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.



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.