Creative Forces: Focus

If you read this blog, you know that I talk a lot about creativity. Creativity and what enables it. Rather than some unknowable quantity or fixed biological trait, the ability to create arises from the interplay of so many dynamic factors. These factors can be nurtured and enhanced. Creativity is a skill, one that you can learn.

Everything changes your creative state. So far I’ve mentioned a few factors in particular. There’s energy – not a caffeine rush but a real, deep energy, one that keeps you moving even after the longest day. Whether you are running a marathon or doing the dishes after work, this energy draws you through the task. Motivation and willpower aren’t needed when energy makes everything so easy.

I feel it now. It’s a warm glow deep inside, one that keeps fuelling when nothing else will. I should feel tired but, really, I just feel excited to be writing. The heavy sensation on your torso that accompanies fatigue lifts as though it was never there at all. The left hand tingles and so does the right, subtly different yet equally ready for your commands.

Want to go for a jog right now? I’m up for it.

Then there’s the brain’s two operating modes. There’s the Diffuse Mode – intuitive, clever, relaxed. It’s the default operating state of the mind, daydreaming while there’s nothing important going on. Opposite that is the Focused Mode – powerful, dedicated, attentive. When you need it to, your mind hones in on what’s important and reduces distracting information. Thought processes tighten around the problem, still loose and flowing yet strong enough to encapsulate it.

When you become aware of it, you realise how powerful focus is. And, by contrast, how a relaxed mental approach can work around a problem that seemed insurmountable. Each is a genius at what it does best. Working together, they can move worlds and shape destinies.

Then there’s memory. How exactly it works is a mystery, but people are aware of the basics. Your mind is a whiteboard that is wiped clean minute by minute, with only a vague outline surviving. Of that, only a few of these cloudy impressions will outlive the day. Memory seems fickle and flawed, yet you can recall faces at a glance, the layout of your childhood home, the precise way you felt during your greatest triumphs.

It is from these memories, these stores of sensations and concepts, that new thoughts are crafted. You carry with you all the material you need to change everything. Memory is more than who you are – it is the garden from which every thought grows.

Each of these attributes is precious. To lose one would change your life forever. Your unique style bubbles from your mind, with these as your foundation. Luckily, they can be trained. A little bit of practice can build these skills and enhance your creativity… among other things. If you improve each of these even slightly, the flow-on effects will be incredible.

So, where do you start? There is no one answer to that. Out of your personal energy levels, your two modes of thinking and memory, pick whichever resonates the most with you. Listen to that deep instinct within and listen to which one feels the best.

But if you want my advice, I suggest that you start with the two modes. Why? A few simple exercises can lead to drastic and rapid results, and these results will enable the others down the track. It is easiest and packs a punch.

The good news is that you are already good enough at using the Diffuse Mode. I told you it was easy – you’re already about halfway there. The Diffuse Mode is your brain’s default thinking pattern. It shows up when you are bored or when you are doing something routine, like buying groceries at your local store.

There is one thing you can do to help it, though, and that’s put away the smartphone. Checking Facebook or reading articles seems like a harmless or even worthwhile use of your downtime. The thing is, your brain uses that downtime to process your acquired information, a vital part in everything from creative thinking to learning. Even skimming Twitter while zoned out is enough to hinder the Diffuse Mode. I’m not saying to throw your iPhone away – just think about including some genuine downtime in your day. Your mind will thank you.

But to really change the way you think, you need the Focused Mode. The Focused Mode, when wielded skilfully, is a special kind of magic. The world is full of information, more than any one brain can hope to keep up with. Our ancestors needed to sort out the relevant information from the meaningless distractions and this had to be automatic. As a result, our brains ignore most of the signals they receive from the body without us even noticing.

How it decides what information to keep is not completely understood but we’ve all felt its effects. Ever been walking down a street that you know well? The buildings sort of blend into the background. Unless something changed – maybe a neighbour painted their walls, for example – it barely registers on your conscious mind. Now imagine someone on this street. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice them staring at you. You’d notice it – your mind prioritises someone else’s attention as a possible threat. A snake moving on the footpath will similarly pierce the fog of details and imprint on your thoughts.

These are automatic filters, instincts designed to keep you alive in a dangerous world. Not all filters are inborn, though. What you choose to focus on is what your filters decide is important. If you think about money all day, you’ll notice people talking about it all the time. After a rough breakup, every song reminds you of them. If you focus on something, you take in more information about it. It becomes more real, at least from your perspective.

Focus tunes your filters, which dictates what information makes it to your mind. It really is that powerful. Fortunately, it is easy to practice applying it (it’s something your brain does naturally, after all). Think about the next time you’ll be travelling. Maybe it’s your morning drive, maybe you’re walking to the shops, maybe you’re on a bus or a bike. This is your chance to practice your focus.

Now, this part is easy. To practice focusing, simply become aware of your own breathing. This isn’t an intense concentration and you are not aiming to ignore the world around you. Simply notice the rhythm and depth of your breath as it goes in, then out. In, then out. Try this for a few breaths.

If your mind wanders, that’s fine. Simply reapply the focus to the breath. In… and out…. Then notice how your left hand feels. Is it warm, heavy, tingly? Then notice your right hand. Does it feel the same? Maybe it feels slightly different. How does your body feel? How pleasant does it feel and where does it feel relaxed? Is there any pain or tension?

After about a minute, let the mind wander back to the world. That’s focus, applied deliberately. Do this a few times a day and you’ll notice it becoming easier and your mind wandering less, both during these exercises and your normal activities.

Where you focus is what your thoughts prioritise. When you focus on the Focused Mode, the activity strengthens itself. Your mind learns that focus is important, which it is. Improvements to your day will come quickly if you undertake these exercises. Finding a minute or two to deliberately focus builds that skill like a muscle.

When in the Focused Mode, be deliberate with what and how you focus on. When in the Diffuse Mode, get into it properly by cutting away distractions. Follow these two guidelines and each mode will be a richer, more powerful experience. And that will help with the other skills and, ultimately, lead to your greatest creativity ever.

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