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Creativity in Lockdown

Simple tips for staying inspired in quarantine and beyond

In Albert Camus’ The Plague, the journalist Rembert, cuing up the same record for the tenth time that day, declares he’s discovered the secret of the plague: “it means the same thing over and over and over again.” Two months into our own, nonfictional pandemic, we might think this sounds about right. Our lives feel shrunken, time flattened; Monday feels a lot like Saturday. As the panic recedes and the waiting sets in, the defining feature of life in lockdown might just be its monotony.

If you’re feeling unmotivated lately—despite the internet’s nagging reminders of historical plague productivity—know you’re not alone. Creativity is linked to novelty, and while the pandemic is certainly unprecedented in our lifetime, the day-to-day experience of it is, for many, strikingly mundane. The good news is that there are simple things we can do to stay inspired during this long, strange holding period that actually don’t require lots of free time—so even if you’re feeling busier than ever, you can still work them into your day.

Get curious. Research has shown that openness to new experiences is one of the key indicators of creative potential, to the point that psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and writer Carolyn Gregoire call it “the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement.” Novelty-seekers, even more than those with high IQs, tend to be intellectually adventurous—more imaginative, reflective, and willing to engage new and potentially out-there ideas, as well as more tolerant of change, complexity, and ambiguity.

The good news is that, while there’s a dispositional component to openness—you might recognize it as one of the big five personality traits—research has shown that it’s not a fixed capacity but one that can be cultivated, and in small ways (no naked sky diving required). In one study, just thinking about the benefits of new experiences increased participants’ divergent thinking—thinking in terms of possibilities instead of known outcomes—suggesting that openness, and therefore creative capacity, is at least to some extent under our intentional control. The key, say Kaufman and Gregoire, is to cultivate the right kind of attitude toward novelty, “finding reward in seeking its positive potential.”

Of course, the limitations of lockdown mean we must find new ways to expose ourselves to new experiences—gone, or at least on hold, are the days of wandering through a museum for inspiration. Many arts institutions have gotten creative about showing work online, and schools of all types have been offering free courses. But cultivating openness needn’t be a structured activity—it can be easy as taking a walk and really paying attention to the world, noticing what strikes us, reflecting on sensations, emotions, and the things that prompt them. As we see below, just letting our minds wander and play is a powerful driver of creativity.

Embrace boredom. We’re all familiar with the restless, searching feeling that tugs at us when we’re understimulated. As philosopher William James put it, “It comes about whenever, from the relative emptiness of content of a tract of time, we grow attentive to the passage of the time itself.” Psychologists call this “state boredom”—as opposed to a more generalized feeling of meaninglessness or world-weariness—and the lockdown presents endless opportunities for it, from hour-long lines at the grocery store to cancelled travel to the vague sense of waiting that now pervades daily life.

While boredom might seem a trivial form of suffering compared to the more serious perils of the pandemic, it’s a source of deep discomfort that, when prolonged, is linked to depression, risk-seeking, and substance abuse. A number of studies have shown that people will self-administer electric shocks to break up monotony when they’re bored enough, suggesting that we prefer even negative sensations to the feeling of “bare time,” as James called it. But research has also shown that boredom, when well-channelled, can have positive outcomes, including increased creativity. In several studies, participants who engaged in a boring task performed better on a subsequent idea-generating task than their peers who weren’t bored, and other research found that mind-wandering predicted performance in a later creative task more than reading ability or fluid intelligence.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell called this good kind of ennui “fructifying boredom” (as opposed to “stultifying boredom”), and brain imaging studies seem to support claims of its positive potential: mind-wandering and inward reflection appear to engage the default network of the brain, which is linked to creativity. It’s why we often have good ideas in the shower when we’re less able to self-distract with technology. In short, the absence of external demands on our attention compels us to look inward for stimulation, and this is when we’re able to do some of our best thinking.

The challenge, then, is to learn to sit with our boredom—to resist the temptation to stamp it out with easy sources of distraction, like noodling on our phones, and instead recognize it as an opportunity to visit with our inner selves. Like openness, it’s a habit that can be cultivated in small moments: it’s as simple (and as difficult!) as not reaching for our phones when we’re waiting in line, taking a walk without podcasts or music, or folding laundry without the TV on.

Find a new routine. At the beginning of quarantine, the suspension of everyday obligations felt liberating, like living in an extended weekend. But as days turned to weeks, the lack of any externally imposed structure became disorienting; for many people, a feeling of malaise set in. We went from celebrating the end of the office to missing our daily commutes.

While we often think that meaning is found in breaking triumphantly free from mindless routine, studies show that structure is generally empowering rather than oppressive: it gives a sense of agency and control, protects well-being, and actually seems to add to our sense of meaning in life. It’s no wonder, then, that disruptions to our established schedule, rather than feeling liberating, often leave us with a vague sense of anxiety. Routines are useful: without them, every little thing, from when to get up to what to have for lunch, takes on the gravity and emotional energy expenditure of a choice.

Having a daily routine that automates these small decisions allows for greater self-discipline and focus, which is why super productive people are often known for their strict regimens. But there’s no need to reproduce Hemingway’s early rise or Steven King’s daily word quota—the power of routine lies not so much in its details but in its regularity. Carving out time for creative work every day enhances productivity by keeping ideas humming in the background of our conscious thought; science seems to confirm the anecdotal “incubation period” reported by famous creatives who found that their best ideas surfaced from “the deep well of unconscious cerebration,” as Henry James called it—after periods of subconscious development. This can be as easy as writing in a journal or doodling for 15 minutes a day—the key is to have a practice, which means doing the work in a habitual way. As Gretchen Rubin writes, “When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.”

Go easy on yourself. The collapse of our ordinary routines and obligations can create the illusion of boundless possibility—and corresponding anxiety that we’re not doing enough with our newly relaxed schedules. Keep in mind that your main mission is to get through this with your mental and physical health intact. Don’t sacrifice self-care for hyper-productivity—do what makes you feel good.

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