Being “in the zone”

Have you ever had an instance when you were so immersed in an activity that you forgot about yourself and everything around you? Or perhaps you were so “in the zone” that you felt as if time had slowed down or sped up? This is a phenomenon in Psychology that is referred to as “flow.” It is an experience when you are highly engaged and so focused on the activity at hand that you forget about everything around you. This is an experience that many athletes often allude to. Take for example Kobe Bryant who describes what it is like to be in flow or in the zone:

You get in the zone and just try to stay here. You don’t think about your surroundings or what’s going on with the crowd or the team. You’re kind of locked in.

When you get in that zone, it’s just a supreme confidence… things just slow down. You really do not try to focus on what’s going on because you can lose it in a second. You have to really try to stay in the present, and not let anything break that rhythm.

Although this experience is most cited by athletes, it is something that everyone is capable of experiencing and has experienced in the past. Also, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, experiencing this high level of engagement can have a profound impact on the overall quality of your life. Not only can it help you cope with pain and suffering, but it can also make your life more rich, intense, and meaningful. Furthermore, research suggests that flow experiences are associated with increased individual and team performance.

What does flow look and feel like?

According to two of the leading researchers on this topic, Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2009), these are the characteristics of flow:

  • Intense focus and concentration on the present moment
  • A merging of action and awareness (Your focus and awareness are on what you are doing. If you are not in flow, you might be cleaning the house, but your focus is on the TV show you watched last night. Alternatively, if you are in flow, you are cleaning the house and your focus is entirely on what you are cleaning).
  • Loss of self-consciousness (You lose a sense of self and are not aware of yourself in that present moment. Your ego is non-existent. You’re not focused on what other people are thinking about you and nor are you focused on how you feel).
  • A sense that one can control one’s actions (It’s not that you feel like if you are in total control, because if you felt that, then you probably were not in flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it’s more that the issue of control, or a lack of it, does not even come up. In general, there is a sense that you are capable and can dictate what to do next in the activity).
  • A distortion of time (Either you feel that time has passed slower or faster than normal. You’re not aware of time when you are in flow. However, when you leave the state of flow, you look at the time and often feel as if it passed at a much slower or faster rate than you would have expected)
  • Experience of the activity is intrinsically rewarding (You enjoy the activity and the experience for the sake of it. There might be an end extrinsic goal in mind, but the flow experience itself is intrinsically rewarding).

Generally, when you are in flow, you’re not feeling any particular emotion (largely because of the loss of self-consciousness). However, when you get out of flow, you often feel happy. In his book on creativity and flow, Csikszentmihalyi writes that “in the long run, the more flow we experience in daily life, the more likely we are to feel happy overall” (p. 123). However, whether or not flow in daily life increases happiness largely depends on the activity that is producing flow. The activity must be complex and contribute to some personal, professional, or cultural growth. For example, a flow activity such as playing baseball or chess would lead to increases in happiness (personal growth), but an activity such as gambling would not (no meaningful growth).

How to get into flow.

To enter a state of flow, a few conditions must be met:

  • A balance between the challenge of the activity and the level of skill you have (A task that is too easy for you will leave you bored whereas a task that is too difficult will leave you anxious or uneasy. To enter a state of flow, you must engage in an activity where the challenge of the activity is equal to or slightly greater than your skill level. Of course, challenge is subjective. A professional athlete would find running a mile to be easy whereas I would find it quite challenging. The challenge you engage in should be based on your skill level and vice versa)
  • Clear proximal goals that provide immediate feedback about the progress being made. (think SMART goals here. The SMART goal you select should be challenging as well to meet the criteria of the previous condition. However, the goals you have should also be specific and easy to follow. A goal to “become a better basketball player” will not induce flow, whereas a goal to “make 80% of my free throws” has a better chance).

Practical tips to get into flow.

What I have shared above are the minimum requirements or conditions that must be met to enter a state of flow. However, I wanted to share a few additional suggestions and provide some examples of how you can introduce more flow and engagement into your day to day life.

  1. Have clear and specific goals in mind. As I said before, it is better to be as specific as possible. Try breaking down larger goals into smaller goals. What is the very next step you need to take to achieve your larger goals?
  2. Track your progress and know how well you are doing. Again, you need frame the activity so that it provides you feedback. In some instances, it is simple. When playing basketball, I can easily see how I am doing from moment to moment as I know whether I made or missed a shot. It is harder when I am a creator or inventor of some kind. For example, if I am a music composer, how do I gauge whether or not the combinations of notes I am creating are good or bad? How do I get feedback? In those instances, it is more difficult to get feedback, but the idea is the same. One solution is to internalize your field’s criteria of judgement so that you can give feedback to yourself rather than having to wait to hear from an expert. In other words, try to internalize and learn what other musicians view as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music. How does your music compare to that? Or, what story is your music trying to convey and is the music you have created successfully doing so?
  3. Balance challenge and skill. An AP math student won’t be able to get into flow doing simple arithmetic whereas a fifth grader wouldn’t be able to get into flow studying Calculus. You have to see where you are at and do something that is equal to or slightly above your skill set. Because you cannot really adjust your skill level in the short-run, try adjusting your challenge level.  Rather than shooting 15 feet away from the basketball hoop, try shooting 10 feet away from the hoop first. With creative pursuits such as writing, composing music, or anything involving creating something from scratch, there is an added difficulty because you have less control. For example, as a blogger, how can I increase the challenge of my writing? Do I type with one hand instead? Not exactly. Perhaps I choose a topic that’s harder to research. When I hit writer’s block, I might tell myself to start off with just writing a paragraph summary rather than an entire page and then expanding the paragraph to a page afterward.
  4. Avoid distractions. Remember that three key symptoms of flow are (1) merging of action and awareness, (2) the loss of self-consciousness, and (3) distortion of time. Distractions can easily disrupt flow and even prevent you from getting into flow in the first place. When trying to get into flow, find a place where you won’t be so easily distracted. Perhaps go to a coffee shop rather than staying at home where your family will keep interrupting you. Disable the clock on your computer so you won’t keep looking at it every five minutes to see how much work you have done. However, distractions, of course, can come in many forms. They can be more serious such as health, family, or financial problems. While you will not have control over all these distractions, try to minimize the ones that you can control. For example, if you live a healthier lifestyle, you will have less personal health-related distractions.

Final words…

When people think about flow or engagement, they often think about momentary experiences. However, I think that we should aim to make it more of a lifestyle. The more engaged you are with each experience and activity, the richer your life will be and the less time you will spend ruminating over painful and difficult aspects of your life. You just won’t have the mental capacity or interest to do so. Furthermore, I think flow is a critical factor in one’s personal and professional development.

Think about it. I hate exercising. However, if I can find a way to induce flow while I’m exercising, I won’t hate it as much (since I won’t be focused on the displeasure of the exercise). When I finish exercising, I’ll feel happiness and satisfaction with the fact that I have exercised. That will help improve both my mental and physical health. Also, it is an endless cycle. Because flow is addictive and intrinsically motivating, the more you experience flow, the more you want to keep experiencing it. This means I’m more likely to keep seeking activities (such as exercise) that will induce flow.




The medicinal effects of engagement

Much of our pain and suffering in life comes from the past or the future. You studied really hard for an exam, but you didn’t get a good grade (problem of the past). You are worried that despite all your efforts, you wont do well on your exam (problem of the future). You’re annoyed at your husband because he disrespected you in front of his family (problem of the past). You’re dreading a visit from your in-laws (problem of the future).

This is not to say that problems in the present do not exist, however, we would save ourselves a lot of stress if we stopped ruminating over past and future problems. Think about it. You stress over an exam before you take it, and you stress about it after you take it. However, for those two hours when you’re actually sitting down and taking the test, how much are you really stressing over it? Not much. Why? Because when you are taking the exam, all you are focusing on is the exam. The exam is difficult and you do not have the mental capacity (or the time) to worry. All you are doing is focusing. In other words, you are engaged.

When you’re so immersed and engaged in an activity physically, cognitively, and/or emotionally that it requires your complete attention, you do not have the mental capacity to focus on your past, future, or even present pains. All you are focused on is the the one thing that you are doing which is demanding so much attention.

What I have learned over time is that focusing intensely and being fully immersed in the thing you are doing in the present moment is an extremely effective way to decrease pain and suffering to the point where I would say it is almost medicinal.

Engagement to Alleviate Pain Symptoms

When you are completely focused on the task at hand or on the event that is going on right now, you are focused completely on the present moment. As a result of this, you cannot be bothered by pains of the past or future. For example, I am not anxious about my presentation next week (a pain of the future) because I’m in the middle of playing a basketball game with my friends and am focused right now only on the game itself. I am not sad about the fact that my friend moved away because I am mid-conversation with her on the phone about a topic that we both are extremely passionate about. If the thing you are doing requires all your mental and possibly even physical energy, you just do not have the mental capacity to be bothered by what happened before or what will happen in the future.

The interesting thing about some pains, however, such as physical pains, is that they are present-oriented pains. For example, my neck is hurting extremely badly right now. My leg is bothering me and it is difficult to walk in the present moment. However, even with pains that are present-oriented, the reason they often become almost unbearable is that they demand our mental attention. We’re focusing on them. The pain is neutral, however, we are making a mental acknowledgement of that pain as unpleasant.

While engagement can not get rid of your pain entirely, it can certainly alleviate some of the symptoms you are having. For example, if your neck is hurting, but you’re in the middle of giving a presentation at work, you’re probably not focusing on it very much during that time period. That’s the beautiful part about engagement. It zaps your energy on the activity you are engaged in at the moment which doesn’t give you enough mental capacity energy to focus on the pain you have.

How to use engagement to decrease pain.

  1. Do something that requires your complete attention. Watching TV or doing something passive not going to work because it does not require your full attention. Even doing something active, such as walking, may not work because it’s passive in terms of mental activity.
  2. Try something challenging. Engagement is usually a result of a balance between the challenge of the activity you are doing and the skill level that you have. This is often referred to as “flow”. When you’re in flow, you’re in the zone. You’re so focused that you even forget about yourself in that very moment. This level or type of engagement can only happen when you do something that challenges you. Challenge yourself too much and you’ll get anxious. Not enough and you will get bored. Find that balance.
  3. Do something that matters. Engagement at work decreases when you feel your work lacks meaning. The same goes for hobbies and other activities – if we feel that they lack meaning, we tend to feel disengaged which will make us focus on our pain more. If we do something that matters, something greater than ourselves, then we will not focus on our own pains.
  4. Engage with other people. I have had instances in the past where I was living by myself and was physically in pain. I was all alone and was getting anxious about my health. I couldn’t stop focusing on my neck pains – it hurt a lot! What made things far worse was that I could not distract myself. TV was not working. I didn’t have any work to keep me occupied (it was a weekend). However, what I found was that when I interacted with someone outside, for those moments, I forgot about my pain. When I got back to my apartment, I still felt the high of that interaction and momentarily felt better. Interactions with others, regardless of whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, can have powerful effects.






Overcoming monotony in your life

Because our schedules are often influenced by external forces (e.g., our work, our school, our families), it is easy to get stuck in a state of monotony where you are doing the same thing over and over again every day without giving it a second thought. While it’s good to have a routine that keeps you consistent with your work and your health, too much of it can backfire.  If you’re like me, you eventually reach a point where you start feeling apathetic or even disengaged towards everyday tasks.

Once you come to the realization that you’ve been basically doing the same thing every day for the past few weeks, months, or even years, you start to feel stuck and as if you do not have the control to change things. You begin to crave spontaneity and hope that it will infuse some excitement into your everyday life, however, you’ve become addicted to your routine. Even though it’s starting to suffocate you, there is this comfort associated with knowing what will happen at any given moment.

So what do you do? How do you escape the monotony?

1. Acknowledge that you have control over your schedule. Notice that I did not start this post with “Because our schedules are often controlled by external forces…” I said influenced instead of controlled. This is because we do control our schedule. How can you say that your work or your boss controls your schedule when it is you who decided to take that job in the first place? I understand that this is not as black and white as I have painted it, however, it’s important to always remember that you have some control over your life and your routine.

2.  Make a small change to a core habit. A core habit is something that you do every day, almost religiously. One of my core habits is drinking a cup of coffee every morning. I drink it every morning without even thinking about it. Now, I have no issue drinking coffee every morning. I love coffee. However, whether I want to admit it or not, it does contribute to the monotony and feelings of apathy towards my everyday schedule. Both my mind and my body have begun to expect the coffee every morning, so now I just drink it because I don’t want to get withdrawal headaches, not because I necessarily enjoy it.

So what did I do? I changed things up. I told myself that I was still going to drink coffee, but in the mid-morning (around 10:30am) instead of 7am. That did not work out so well. I felt pretty tired in the morning and that made it hard for me to work effectively in the morning. The next day, I decided to play around with it some more. I drank coffee at 7am, but only half a cup. Then, at 10:30am, I drank another half a cup. It turns out that half a cup in the morning was equally as effective as the whole cup in terms of getting me up and energized. However, by breaking my cup of coffee into two increments and by having a half cup around 10:30am, I noticed that I had a lot more energy in the morning. I felt consistently energetic throughout the morning.

So what happened there? I made a very small change and observed what happened. When the change backfired, I made another small change. That worked. Trial and error. Through trial and error, I discovered something that I would not have originally discovered. It was such a small change, yet discovering this new formula for drinking coffee gave me an excitement that I really needed in my routine. The implications were much larger because I had more energy, and as a result, I was more productive with my work which made me feel better.

3. Be your own guinea pig. Experiment. This is quite similar to the previous recommendation, but I want to elaborate. Because you do the same thing every day, you have been given a great opportunity to experiment on yourself. Think of how research studies work.  For example, let’s say you want to see if a new drug effectively reduces blood pressure levels. How do you do it? You randomly divide two groups of people who are very similar, and you measure their baseline blood pressure levels. You then give one group a placebo and another group the drug you are testing. After a month, you compare the blood pressure of both groups and see if there was an improvement.

Because our routine is so monotonous and basically the same every day, we’re hypersensitive to any small change that occurs. For example, waking up just 15 minutes later in the morning can derail our entire morning (since we’ll feel that we are behind schedule). The beautiful part about this, however, is that our monotonous routine can serve as a baseline. We know how we feel on an average day, and that serves both as our baseline and our control group. We then implement a small change to our routine (similar to how I did with my coffee), and then we see how we feel. Was the change positive? Negative? Like I said, because we are hypersensitive to any small change that occurs, we will likely know if it made a noticeable difference. Experiment by drinking half the amount of coffee in the morning and see how you feel. Wake up 15 minutes earlier. Leave for work 15 minutes earlier and maybe you’ll discover that you can beat the morning traffic and save 30 minutes off your morning commute. Whatever it is, try it. Experiment. If it doesn’t work, you can always revert back. If it does work, you can permanently implement the change.

It is very easy to get comfortable with a routine. However, by experimenting changes, you get a chance to test out better alternatives to incorporate in your routine.

4. Take a small (or an extended) break from your routine. When was the last time you took a day off from work or school that was not planned for? We usually burn our vacation days for pre-planned vacations, for weddings, or birthdays, however, have you taken a day off out of the blue just because you can? Have you ever skipped a class just to see what’s going on around campus while you’re stuck in class from 2:30pm-3:50pm every Tuesday and Thursday? I’m not advocating that we should slack off or flake on our obligations, however, sometimes a small break from our routine can actually be productive because (1) it reminds us that we control our lives and (2) gives us a break and a fresh perspective on things.

If you have reached the point where you are just chronically burnt out, consider a larger break from your routine – a vacation, a leave of absence, a reduction (or increase) in work hours. If you’re struggling with the monotony your gym routine, try taking a break from it or try playing a different sport. Breaks are important. Breaks are necessary. If you have not done so already, read my past post on creativity which discusses how breaks from work are a necessary part of creativity and productivity.

Final words…

Nothing I have shared is revolutionary. It’s quite simple. If you’re doing the same thing every day and don’t like it, then do something different. The problem is that we sometimes forget that we do have control over our lives. We forget that we can control our schedule by skipping class or by doing something else at the gym. Like I said, external forces rarely control your schedule. It’s usually more of a mindset problem. More often than not, we’re just afraid of change. We hate doing the same thing every day, but there’s comfort associated with it. You just have to experiment and see what works and what does not. Give it a try. What is a small change you will make to your daily routine?



The Creative Personality

If you haven’t done so already, check out my previous post where I talk about the different stages of creativity and how you can leverage each stage when trying to come up with creative ideas and solutions.

In this post, I want to talk about the traits and personality of creative people. What do all creative people have in common? Is there a formula that exists which determines whether or not a person will be creative? If so, is it genetic or can we mimic it? Simply put, what makes a creative person creative?

In his book on creativity, author and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses the insights he acquired from interviewing dozens of creative individuals. He identified ten dimensions that make up the creative personality:

1. Physical Energy vs. Rest

Creative individuals are great at balancing when to rest vs. when to exert a great deal of physical energy. They can work long hours and come across as energetic and enthusiastic, but they also take a significant amount of time to rest and recuperate.

Logically, this makes sense. When you think about creativity, the one thing I always say is that it is a result of conscious, hard work. This requires immense dedication and physical energy. At the same time, however, one of the stages of creativity is incubation which suggests that periods of rest and distraction are critical for coming up with new ideas and solving problems you are stuck on. The key thing with creative people is that they are aware of when they are most energetic vs. when they are least energetic and adjust their schedules accordingly. Csikszentmihalyi (2009) writes that “the energy is under their own control — it is not controlled by the calendar, the clock, or an external schedule” (p. 58).

Pay attention to when your energy levels are high and when they wane, and try to adjust accordingly.

2. Smart vs. Naive

Are smarter people more creative? Well, not necessarily. Creative people have the potential to be more creative, but often times, people with high IQ get complacent and (1) don’t put in the effort necessary to be successful and (2) lose the curiosity necessary to be creative.

There are two types of thinking that affect our creativity — convergent and divergent. Convergent thinking is generally measured by IQ and involves us being able to think logically and rationally to solve a problem with a fixed answer. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is related to curiosity and is the ability to come up with new ideas when there is no clearly-defined solution. Both types of thinking are essential for creativity. We need divergent thinking to come up with ideas and think outside of the box, but we need convergent thinking to decide on the feasibility and value of the ideas we have generated.

Creative individuals are smart in the sense that they are experts in their domain, but they retain a sense of childishness or naiveté as they are capable of approaching problems with a fresh mind and as if they know nothing about the problem.

3. Playful vs. Disciplined

To develop a creative product, you must work hard and stay disciplined. You must be driven and persevere in the face of adversity. However, in addition to this discipline, creative people are often playful, cheerful, and sometimes even silly. In other words, they are both responsible and irresponsible. For example, individuals may be playful or carefree when it comes to how they approach their relationships with others, yet they are extremely serious and disciplined when it comes to mastering their craft.

4. Imaginative vs. Realistic

You might think that whether you are more imaginative or realistic depends largely on the type of creativity you are focused on. For example, an artist is probably more imaginative whereas a scientist is more realistic. However, creative people are generally capable of both. They can come up with new ideas (imaginative), but they are also capable of executing and pursuing only those ideas that make sense (realistic). As Csikszentmihalyi (2009) states, “the novelty they see is rooted in creativity” (p. 63).

In a way, this is related to how we need to be capable of both convergent and divergent thinking. We need to be imaginative to generate ideas, but we also need to be realistic and decide how to make those ideas useful.

5. Introverted vs. Extroverted

You might think that creative people are more introverted. After all, if the key to creativity is hard work, then they probably don’t have much time or interest in interacting with others. They’re just working. However, as I stated in my previous post, this idea that creativity is about individual work is a myth. More often than not, creative people value collaboration as it promotes the exchange of ideas and allows you to extract value from others who may be experts in domains that you are less proficient in.

You need to have moments of introversion so that you can get the work done and convert ideas into products, but you also need to have moments of extroversion so that you can generate ideas and learn from what is around you.

If you want to be creative, learn to be comfortable in your own company so that you can focus and work when needed, but also learn to be comfortable around others so that you can share ideas and learn from the world you are living in.

6. Ambitious Vs. Selfless

This could also be viewed as proud vs. humble. You would assume that people who are both creative and have ‘made it’ in terms of success are arrogant, yet you would find that many of them are humble and sometimes even self-critical. They seem to possess a certain degree of humility that gets them to continue working hard to master their craft. They don’t let success get in their head and don’t take what they have for granted.

These individuals are ambitious and aggressive, for if they were not, they would lack the drive necessary to create. However, they are often also selfless in that their focus is on their craft, not on themselves. They are willing to sacrifice their time and comfort for the sake of the project they are working on.  If a person was too humble, they would not believe they are capable of change and creativity, and therefore, would not pursue it. On the other hand, if a person was too proud, they would feel entitled and not put in the effort required to create.

7. Masculine Vs. Feminine

When we think about the more traditional and stereotypical views on what men ought to be or what women ought to be, we think that men are more dominant and aggressive, whereas women are more nurturing and sensitive. What creativity research suggests, however, is that creative women are generally more dominant and aggressive than other women, whereas creative men are generally more sensitive and less aggressive than other men. What does this exactly mean? Simply put, creative individuals generally have the strengths of their own gender, but also possess the strengths of the other gender. In other words, creative men and women are both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’

8. Traditional and Conservative vs. Rebellious and Iconoclastic 

When we think of creative people, we think of those who break the rules or those who deviate from the norm. After all, if they didn’t deviate from the norm, they wouldn’t be considered creative. This is partly true, but also consider that to be creative, you must be a master of your domain. You must be an expert in your field. Therefore, you must learn the rules before you break the rules. Creative individuals are traditional in the sense that they know about their craft inside and out. A classical music composer, for example, is generally well-versed in music theory and possesses the knowledge and techniques of past composers. However, they also challenge the norm, try new ideas, and explore new techniques.

9. Passionate Vs. Objective

Obviously, creative individuals are passionate. If they were not passionate, they would not create. However, passion generally comes with a degree of bias. If you’re passionate about a sports team, you’re more likely to marvel at their greatness and deny their deficiencies. We’re generally very passionate and biased when it comes to ourselves and our work. Makes sense. However, creative people are also objective. Objectivity allows individuals to detach themselves from their work and view it with a less biased mindset. This is likely to increase credibility and bring to light some of the areas of improvement when it comes to their work.

10. Enjoyment Vs. Pain

Many times, we think of creative individuals as disturbed people who had traumatic childhoods or perhaps those who are often depressed and melancholic. Is that true? There are certainly a lot of cases out there of people who are very creative who did have terrible childhoods or are very depressed. However, the key to creativity is not pain. It’s openness and sensitivity. Creative people are generally very open-minded and sensitive. This sensitivity makes them vulnerable to pain. However, it also makes them open to a great deal of enjoyment.

Creative individuals are generally strong in divergent thinking. Unfortunately, because abstract ideas or ideas that deviate from the norm are not quickly accepted, individuals are prone to feeling isolated or misunderstood. It can lead to an emptiness of a sort. However, when you do come up with an idea that you feel is worth pursuing, you often feel a sense of joy. There’s this unique satisfaction or excitement that cannot be found from following the norm.

Final words…

Creative people are introverted but also extroverted. They’re traditional but also rebellious. They can experience great joy but also are vulnerable to great pain. So what does this mean? If there is one word that I want you to take away from this post, and if there is one word that describes creative people, it is complexity. Creative people are complex. It is rare to find people who can operate on both ends of the spectrum, but that is why creative people are rare. Creative individuals are able to adjust their approach based on the task at hand. They are able to put in the effort needed to generate and develop ideas and solutions, but they are also able to reach out and collaborate with others so those ideas and solutions are recognized.



Five Stages of Creativity

In my previous post, I debunked some commonly held beliefs on creativity. Mainly, I discussed that creativity is more of an action than a trait and that it is the result of conscious and hard work, not an ‘aha’ moment that you’ll have as you sit and wait for inspiration. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, just click here.

In this post, I want to talk about the different stages of creativity and how you can leverage each stage to help you come up with original ideas and develop creative solutions to problems that you may be having with your work or in your organization.

Stages of Creativity:

The most popular creativity framework identifies five stages of creativity. In his book on creativity, Csikszentmihalyi states that breaking down creativity into five stages can be a bit too simplified and even misleading, but it does offer a valid and simple way to organize the complexity associated with creativity. So while reading the five stages, it is important to not fixate on each individual stage and instead focus on the general process of how creativity works.

1) The first stage is preparation. 

The preparation stage is when you become curious and immersed in a problem that you find interesting. A problem could be as simple as you locking yourself out of your car or as complicated as high turnover in your workplace due to low employee morale. You might say that most forms of creativity do not have a problem (e.g., art, music, writing), however, I would actually disagree. For example, when I write blog posts, my problem is – how do I create engaging and valuable content? When you’re composing a musical score, your problem might be something like – how do I convey a specific emotion throughout the entire composition with a specific instrument? When trying to ‘be creative’, you need to have a problem, or a question, in mind that you want to solve or answer. Just think of it this way – if you didn’t have a problem or a question in mind, then you would have no need to be creative!

Therefore, the first part of the preparation stage is to find a problem. The second part of the preparation stage is to acquire information. Once you have identified a problem, you need to learn everything about the problem. What has been done by others in the past to solve a similar problem? Where have they succeeded or possibly failed? What skills are required to solve this problem? You need to now obtain that knowledge and acquire those skills to solve the problem (if you do not have it already). For example, if you wanted to evoke joy in your musical composition, you would need to have knowledge of music theory and of the major scales. Perhaps you would listen to what other composers have done in the past. If you have low employee morale, perhaps you acquire information through an employee engagement survey or you assess what other organizations are doing to mitigate this problem.

The stage of preparation might seem quite complicated and tedious, but the good news is that you probably already have a good degree of knowledge about the problem. However, if you want to be creative, you have to be open to always acquiring more knowledge.

2) The second stage is incubation. 

So you’ve identified the problem and acquired a lot of information, so what now? This is when you take a step back to allow your mind to process this information and let the unconscious mind get to work. This is when you take a break and go do something unrelated. Go to the gym, make a new recipe for dinner, or work on a different problem that’s unrelated.

The reason you do this is because the conscious mind tries to solve problems in a linear and logical manner. However, when we hit a wall and are struggling to produce anything meaningful, it’s best to let the unconscious mind take over for a bit as it can develop unexpected combinations and patterns that can help us come up with a creative solution.

This might seem contradictory to what I said in my previous post about how creativity is not just about waiting for an ‘aha’ moment, however, it’s not. This stage is only effective if you do conscious and hard work during the preparation phase. Your unconscious mind will only come up with creative solutions if you create the right mental conditions and feed it enough information to put unexpected combinations together.

So, why or how does incubation work? How does it eventually lead to a possible ‘aha’ or ‘Eureka’ moment? One theory is that even though you’re not focusing on the problem consciously, your unconscious mind is still working hard to solve it. Another theory is that your mind is exhausted, and during the incubation period, you’re giving your mind the rest it needs so that it can relax and recover. A third theory states that when you’re stuck on a problem, your mind is fixating on the wrong solution. By incubating and doing something else, your mind becomes less attached to the wrong solution and may even forget about the wrong solution. I could spend an entire blog post talking about the different theories that are out there for why incubation works, but the important thing to know is that it works. Incubation is most effective when you focus on a task that is completely unrelated to the problem you’re trying to solve.

3) The third stage is the ‘Aha!’ moment. 

Did you ever have that moment when you can’t find something, such as your keys, and you give up? Then you do something completely unrelated and, randomly, you remember where they were? That is a classic ‘aha’ moment. It is when you have that seemingly random insight that everyone glorifies. Of course, as I said, what we rarely see is the continued effort that occurs before (and after) this moment. Also, when you retrospectively look back, you’ll often find that the insight you had is not random but actually quite connected and rational. It just may have occurred at a random time. Nevertheless, this is an important moment.

What happens though if you do not have that ‘aha’ moment? Do you just keep waiting in that incubation period until something comes up? Well, no. If you do not have an ‘aha’ moment, you can always revisit the problem and see if a fresher mind allows you to solve it, or at least get closer to solving it. You can always go back to stage one and acquire more information. Sometimes the lack of a Eureka moment is insufficient knowledge. Regardless of whether you have that moment or not, however, make sure that you do not just keep on waiting. It is okay to occasionally take extended breaks from your problems, particularly if they are complex, but do revisit them and keep acquiring more information as needed.

4) The fourth stage is evaluation.

This is a very important step as it is deciding whether or not the insight you obtained from the ‘aha’ moment is worth pursuing. Not all insights or ideas you generate are good or useful. For example, you might decide that the solution to your low employee morale problem is to give everyone a raise, however, it turns out to be a poor solution because it is costly and the real problem is that management doesn’t appreciate their employees.

In this stage, you must evaluate the usefulness of your idea and decide whether or not it is worth pursuing. You might even find that you have a great idea, but it is not useful for this specific problem you are trying to solve. The evaluation stage, unlike stages 2 and 3, is fully conscious. To make the right decision, you must draw on the knowledge you acquired in stage one and possibly even acquire more knowledge to help you make your decision.

5) The fifth stage is Elaboration.

This is the hardest and the longest stage. This is where you must execute on your idea and transform your idea into reality. This is when you actually write the majority of your music composition or blog. This is when you implement your corrective action for low employee morale.

The important thing to note is that this is not just one large stage or process that occurs only after the first four stages are completed. In this process, you will often revert back to periods of preparation, incubation, and evaluation. Throughout this process, you will also continue to have small epiphanies that guide your work. Based on the vastness of the problem you are trying to solve, you will go through many iterations and need many insights to solve the problem you are trying to solve. Some problems may be solved in a few hours whereas others can take years.

Final words…

If there’s one takeaway that you take from this blog post and my previous post, I hope it is that creativity is about conscious and hard work. I cannot stress this enough. It is about taking action and putting in a ton of effort. There are no shortcuts. There are moments of idleness and distractions involved, but those should be strategically implemented as a way to maximize your efforts. When you try to tackle your next problem or when you pursue your next creative endeavor, I’d encourage you to see how these stages play into your creative process.

In future posts, I will discuss more on how we can enhance our personal creativity and how we can increase creativity in organizations.

Creativity requires creation

Creativity has become a popular term that we toss around when things are not going so well for us. In our personal lives, we say we’re just lacking that creative inspiration or that brilliant idea that is keeping us from publishing that book we’ve always dreamt about. At work, employers say that their organizations are not thriving because their employees lack creativity. Generally, when we think about creativity, we think about the ability to spontaneously come up with an original and transformative idea. However, that’s not creativity. That’s dumb luck. Creativity is something that requires a significant amount of time and effort. As Scott Berkun states in his book, to be creative, you must create!

The truth is that we have been fed this faulty perspective on creativity and act as if creativity is about inspiration or having some sort of revelation that allows you to produce something valuable overnight. Or perhaps it is a gene that only famous artists, musicians, or great thinkers possess. Unfortunately, when we think like this, it actually cripples our creativity because it encourages us to wait until we are inspired or have an ‘aha’ moment, and it dissuades us from taking action and putting in the effort required to come up with something creative.

So if this is not creativity, then what is it and how does one become creative?

Creativity Facts:

To provide a more thorough analysis of creativity, I extracted some ideas from Keith Sawyer’s book, Explaining Creativity.

  1. Creativity should not be viewed as a talent or trait, but instead should be viewed as an action. The root word of creativity is ‘create’ and to be creative, or come up with something creative, you must create something. If you want to be creative, then create.
  2. Creativity is not random insights that you have, but instead, is mostly conscious hard work. Most creative people usually go through draft and draft and failure after failure until they come up with something valuable. Everyone has ‘aha’ moments, but there’s a lot that needs to happen before and after that moment create something of real value. If you want to be creative, then work hard and don’t be afraid to fail.
  3. Creativity is more likely to occur when you are an expert in your domain. Many people think that an ‘outsider’ is more likely to come up with a creative idea because they can bring a fresh perspective. However, in reality, an individual that is an expert in their domain is more likely to come up with a creative idea. This is because they have a vast body of knowledge in their domain and can form new patterns and combinations using that knowledge.  If you want to be creative, become an expert in your domain.
  4. Creativity can be collaborative. Most people have this assumption that to be creative, you need to be isolated from the rest of the world and focused on just one thing. While it is true that you’ll need times of isolation to create, collaboration is a great way to learn from others and gain new insights. If you want to be creative, share thoughts with others. 
  5. To become more creative, learn more about your domain, develop a strong work ethic, learn how to select and invest in good ideas as opposed to bad ones, and practice connecting already existing ideas together. 

What I have presented is a quick summary of what is creativity and what it is not. In future posts, I will discuss the different stages of the creative process, how we can enhance our personal creativity, and what we can do from an organizational level to increase creative output in the workplace.


Do you really want it?

I often hear people say they have certain goals they want to accomplish, and yet their behaviors say otherwise. For example, you say you want that promotion, yet you continue to arrive to work late and take extended lunch breaks. You say you want to become a lawyer, yet you are hanging out with your friends two days before a big exam. For those of you whose actions don’t agree with your goals, my question to you is this — do you really want it, do you kind of want it, or do you feel you’re supposed to want it?

I really want it.

I think there are very few things that we truly want. If we really wanted something, we would be willing to put up with the struggle and adversity associated with it. If I truly wanted to be healthy and get in shape, then I would go out for a run instead of watching TV. I would tolerate the soreness from exercise and eat blackberries instead of brownies because I am intrinsically driven and it means that much to me.

In economics, there is a term called opportunity cost which refers to the cost or sacrifice you make for choosing one option over another. When I choose blackberries over brownies, the opportunity cost would be the short-term enjoyment that I get from eating a brownie or a cookie. When you choose to work overtime, the opportunity cost would be everything else that you could be doing at that time (e.g., spending time with family or friends, exercising, watching TV).

When you really want something, you feel that the gain from pursuing that goal is greater than the opportunity cost associated with it. Alternatively, you may feel that the opportunity cost of not pursuing your goals is greater than the gain you would get from doing something else. It doesn’t matter how you look at it. At the end of the day, if you really want something, you’ll go out and try to make it happen.

I kind of want it.

I think a majority of people’s goals fall into this category. We kind of want it, but maybe not as much as we want other things. For example, I kind of want to be healthier, but honestly, I enjoy the comfort of my couch and TV more than I enjoy going out for a run. I’m also a foodie so I’d rather go for the brownies than the blackberries. I’d even rather work an extra hour or two at work than go out for a run. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you’re happy with just sitting on the couch rather than working out, then by all means, sit on the couch. Now here is when this becomes a problem:

  • You choose to sit on the couch and watch TV rather than going out for a run, but then you also complain that you’re not as healthy as you want to be. Every choice we make has consequences associated with it — both good and bad. If we want to be happy with the choices that we make in our life, we need to accept that this is just a fact
  • You do not even want to sit on the couch and watch TV, and at best, you feel indifferent when watching TV. However, you still would rather watch TV than go out for a run. When we are not 100% committed to a goal, we tend to procrastinate and do things that require less energy instead. The book, Finding Flow, introduces a concept called ‘activation energy’ which states that we require a certain amount of energy to start an activity. Activities that are easier in nature (e.g., watching TV) or activities that we really enjoy (e.g., sports, hanging out with friends) require less activation energy whereas activities that we do not enjoy as much (e.g., exercise) require more activation energy. Because we have only a finite amount of energy, we often will opt for activities that require less energy.

So, what can you do when you kind of want something but are not 100% committed?

  1. Just accept it. Like I said, if you’re happy watching TV instead of working out and do not mind being a little out of shape, then do it without any guilt. If you would rather read a book than go out with friends, that’s fine!
  2. Find a way to decrease the amount of activation energy required. You do not need as much activation energy when you are doing something you enjoy. For example, rather than going to the gym, I opt to play sports such as basketball and baseball because I enjoy them more. I forget I am exercising and focus on the competition and skills development aspect of it instead.
  3. Make things easier for yourself. This is similar to #2 as this also decreases activation energy. Identify the things that get in the way of where you want to be. Perhaps you’re not focused on studying because you can’t get off your phone. If that’s the case, give your friend your cellphone and make sure she doesn’t give it back to you for three hours.
  4.  Do some soul-searching. Why do you even kind of want it? Why do you care about it at all? What’s driving you? What is the cost of not doing it? Why do you want that promotion — is it because of the prestige, the salary, or personal satisfaction? Whatever it is that even partially drives you, fixate on that part. If that is not a strong enough motivator, I would recommend reconsidering what you truly want.
  5. Reset your expectations. Everyone would love a mansion and three fancy cars, but not everyone is willing to put in 80 hour work weeks for 30 years to get it. If you want that mansion so bad, then put in the 80 hours a week and you will likely get it someday. However, if you want to have a nice work-life balance, live a family-oriented life, and work only 30 hours a week, then you might need to reset your expectations on that mansion. What is the opportunity cost of striving for that mansion?

I feel I am supposed to want it.

Unfortunately, a lot of people’s goals also fall into this category. You have these goals in mind that you think are yours, but they’re actually driven by external factors. For example, when you’re young, you are told by your parents that you need to become an engineer so that you can make a lot of money and live a lavish lifestyle. If you truly feel that way, great! Good for you. The problem is that many people do end up becoming engineers, making a lot of money, and living a lavish lifestyle, but that’s not what they really want. Alternatively, they keep trying and trying to become a successful engineer, but are unable to do it because their heart is not in it.

Just think of it, of how many of our goals and ambitions are driven by what other people tell us is appropriate and okay. So many people are miserable because they feel obligated to strive for things they don’t even care for. Here’s a simple tip that can make a big difference – if someone wants you to do something for yourself, but you do not want to do it, don’t do it. Think of how many people have a negative self-image of themselves because they are told to look a certain way. Think of how many people are pursuing careers they do not even like because they were told that is the only way to not end up on the street. My question to you is this – why? If you do not want to do something, and you are willing to accept the potential consequences that come from not doing it, then why are you putting pressure on yourself to do it?

As Gary Vaynerchuk often says, there is this negative stigma associated with grown adults living in their parents’ home. People are afraid of what their friends or high school buddies might think of it. Because of the fear of what other people might say, these people end up working at jobs they dislike or continue to live in debt rather than moving back home for a few years with their parents who they love. Stop caring about what other people think. We have enough clarity and motivation issues on our own. We do not need to also worry about others and what they think about the choices that we make or don’t make.

Final words…

As I said, there are very few things that we truly want. However, there are many things that we kind of want, or things we think we should want. For the goals you are truly passionate about, I believe you will put in the effort and work to achieve those goals. For the goals that you kind of want, I think it comes down to reducing external barriers, finding ways to increase intrinsic motivation, and doing a cost-benefit analysis on whether or not it is worth pursuing that goal. With goals that are driven by others – just tune them out.










The Snail’s way to Personal Development

Rapid personal development does not work.

Drastic changes to your current lifestyle are rarely the solution to achieving your long-term goals. The primary issue with drastic issues is that you’re relying on motivation to succeed. The problem is that motivation is limited. It runs out. Once it runs out, you regress to the same habits that you have been doing for the greater part of your life.

Why do new years resolutions fail? Because you have not worked out in six months and yet have made a goal to work out 45 minutes a day for 6 days a weeks. Why do you fail to get up at 5 am every morning? Because you have never established a disciplined sleep routine in the past.

When it comes to personal development that actually works, development that is more than just temporary, we need to accept that we do not have the discipline and willpower to make such sudden changes over a short period of time. Just think about it. If I have eaten burger and fries (or something similar) every day for the past three years for lunch, how can I all of a sudden convince myself to eat a substance-less salad? Not only will my mind rebel, but my body will too!

Slow personal development does.

In my opinion, the true solution to achieving your personal goals is what I like to call the snail’s way to personal development. Make very calculated and slow changes to your routine that seem almost non-existent, and then, incrementally increase the intensity of that change over time. For this to work, you need to be patient. Extremely patient. However, with this method, if you can just keep at it and continue to stay patient, you will start to see results and form habits that actually stick. As James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits says, “From today onward, if you aim to be just 1% better than you were yesterday, then in just one year, you will be 37 times better than you are today.”

The reason slow development works is because the changes you make are so small that they do not seem very different than what you have been doing your entire life. They require very little energy and motivation to complete, and the consequences that result from deviating from your normal routine (e.g., cravings, withdrawal, physical pain) are less severe. Below are a few examples from my own life that illustrate how this works:

  1. Goal: Reduce my caffeine intake and break my caffeine addiction. I usually drink about 2 cups (10 oz per cup) of coffee per day. If I were to quit immediately, I would experience major withdrawal symptoms that would severely inhibit me from being productive at work. Therefore, I really cannot do that. Nor do I want to. Instead, I have been slowly and slowly reducing my caffeine intake every month. In the morning, I still drink 10 oz of coffee. However, in the afternoon, I now drink just 8 oz of coffee. Honestly, my body can’t even tell that I have reduced my caffeine intake, and yet I am having 10% less caffeine than usual. I do this for a month (drinking 18 oz instead of 20), and after, I reduce the coffee consumption by 2 more ounces. I repeat this process for 10 months, and before you know it, I am entirely free of my caffeine addiction. Very strategic, very slow, and yet very effective.
  2. Goal: Start a consistent meditation routineThis slightly differs than the caffeine goal as I am trying to add a positive habit as opposed to getting rid of a bad habit. Nevertheless, the concept for incorporating a positive habit is the same. The first thing I do is block off time on my calendar to start meditating (I block off 30 minutes on my calendar in the morning since my end-goal is to meditate 30 minutes a day). This is my eventual meditation time, and therefore, I need to make sure that I do not fill this time, on any day, with any other commitment. I start off by meditating just 3 minutes a day. After a week, I increase the amount of meditation to 4 minutes a day. After another week, increase it to 5 minutes. Keep doing this until I get to meditating 30 minutes a day. Again, 3 minutes does not seem like a lot. However, in about half a year, that will turn into 30 minutes.

When taking the snail’s way to personal development, it is important to make sure you have an end goal in mind and then just break the end goal down into small pieces. Start very small. It’s very important for the goals to be process-driven and things that you can control. For example, don’t set a goal to lose an X number of pounds. Instead, set goals that target positive habits that will eventually lead to the reduction of weight. Also, be patient. This is not one of those processes where you get instant gratification. You don’t. It is easy to quit when you feel like it is taking forever to reach your goals, however, be patient. Keep your end goal in mind and remember that you will get there.

What I have presented to you is a basic and simple summary of a very powerful concept. Of course, you may encounter some hiccups along the way. In those situations, it is important to recalibrate your goals as needed. In a future post, I will discuss common struggles that you might face along the process and things that you can do to stay on course and continue to develop.