Generate Ideas In Moderation!

Idea generation is intoxicating. And like all intoxicants, Behance advocates, idea generation can be an addiction, and must be done in moderation if one is to get any creative work DONE. “New ideas have the potential to transform your life in wonderful ways, but they are also the most notorious source of distraction.”

I had this realization myself a year ago when I decided to focus my dissertation on the immense value of constraints for creativity. What we don’t need is too many new ideas. We need focus, depth, concentration, and clear constraints…. and lest we ever forget, IMPLEMENTATION. Ideas must be executed to be truly creative.

Why Multi-Tasking and Task Switching Prevent “Flow”

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the distracting, information overload (or “infomania”) world that most of us live and especially WORK in. Too much on our computer screens. Too much in our inboxes.

Many have pointed out that the human brain “cannot multi-task” but rather that we sequentially move from one task to the next, and back again…. thus preventing getting too immersed in any one task. The increasing speed at which today’s work environment entices (and sometimes demands) us to switch between tasks is unfortunate – especially for creatives.

Why should creatives beware of task switching? Psychologists have shown that we are at our most creative when we are in [what Csiksentmihalyi calls] a state of flow. Yet flow is earned only after being deeply immersed in a task for a steady period of time. (I find it never takes me less than 15 minutes to get into Flow, but can take 45.)

That means that even temporarily “stopping the clock” on creative work to attend to another task can hijack your route to Flow. If deep, focused, and exuberantly creative work is your aim, you must stay in your task for long enough to allow this to happen. Stopping the Clock in creative work is more like Resetting the Clock. If it keeps being reset you will never get to where you want to be. Recovering alcoholics do not boast “60 days sobriety, not counting the seventeen days I was on vacation from sobriety.”

In this light, small indulgences like I.M. and widgets are not as innocent as they seem.

If your desire to allow interruptions, distractions, and task-switching is strong enough, then go ahead. But all creative types (read, everyone) deserves a lifetime full of Flow experiences. The buzz is just too good to pass up.

Lora Oehlberg on Logbooks, Journals, Sketchbooks, and Idea Notebooks

Today at UC Berkeley’s Grouptalk brownbag seminar, Lora Oehlberg from the Berkeley Institute of Design discussed her research on logbooks, how they are used by designers and other creative folk, and the personal meaning we attach to them.

To me, notebooks (or logbooks or sketchbooks or journals…) are a key part of living a creative – and believe it or not spiritual life. My morning pages-inspired “semi-ritual” of going to a favorite local cafe and writing, listing, or just visually concepting the stuff of my mind both slows me down and gets me going. Reflection and generation become simultaneous. Awareness is peaked while the chatter of hipsters and hippie/yuppie part time working moms fades into the buzzing caffeine-y background.

For me, logbooks also have a social acceptability aspect. My notebook is a nice toy to carry around, just in case I am seated too long or have to listen to something that I can’t keep my mind on without active note-taking and elaborating my own connected ideas on paper. If I ever get bored – or more likely, restless – I can just open it up and write or draw. People usually don’t get insulted by this, as they would another other hyperactive fidget I develop if forced to sit still. It gets my brain engaged and enables me to take in auditory information while staying in my seat (or at least standing somewhere in the same room!).

But that’s just me. Oehlberg points out that both the value and mystery of logbooking is its idiosyncrasy. Each person has a unique way of keeping (and sometimes not keeping) a journal or sketchbook. Their meaning is at least as important as their apparent content. The meaning of logbooks is private, dynamic, and heavily linked to the cognitive, temporal, social, and personal context in which they are created.

Books on Logbooks
The diversity of logbooking practices is the subject of several interesting books. Drawing from Life is a rich and fascinating peek into all kinds of personal sketchbooks and idea journals (and my favorite inspiring bedtime reading!)…

Inspired is all about the spaces and tools used by creatives of all kinds, and includes many pictures of sketchbooks, desks, and workrooms…

Famous Notebooks
The Visual Thinking Curator’s Choice publishes the sketchbooks of several famous artists online….

Six Degrees of Logbook
Relevant to Oehlberg’s interest in the sharing of logbooks, the 1000 journals project is a fascinating experiment; the modern equivalent of letters sent to see in bottles and notes tied to the ends of ribbons on helium balloons.

I also find a lot of inspiration, fixation, anal retention, organization, idea generation, and procrastination on Flickr’s photo groups, like Notebookism, and Flickr’s clusters, like this one, which semantically clusters public photos of all things tagged with ‘moleskine’. Several like this are annotated which gives interesting glimpses into people’s logbooking styles, habits, theories, and processes.

There’s just something about paper: Logbooking Tools and Ideas

I’m always interested in different formats for generating, capturing, and organizing ideas on paper. Recently a designer friend showed me the Action Pad series by Behance, which has a lot of thought behind it
and is getting lots of attention lately, e.g. over at Wishful Thinking.

I love my
Circa Notebooks by Levenger
and am interested by, but haven’t been able to justify purchasing their Viz Notepads, which provide more structure than a blank-paper-lover like myself usually wants, but might be a nice tool to have lying around. Levenger’s luxuriously big Concept Pads are oh so tempting. If only I had the desk space!

Of course, 43folders is always a nice place to see what people are thinking about their personal notebooks and capture tools of all kinds.

Academic Work on Logbooks
Lora Oehlberg is one of the few researchers looking at logbooking practices and tools. She did refer us to an academic paper on the topic though:
“An investigation into the use and content of the engineer’s logbook” H. McAlpine, B. J. Hicks, G. Huet and S. J. Culley, Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY, UK

Tensions in Choice of Logbooking Tools and Format
The tensions I can’t stop myself from obsessing about:
– small, light, and inconspicuous vs. big, generous, and ergonomically graceful for writing in
– blank and flexible vs. lined, graphed, dotted, storyboarded, or otherwise structured
– three-, six-, seven-, or circa- ringed (and dynamically arrangeable by category, date, etc) vs. bound (and reliably more or less chronological)
– all paper vs all electronic vs somewhere in between

There are a few unresolved questions too:
– how in the world to remember what I put in there???
– how many logbooks is it useful to have???
– how to scan in and archive my paper notes quickly and often so that I can search and tag them???

What are your personal logbooking bugs? How do you try to resolve them?

Innovators are always “doing things” – six risks they brave to do so

In a somewhat recent conversation with the Analytic Muse group, we revisiting the innovation vs. creativity question. Academics Kanter and Amabile both say that the difference is in implementation. The creative process involves ideation mostly – variation or generation, selection, and retention (Campbell, 1960), whereas the innovation process makes ideas usable through implementing them.

So what makes a person creative as opposed to innovative?

From a lay person’s perspective, it seems that creative people think differently. They can come up with lots of ideas, often unusual ones, and may see things in a different way.

Innovators on the other hand are always doing things. They actually build their ideas. They try out new ways of doing things, they produce and share, they contribute in a way that has concrete application. You know the guy – Hunter Mack for instance at manages to get a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley, but also (on the side) writes a successful music blog, sells his artwork in galleries, puts on multimedia art and music shows in San Francisco, and just started a Gold Robot Records, a label specializing in 7-inch albums (a constraint he set up for very good aesthetic philosophical reasons!).

Jono Hey, also getting his PhD in Engineering, also maintains a blog, writes his own classical piano music, and designs games. He posts his beautiful photos on Flickr and shares them.

Dave Benett is a lawyer by day. But he is a successful and innovative DJ by night. He goes out and finds and starts trends and delivers them to the rest of the world in a new mashed up form that transports you. He makes events full of delicious music, sexy dancing, and serendipity happen where there otherwise might have been just a boring night at a bar. And when he finds a collection of music he loves, he mixes it perfectionistically in his living room, burns the session to CD, and shares it with his friends. We are all cooler for it.

These are just three examples of innovators. They balance input with output better than anyone else I know. They are not just consuming, they are contributing. It’s inspiring. I have no doubt others have created because they do – I certainly vouch for that.

Sure, you could have had that idea too – but did you implement it? (Say that next time someone next to you at MOMA grumbles at Pollack or Rothko!)

Innovation therefore involves taking more risk than just creativity. Changing the risk : reward ratio is the first step towards increasing your implementation habit. There are at least six levels of risk involved in implementing ideas.

1. Threat to the ego. Our ideas are our babies. They are little extensions of ourselves. But once they’ve left our heads – either through our lips or our hands – they are no longer under our protection. Imperfections and flaws are inevitable. We may not be ready to see those flaws, because we internalize them to mean that we are personally flawed. So sometimes we are afraid to let our ideas leave the nest and become built.

This is probably an appropriate self-protective mechanism to a point, but if we never get brave enough to risk seeing the flaws in our own ideas then we will never bring them to life. Moleskines and Circa Notebooks full of brilliant ideas may line our shelves, but we have contributed little to the world. Eventually, this cowardice (which may come in the form of indecision, self-distraction, or procrastination) is deeply unsatisfying.

2. Opportunity costs. Resources will be consumed. Your time will be spent. There is the risk that your time and resources (which are scare!) won’t be well spent – what if your idea, which seems so nice in the abstract, doesn’t work out in the concrete?? That would be a bummer, especially if you’re a tight-wad with your time and resources (or if they’re scarce). Because creative ideas *by definition* have never been implemented before (at least by you), this is a good chance they won’t work out the first, third, even twentieth time you build them.

This is why some design firms have begun to engage in rapid prototyping – reducing the cost of implementing during trial runs in order to get success more quickly. But the other benefit of prototyping quickly, roughly, and often, is that when your brain learns that prototyping is not so costly, your psychological resistance towards implementation is greatly reduced.

3. Accountability to others. “What’dja do this Saturday, Caneel?” “Umm…. I implemented this crazy hair-brained idea I had, and after the whole weekend it didn’t work” – just being accountable to others (e.g., a family member) about how we spend our time increases the perceived risk of implementing.

4. Personal identity. Other people might see it if it’s built, whereas they won’t see it if it’s just in your head. What they think of your idea (once it’s been implemented as they can see it) may get transfered to your identity in their minds.

5. Capriciousness. Perhaps most importantly, implementation demands a commitment to your ideas in their future form. Since this future form is unknown (remember, it’s never been built before, at least by you!) you can’t say with any certainty if you will still even want the thing once it’s built. Will you capriciously change your mind about its appeal before you’ve finished following through on it? (A nice excuse for chickening out.)

The solution here may be to find ways to enjoy building, simply for the process of building. This requires a Zen-like detachment from the outcome (what it is once it’s built) and an acceptance on the present (the building of it).

Note: Contrary to what many convenient pseudo-nuevo-Buddhists would like to believe, acceptance does not mean complacence. Innovation, as we said is personal. The very first thing you have to accept if you’re going to be an innovator is that it was your very own thought (that the idea was worthwhile) was powerful enough to put this whole process in motion in the first place! Thus, your desire to build is the first thing you have to accept – accept the energy. Feel it. Observe it as it changes. Run with it!

6. The Fear of the Mythical Ouch. Building requires effort. Sometimes we think we don’t like expending effort. This is baloney. On the contrary, life thrives when challenged. Being alive is work. Being dead is not. But work does not have to be painful.

Live each day in such a way that you are ready for motion (be healthy and wise) when the next idea hits you. Sleep. Eat healthfully. Drink water. Intoxicate only in moderation. Find things funny. Turn off the damned TV! Don’t be busy, distracted, burnt out, or overbooked all of the time. Fight to keep flexibility in your schedule so that you can protect the divine creative flexibility of mind that you were born with.

Then get going. Implementation begets ideation. Motion begets motion. Think, dream, build, and share alike and we all shall prosper!

*This innovation brought to you by inspiration from the aforementioned innovators, Hunter, Jono, and David. 🙂

the One Page approach to new years resolutions

I’ve taken some inspiration from the Best Year Yet program, which I discovered on the Analog GTD Yahoo Group. They push focus over breadth. This is in line with a new insight I’ve had about the importance of creating, having, and printing One Page. One Page makes you reflect, select, summarize, save, and see your goals, all at once, as a whole. One Page leverages both conscious and unconscious powers of focus and intention.

One Page is the result of my evolution in resolution setting, which I will tell you for background & amusement. {But you can cut to How it’s done below if you like.}

the false “Magic” of resolution setting
As a ‘kid’ (meaning up through the end of college) I would make a long list of what I misleadingly called “new years resolutions.” Like many have experienced, the outcomes were disappointing and guilt-provoking. I guess an optimistic interpretation is that I was treating the turn of a calendar year into an opportunity to think about and enumerate my values & ideals & loosely defined goals. I would make them pretty, with colored markers, and ALWAYS had to finish writing & sharing them before the clock struck midnight. Otherwise it wasn’t ‘official’ and the magic of the clean slate of the new year wouldn’t work.

Who am I to feel guilty about resoluzzionni?
Some time around the end of college* however, I got it; feeling bad about myself for ANYTHING is not only unproductive, but arrogant, loathsome and wasteful. This realization was probably sparked by my semester abroad in Florence, where I (like millions of other American students abroad before me) realized that if America has a culture, Guilt is certainly at its core, and that life is about so much more than achieving a lot. Paradoxically, I realized that I am so small, but that life is so grand that I should not – and cannot – even pretend to understand all of it, and that trying to conquer it by achieving some stupid shallow ambitious goal is just hubris. Who am I to torture my poor little body mind and soul in order to achieve something that society thinks is important but that nobody will even notice I did in 100 years? If my life is but a grain of sand in a big bleu sea, then who am I to ruin it with self-flagellating inward focused ambition – am I really so important? Does what I do really matter?

Ultimately, I discovered in a cobble stone piazza drinking from a ‘honest little bottle’ of [cheap] red wine, a life well-lived is one where I live and die happy, and help the other grains of sand I bump into along the way to do the same. The more honorable resolution is to live life to the fullest. (At the time I was also reading Ishmael and becoming paralyzed by an obsession with altogether eliminating my impact on the planet in every way possible, by living a non-consumerist lifestyle of nature and leisure. Everything I do matters + nothing I do matters = maddening intrapsychic conflict!)

One year, one focus.
Thus began my habit of setting one focus (a nonspecific striving more than an absolute resolution) per year. I picked the thing I thought would have most positive impact on my life….. for example, do one thing at a time (this one started working! I kept it for two years) and rest when I’m tired. The things I’d focus upon at the new year tended to be behavioral response patterns I recognized as being core to me (habits, things I kept doing, to my own demise) but that I wanted to change. Since most behavioral response patterns are immediate & automatic, they are hard to remember to change (such as biting nails – a thing I’ve never done but I’ve heard it’s pretty much unconscious). Thus, having only one of them helps you to remember to remember it.

That said, I’ve had a hard time setting stakes in the ground about other goals I want to achieve, and after living so long with life almost scripting appropriately challenging & admirable goals for me (e.g. get into UCLA, maximize my fun & social life at UCLA, get out of debt, learn about relationships, don’t become an office drone, get into grad school, etc…) I realized I hadn’t set one for myself in a LONG time, if ever. Now I guess I’m a grown up, with the span of life so overwhelming I have to start reining it in with goals. But how to avoid the Magic of new years mistakes of the past?

how One Page works
This year, I was going to set my annual focus as being punctual & unhurried. But this is SO opposite of how I have lived my whole life that I was almost intimidated out of it, even though I know it will produce improvements in my whole life. So I started thinking about breaking down punctuality into certain life areas, and taking on a new one each month after conquering the last the month before.

Then by happenstance I came across the Best Year Yet idea and have skimmed a few pages & adapted my own plan accordingly, this time focused on the paper product, which I am coming around to admitting has much more importance than we credit it.

One Page works by creating just One Page summarizing what I want to become in 2007. As Best Year Yet recommends, I will select just 10 goals to write on this page & a few guiding principles. One year, One Page. Then each month I will review my goals & my progress towards them, and select a set of activities that will help me get closer to (not necessarily ‘achieve’!) each of my goals, with the least amount of effort. One month, One Page. Then plan each week in order to reach the monthly goals. One week, One Page.

why One Page?
Using just One Page forces you to select the goals and associated actions that will have the highest payoff, without allowing you to go overboard with enthusiastic but unrealistic, winter-break-induced foolhardy denial about what can actually be accomplished day to day. It forces you instead to think about what you could become in a year, if you set yourself to it, one printed page at a time.

this plan leverages both Intentional & Unconscious energies.
Apply your conscious intention to the selection of those few precious, high payoff goals. Engage your unconscious awareness in solving your problems & recognizing opportunities to get closer to your goal by posting your One Page in lots of places – at home in the bathroom, by your bed, pasted on the front of your moleskine, as your computer’s desktop background, as a screensaver, by your desk, in your treo.

Revision — or — Perfection is the enemy of Good.
Don’t worry about your goals being permanent, but get them as good (simple, powerful, focused, essential) as you can in a reasonable amount of time, probably over three or four days, most of which will be spent thinking about them & taking loose notes as you commute, etc. Your most powerful goals are the most obvious, and the more you allow yourself to think ‘about’ them, the better your intimidated subconscious brain will be at figuring out how you talk you ‘out’ of them!

You are not setting in stone, but you are setting in paper (which to an edit-happy evaluation-avoiding writer, feels scary enough!). It’s somewhat final. It’s final enough that it’s ‘done’ so that you can stop editing & revising your goals and get to doing them.

Of course, this page will get revised as new opportunities present themselves & your thinking matures…. but with regularity rather than commitment-phobic caprice. In the meantime, you publish, for yourself, and for anyone with whom you are willing to share.

To sum up

It’s about focus, it’s not about time. Focus, focus, focus. As I always say, don’t be a pussy. Make your choices and then print them out and live with them until your next scheduled review. A decision made in the right general direction will always trump indecision about which is the best direction. Apply your intention: reflect, select, summarize, save, and see your goals, all at once, as a whole, on One Page. Review & update every month, plan every week accordingly. The magic of the mind’s unconscious will help me do the rest.

I will check back in & let you know how it’s going… if you have reactions or experiences with something similar please comment & share! Happy new year!

what is blogging for?

Auntie Mame (for which my beloved grandma nicknamed herself) is entertaining enough and i’ve had a tough day… so why should i blog?

i think i partly want to be accountable to the world for having something to say. so much of life is reading what others write – in my life that is, at least for now as a phd – and i start to worry that outside of my narrow segment of academia, i might have little of value to say, or to share.

i also worry that someone might actually read this. might my advisors? what would they think that i have opinions about the academy (esp the one i’m at) that are not always positive?

but yet i’d like to show myself – by showing the narrow bit of the world that might read this – that i have more to me still than my program.

which of course i do. i must acknowledge that i have a full and lovely life, filled with friends and family and fascinating people and ideas and hobbies – what i don’t have enough of lately (or don’t take enough of) is time. time to explore, time to write, time to do! i’m always reading about how to do things yet spend so little time doing them. dammit!

but then i do do so much. i just do it so fast. or so often, or with so many people that i almost forget that it happened by choice.

Oh, how i love Mamie for namign herself after Auntie Mame. What a great woman.

Well I must be off. Off to do and not do and feel guilty about it nonetheless. Is guilt for non-doing a Catholic (Calvinist?) vestige, or a product of socialization to ambition and overacheivment? or is it my own neurosis. or bipolar disorder.