrew

  12. You said in this post, “I don’t believe that it isn’t possible to do more than 4 hours of good creative work per waking cycle” — you meant don’t believe it IS possible, I think, judging by the rest of your site — is that right?

  13. What’s your impression of BSN’s N.O.-Xplode for an intellectual energy boost? I’m impressed your writing stays focused while listening to Tweekend. I save ‘The Winner’ for the heaviest bits of my resistance workout.

  14. Tim… just referring back to this article for the 50th and wanted to comment… I’m an aspiring music producer and DJ and these tips are absolute gold! I tend to think no matter how good people are, everybody loves reinforcement, and I want you to know your book has changed my life and the lives of everyone I’ve given it to. You rule!

  15. I was a night owl through all my life, studied and worked best when everyone was asleep. For a few months I try to change that and I must admit that I’m failing. I think it is high time for me to accept that I work best after the sun has set till 03.00 and live with it, even though it gets difficult to get up for the morning prayer.

    Otherwise I get up early, spent some time doing nothing, then feel bad for having done nothing, do some work half-heartedly, then go to sleep because it is midnight, just when I was getting productive.

    Back in school I used to buy myself new pens to get motivated to study more … or thick test books out of recycled paper that looked as if they contained more knowledge and definitely smelled like that.

    Another way of getting productive quickly is for me to set up an environment (pens, tools, music, etc.) in which I remember being productive in the past. It puts me into working mood with nice memories. For me, Elton John’s Big Picture album does that, or some REM and Coldplay songs.

  16. Interesting. My most creative, and a lot of the time, most productive periods are between 1am-3am. I’m not sure whether it’s the absence of distractions I would otherwise have during “normal” working hours or my thoughts and emotions less inhibited past midnight. Probably a combination of both of factors.

  17. I discovered the caffeine “espresso” + 20 minute nap deal a few years back by trying to fight shear exhaustion, trying caffeine then taking a nap any way. Works wonders!

    I was also a child of the “open classroom” phenomena back in the seventies where both my elementary and high schools were “shells” with soft dividers as room differentials. I’ve always thought that was the reason I could never study in a library or pure silence. I always need background noise to think, music or other, noise is my silence.

    As always, great information Tim! I recommend your book on a daily basis.

  18. I started listening to while I work, and have recommended it to some friends and co-workers. The website Just plays a loop of recorded rain sounds. It works wonders to cut the silence and provide some non-distracting white noise!

  19. I listen to classical music, I have a playlist with classical music on it, and it seems late at night is when I work best

  20. My dear husband forwarded me the link to your article, as he is always looking for ways to help me become more productive as a writer (read: less of a procrastinator). Unlike many of the other tidbits he sends me, this one really resonated with me. Great tips! I really perked up (pardon the pun) at the mention of coffee — as well as chocolate. I also liked your soundtrack for writing — we must have similar tastes in music, as I have many of the same tunes, but hadn’t considered using them for background music. I’ve found that the music of Sigur Ros, an Icelandic band, is really great to write to — for me, anyway. But just the instrumental songs. My oldest son tells me he always plays Sigur Ros when he has to write a paper at college. I also can’t write in total silence — which I learned after taking myself to Starbucks one day in an attempt to jump-start my writing for the day. I now work at Starbucks — as a barista, not a writer — but I need to get in habit of bringing my laptop with me to do some writing before or after I start my job.

    Anyway, just wanted to let you know that your article was well-written and useful — now I can justify those 90-minute naps I’m prone to take — as long as I get some writing down, too!

  21. I agree with the comments about finding out what works for you; I like the idea of ambient music, but in practise it seems that I’m really just using the task of choosing the right kind of music to play in the background as procrastination. When I’m doing my best work I’m in a flow and unaware if there’s music or not, and can ignore rowdy drunks down on the street below 🙂

    However, I like the idea of the wine. Not sure how accurate it is, but I think the alcohol in one glass is enough to kick the fear of starting a task. And for me starting’s usually the hardest part.

  22. Great blog post, I think there is just as much substance in the comments as the actual post.

    I recently started training with a kettlebell, I’m used to sets of 10-12 any advice how to transition, work until failure? Sets of 20-40-50? My goal is 80 snatches with a 24kg.

    Lastly, my GF gives me a lot of crap saying everyone (Nassim, Rolf, yourself…) I respect and listen to doesn’t have a wife and kids, which changes everything. Mostly from a time and commitment standpoint. Is it selfish to do what I want and not worry about her / starting a family. I’m 23. Any advice?

    Can’t thank you enough for all your work and thoughts.



    1. Hi Jeff,

      I wouldn’t work kettlebells until failure! The only exception might be bent rows, but otherwise, ballistic to failure = injuries.

      To your GF, I don’t think it changes everything. Search “cold remedy” on my blog to see examples of families. Nassim also has kids. Now, whether it’s selfish to do what you want and not think of your GF’s biological clock, that’s something for you two to decide 🙂


  23. In one of your videos with Ramit Sethi you said that most creative writers you spoke to were most creative between 2am-8am which I found quite interesting.

    I find most of my creativeness comes during the early hours of the morning, especially if I’ve slept a maximum of four hours. So unfortunately being very creative often involves me sacrificing my sleep schedule, even if I never do it on purpose.

    Anyway I love your blogs and books and website, and all my friends have heard of you at least once. You seem like a great man and you have achieved many things that I want to achieve in life.

    Keep on writing and thinking,

    We all benefit from it.

  24. I found the best recipe is to not have a recipe. If I’m writing music, if I pick up the guitar or sit down at the piano for the purpose of creating something, it doesn’t work. A formula to me involves thinking through the process too much. Again, i’m sure it is very subjective and a personal methodology and differences are to be expected.

    The best way I can describe my “process” of creation is that I ideate and create from 2 different places. Ideas come from a spiritual quiet that many times comes on as a result of music. When it starts flowing, it doesn’t stop until I jot it down. But the part of taking that spark and putting it into a concrete piece of writing or music seems to come from a more technical part of my brain. The technical part cannot work alone and cannot initiate. It has to be stimulated from an idea generated from the surreal, blue cloud of spiritual inspiration. OK, that’s enough on that.

    Enjoy your blog, by the way. Always intriguing.


  25. (“Brainwave Entrainment” It is also an effective aid for focus, lucid dreaming, boosting energy, and a compelling number of other things)

    I’m a freshman in college with ADHD related tendencies, and use it every day.

  26. The very core of your writing appears wonderful and settles properly with me. Throughout the sentences you actually were able to make me a believer. I however would like more information and would like you to write more as often as you can. In the event you accomplish that, I could definitely be amazed. I may come back again to view your updates!

  27. Tim, thanks to you Yerba Mate tea has gone from being a hidden gem for a select few to main stream. I have two questions for you in regars to your own experience of Yerba Mate:

    1. On binge day, you mention in the 4HB that you will have 16 oz of Yerba Mate during or before the start of your binge meal. How much loose leaf Yerba Mate are you using in the 16oz of water to extract the maximum effect.

    2. On non-binge days, how much Yerba Mate is “enough” to get the maximum effect, how much loose leaf Yerba Mate are you using as well as how much water is being consumed.

    Thank you.


  28. Oh man. Sweet article.

    I now combine

    -Yerba Mate (cruz de malta tea bags until I can source a gourd)

    – White noise generator iPhone app (I found ‘brown noise’ is the easiest on the ears. Snigger.)

    – 10xBreaths at ratio of 1:4:2 (Usually inhale 6. Hold 24. Exhale 12). Before any activity. Clears my mind, relaxes my body, helps me get more focussed.

    – Power Moves. Yes. I know. Feels ‘self helpy’ but it works. From watching your Yabusame video and then going to a Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within, I’ve found it’s basically the same as the ‘innnyooooinnyoooinn’ except you’re using your body and sharp breath exhale, it usually snaps me straight out of the ‘Oh, I don’t really know what to do so I’ll go on facebook instead’ state. I know no one else will ever do it, but it works when you do it well. I do 5-10 ‘moves’ at a time

    Can’t wait for the new book! I’ve been scouring TFerriss youtube vids and Q&A’s like a stupid fanboy trying to pick out the gems of info that I can apply to ‘skill hacking’ as applied to jazz (i’m a professional jazz musician).

    If you have any book recommendations on overall life hacking, they’d be much appreciated. If not, I look forward to buying 300,000 copies of your books at your book launch!

  29. I am still concerned with Yerba Mate about the cancer thing, although I know EVERYTHING causes cancer. I’ve seen studies where coffee was the top cancer causer, and fighter. Solid post though!

  30. Like a living breathing entity, process change and evolve. Is there any new update to this regimen? What new experiments are you trying. Also, lots of broken links that need updating.

  31. Could anyone recommend (from direct experience) a well-curated source for long form mellow instrumental electronica with absolutely no sung words? Medium and moderate upbeat tempos would be nice…

  32. I’m not writing these days as much as I used to buy my greatest creative outlet is RPG games with my wife after the kids are in bed. I run the games most of the time and after a long break, I find I can get back to a level of peak creativity after about two weeks of playing every night for a few hours. No carb red wines have their place in every session and drink 3 or 4 glasses. I usually do a little brainstorming throughout the day, coming up with vague ideas here and there. These solidify in only minutes right before we start a session. I like old White Zombie when specifically trying to come up with fantastical, hard-hitting ideas. Overall, my musical selection is large and somewhat random. I love the mate idea and will have to try that along with the others.

    Great posts also! Keep up the stimulating work!

  33. I’m not writing these days as much as I used to buy my greatest creative outlet is RPG games with my wife after the kids are in bed. I run the games most of the time and after a long break, I find I can get back to a level of peak creativity after about two weeks of playing every night for a few hours. No carb red wines have their place in every session and drink 3 or 4 glasses. I usually do a little brainstorming throughout the day, coming up with vague ideas here and there. These solidify in only minutes right before we start a session. I like old White Zombie when specifically trying to come up with fantastical, hard-hitting ideas. Overall, my musical selection is large and somewhat random. I love the mate idea and will have to try that along with the others.

    Great posts also! Keep up the stimulating work!

  34. Haha I’ve come to a similar conclusion; Quad in the morning with no distraction after a slow carb meal (Yes i know the drink isn’t slow carb) and I can rock out some stuff. Then in the evening a glass of wine with some mate. I will have to try that othe rstuff

  35. As a songwriter/producer, I can’t listen to music to get in the zone. It’s distracting and most often not inspiring. I generate my best ideas and have written the core of several songs while driving (alone) or walking. Being out of the house away from my studio really helps kickstart fresh thinking.

    One producer tip I’ve read is to always have a beverage handy (whiskey in my case). You never know what idea will come to you when you pause to take a sip.

  36. This only works when I’m creating visual art, for writing, I need total silence and no distractions. My routine for creating creating art is usually late at night, after 11 PM and lasts 3 to 4 hours. I do best when I’m alone, listening to my favorite music, preferably intense music, and drinking moderate amounts of coffee or alcohol. I also need to be very comfortable and totally clear my mind from what happened during the day and what I need to do the next day. Other artists (of any kind) who are good at what they do inspire me.

  37. My favorite music for writing is usually non-vocal, but that can depend in mood, time of day, etc.. Some good funky/jazzy House music is always nice and seems to help keep a good pace. Moondog’s ‘Cosmic Meditation’ is a great tune, probably my favorite single song for writing and iis nearly 25 minutes long..

    In all honesty, it’s always a bit of a struggle. Many of us readers have the gift of freedom, working from home or abroad, making our own hours; but the hard part is the self-discipline and denying distractions. Sometimes I think “I wish I could just work 9 to 5 and when the workday is done I can forget about work.” However, that’s just my mind fucking with me. I enjoy my freedom. The battle to focus and be productive is much less stressful than the battle of waking up at 6am 300 days per year to go into the office, which in essence is basically just a daycare for employees.

  38. To block noise I open multiple browser tabs, two with youtube audio of “800% slower” genre and one tab with rain white noise, e.g., Simply Rain listened to on Bose NC headphones. I do best at a cafe where I would feel ashamed to watch Netflix or youtube inanities (that I am not above).

    For super creativity, on days I slept 7+ hours, I try to tightly phrase a problem and then get up to take a shower or similar mindlessness and hope problem will float back in. I find combination of first thinking hard and then vacuum of letting go helps. Otherwise, the15mins after first sip of morning/ post nap coffee are pretty good times too.

  39. Matte leão is the BEST Matte. It’s what they carry at the grocery stores in Brazil but you can find it on Amazon…not to be confused with THE Amazon, which is also in Brazil.

    + Pandora station “Baiana radio”

  40. Hey Tim, huge fan.

    For my creative process I like to listen Sigur Ros, particularly the album ‘Med sud I eyrum vid spilum endalaust’ I like that the lyrics are non-english so to me they are essentially another instrument and they don’t distract me. I used to listen to their album ‘Agaestis Byrjun’ (probably their best album) but i’ve heard it so much i like to put on something different.

    I also like to imagine my wife in the background blowing a dragon. This always help me to get off to a great start.

  41. Big sky, beautiful views around me and an early morning start – like 5:30am. In that scenario and with limited, periodic, good coffee I am nuclear powered.

  42. I find monthly 10-day fasted Cordyceps retreats in a beautiful seculded mountainous area to launch me into the absolute best environment conducive to my music writing and recording…

    Cordyceps are taken daily every day except the last. My very knowledgeable supplier is in Canada. [Moderator: link removed.]

    I only have bone broth, spring water and yerba mate for the first 6 days and then Surthrival Colostrum, bee pollen, CGF, Lutein Plus powder and raw duck or quail egg yolk smoothies with a shot of Brain Octane Oil added. The last day has pemmican mid-day as the first of my two ketogenic primal meals….

    Thanks Tim! Keep on Keepin’ On 🙂

  43. Struggling with my personal routine at the moment. I found that eliminating distractions by putting my phone on airplane mode, and have a place which is dedicated to work only, helps a lot in increasing consistency of output. While experimenting with various times of the day to find the timespan with the highest industriousness, i found that some key aspects have to be given for me to get the maximum out of me:

    1. start every morning with vishens 6 phase meditation, which reliefs anxiety and prevents fight/flight; making my bed, cleaning my flat and drinking at least half a liter of water

    2. keep inflammation and energy costs for digestion low by not eating before work, not smoking, rinsing my mouth with linseed oil after brushing my teeth

    3. my body posture is interestingly enough important too. I have to sit at least straight or even with chest expanded in a kind of power pose to get work done.

    4. if energy is low over a period of multiple weeks although I follow my routine, I test for nutrient deficiencies. At the moment for example, i supplement with 5600 IE Vitamin D every 2 days (Vitamin D Loges Impuls), Magnesium-Calcium 3x/day (by HypoA), Acerola-Zink 3x/day (by HypoA) and Vita Q10 + Ginkgo Biloba (by Via Biona) every morning which helps eliminate brainfog.

    5. I follow your guide “Productivity tips for the neurotic…” because as you said, if everything is important, nothing gets done (in my case out of overwhelm)

    6. overall life satisfaction plays a big role in my productivity as well, so I do 2 physical activities and at least 2 social activities a week.