the creative process

Can Quarantine Boost Your Creativity?

One of the most frequent questions I see on Quora is how to be more creative, or how to have more ideas, or how authors and artists generate their ideas.

My stock advice has always been to get bored. My famous ten-step creative process begins with it.

I recommend it because it works for me. My brain-monkey absolutely cannot sit still for more than a few minutes before it starts screeching and flinging the stinky, sticky poop of boredom to fertilize my idea garden.

Quarantine is an Aegean stable of boredom. Boredom is stacked to the ceiling. You’d need two rivers to clear out all the boredom. If there were ever a time grow some first-class ideas from a pile of boredom manure, now is that time.

But just because I think something is a good idea – and even recommend it on Quora! – is no proof it’s actually a good idea. I can’t be trusted for advice on what to do in quarantine. I cut my own bangs last week.

So I did a little Googling. Here’s what to know about boredom and creativity.

quarantine creativity

The human brain needs boredom to function optimally.

Boredom may not feel pleasant, but it’s essential for proper brain function. Engaging with external stimuli, without a break, can result in cognitive overload, which has a negative effect on memory, mood, and executive function (the ability to plan, predict, and execute your own daily tasks), say Erin Walsh and David Walsh in an article for Psychology Today.

Many people think that creativity is their personal dump stat, only to surprise themselves with their ability to generate ideas under the right conditions. A lack of creativity may actually be a lack of available brain power – because it’s all being spent on staying busy.

You can be “productive” while you’re bored.

One of the reasons boredom has fallen by the wayside in so many lives is that, culturally, we in the US prize being busy. We’re skeptical of anyone who has the time to get bored. We associate happiness with productivity, so we strive to be productive, or at least occupied. Staying busy has even become an American status symbol, according to one study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The drive to stay busy – whether for status, to make ends meet, to avoid dealing with other psychological issues, or as an end in itself – can become so overwhelming that it causes serious health problems. It can also be an extremely difficult habit to break.

Even if you’re not in a workaholic frame of mind, you may find it difficult to sit alone with your thoughts. If so, you’re not alone. In one 2014 study, researchers gave participants the choice of sitting alone with their thoughts for six to 15 minutes, or enduring a mild electric shock. Many of the participants chose the electric shock.

“Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative,” the researchers wrote.

Fortunately, you don’t have to flip the switch from “constantly busy” to “doing nothing.”

In a 2014 study in the Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman asked participants to generate possible uses for a pair of plastic cups. Participants were divided into three groups. One group was simply asked to think about the cups question. The second group was first asked to copy numbers from the telephone book, then asked about the cups. The third group was asked to read the phone book, then asked about the cups.

The participants in the third group – reading the phone book – outperformed those in the second group, who in turn outperformed the first group. By experiencing boredom, the participants’ minds seemed to become more eager for a way out, generating ideas more readily as a result.

Undemanding tasks like taking a shower or going for a walk can help incubate more creative solutions to problems. These tasks can convince your inner critic that you’re “doing something productive,” allowing your mind to wander more freely and creatively.

You are doing something productive when you embrace idleness. Your brain may just take a little convincing.

Too much boredom, however, is a bad thing.

Some boredom – enough to give your brain the “elbow room” it needs to daydream – can boost creativity. Chronic, unrelieved boredom, however, is linked to a number of health problems, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, as well as to a propensity to crave high-fat, high-sugar foods. It may even be linked to an increased risk of premature death, particularly when combined with other factors like a sedentary lifestyle.

Often, this type of boredom isn’t linked to a lack of things to do, but the feeling that what needs to be done lacks meaning or purpose. Unlike the “approach” state boredom that engenders creative thinking, chronic boredom becomes an “avoidance” state that has a negative impact on innovation.

What boredom does for you might depend on who you are.

While many studies have found that boredom has a creativity-boosting effect generally, not everyone appears to respond in the same way to boredom.

In a 2019 study in the Academy of Management Discoveries, researchers Guihyun Park, Beng-Chong Lim and Hui Si Oh studied the effects of boredom in the workplace.

The researchers found that “boredom did not universally increase creativity for a product development task.” That is, not all the participants saw creativity-boosting benefits from being placed in a state of boredom.

Rather, the participants whose creativity benefited most from boredom all shared a set of common traits. They were more likely than their peers to have a high learning goal orientation, a high need for cognition, high openness to experience, and a high internal locus of control.

In other words, people may be more likely to find that boredom helps them generate ideas if they’re already active learners, curious about the world, and inclined to seek solutions within themselves.

Boredom isn’t the only emotional state that boosts creativity.

While some boredom can be productive, boredom isn’t the only emotional state that can help you generate ideas.

In a May 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers Karen Gasper and Brianna L. Middlewood found that when people felt either bored or elated, they produced more creative mental associations than when they were distressed or relaxed.

What’s interesting about these results is that both elation and boredom are classified as “approach” states, or states in which the person is ready to engage with something. By contrast, distress and relaxation are “avoidance” states, or states in which the person retreats from engagement. It appears that we’re more likely to think of something new when we’re already in the mood to engage.

If there seems to be no room in your head for anything except the concerns of the day, it may be time to take ten minutes and let your mind wander. If even the concerns of the day can’t seem to concern you, however, the problem may be too much boredom – or your brain telling you that you’re on the wrong path.


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commentary and current events, the creative process

Aabie: A Text-Based Game for Entertaining Kids (and Adults) At a Distance

I teach, so I know how much work it is to keep kids both entertained and learning. It’s even harder during the COVID-19 era, where public health also demands we keep our space from one another.

I hesitate to set up face to face events, but I also feel for kids, especially my nieces and nephew. With schools closed in our state as of last Friday, I know they’ll be climbing the walls in short order, – if they aren’t already.

So I started thinking of ways to play with them without either of us having to leave home. And Aabie was born.

game

Aabie is a trivia game that can be played over text, messaging apps, social media or even email. It can be adapted for players of any age, though I recommend a minimum age of “has started spontaneously sharing interesting facts they know.”

Because it was inspired by my eldest niece, I also named it after her. Specifically, “Aabie” is named after her initials: AAB.

Here’s how to play.

You Will Need

  • At least two players
  • A means of messaging for each player: Smartphone, access to email, etc.
  • Internet connection (optional but recommended; see “challenges” below)

Taking Turns

A turn begins when one player gives another player a Topic. Topics can be just about anything, but do try to choose a Topic the second player is likely to know something about – at least at first. For instance, I might text my 11 year old niece the Topic “Butterflies.”

On hearing the Topic, the second player responds with three facts they know about it. For instance, my niece might reply with:

  1. Butterflies drink nectar from flowers.
  2. They grow from caterpillars.
  3. Butterflies love rock music.

The responding player gets one point for every fact they provide that is in fact a true fact.

The responding player then gets to announce a Topic to the first player. If more than two people are playing, set up a round-robin so that Player 2 then gives a Topic to Player 3 and so on.

Play continues indefinitely or until we can all return to our usual lives.

Challenges

If the first player (the one who provided the Topic) thinks one or more of the responding player’s “facts” are suspect, the first player can say “Challenge,” followed by the number of the challenged fact.

In this example, I might reply to my niece with “Challenge #3.”

To get the point for that fact, my niece will have to provide some evidence that the fact is true. For instance, she might send me a photo of a page from her science textbook, showing the results of a study on butterfly music preferences. She might send me a link to an article. And so on.

If the responding player can back up the challenged fact with evidence, they keep the point for that fact. If they can’t, the player who challenged them gets the point.

Disputes over the veracity of sources are settled by a discussion of what makes a trustworthy source in the particular Topic area. If the dispute cannot be settled, neither party gets the point.

Sample Rule Adaptations

Some options for adapting the rules in order to accommodate younger players, encourage further learning, and so on:

  • Allow research. Open up the list of available Topics and encourage curiosity by allowing players to research three facts about any topic they don’t already know three facts about. For instance, I would definitely allow research if I’d decided to ask my 11-year-old niece for three facts about the Federal Reserve.
  • Simplify points (or play without them). You can do one point per turn instead of one point per fact for easier scorekeeping. Or simply play without points.
  • Set a timer, or ignore time altogether. For synchronous play, requiring players to answer within a set time can raise the stakes. Or ignore time entirely, text out a Topic at 2 am and get a response a week later. It’s up to you and your opponent(s)!
  • Free for all. Instead of a round-robin setup with 3+ players, let anyone give anyone else a Topic at any time.
  • The “don’t be a d*ck” rule. Sure, it’s fun to nail your nerdy adult friends to the wall over typos like “martial” vs “marital,” but if you’re going to do that, make it clear that’s an element of the game from the start. Don’t do it to anyone who would ordinarily be in a K-12 classroom right now; the point of this game is to keep those players interested and learning new things, not to destroy their curiosity and joy. Don’t be a d*ck.

Feel free to adapt the rules as needed for whoever you’re playing this game with. Remember: the goal is to keep players interested, talking to one another, and having fun. If it’s not fun, it’s time to take a break.

Oh, and please wash your hands.


If Aabie helps you stave off cabin fever, feel free to buy me a coffee of thanks. And please share this post on social media!

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commentary and current events

How to Practice Social Distancing Without Losing Your Mind

“Social distancing” is a way of life for me. My parents’ fondest dream was to move as far away from other people as they could reasonably get without sacrificing my education, their careers, or family relationships. I’m as introverted as they are, and for many years I dealt with health issues that kept me in my house for several weeks at a time.

So with the WHO and CDC recommending that we all keep our distance from one another as a way to control the spread of COVID-19 (here’s why that’s important), I’d like to share some of my tips for living a life of solitude in the midst of one’s fellow humans.

how to social distancing

Consolidate Your Errands

When I was a kid, my mother and I did all of the week’s errands in a single day. Typically, that day was Saturday, and the errands included the grocery store, general store, butcher and laundromat – but if one of us had a doctor’s appointment or similar errand during the week, all the other errands got done that day as well.

During the years I was stuck at home for medical reasons, I consolidated my errands to one or two trips a month, usually coinciding with my doctor’s visits.

Consolidating errands may require you to rethink how you get things done:

  • Consider an average week. How many times do you leave the house? Where do you go when you do?
  • Target multiple trips to the same location. If you’re buying produce three times a week, for instance, consolidate all of those into one trip (see the next point for tips on how).
  • Group errands together when they’re located close to one another or when you can map an efficient route from your house, through each location, and back. For instance, my childhood grocery-meat-laundry-general store run was done in that order because that order formed a convenient little loop through the neighborhood. The gas station is in the grocery store’s parking lot, so it often became part of the loop as well.

For COVID-19 purposes, consider keeping hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and a trash bag (to collect used wipes) in your car as well. This way, you’ll be able to clean up and/or wipe items down between errands, which can help you avoid carrying germs from place to place.

Plan Ahead and Buy In Bulk

Planning and bulk buying are essential to a good social distancing program. My family used to order through a multi-family food co-op, which meant that most of our groceries came by the case, once a month. I grew up assuming flour came in fifty-pound bags and that soymilk could only be purchased a dozen at a time.

We also grew a great deal of our own food. In summer, produce came from our garden, supplemented by a once a week trip to the local farmer’s market for items we either didn’t grow or didn’t grow in bulk (like peaches, which we bought and canned). In winter, we’d make a once a week produce run – but if the weather got bad enough to prevent it, we could go for a month or more on canned and frozen produce and other staples.

To cut your grocery shopping down to once a week or less:

  • Identify your “must-have” foods. These are the things you either use in a lot of cooking, or that help you feel food-secure. For us, garlic, carrots, and rice are “must-haves” because they feature in a lot of the dishes we make. Peanut butter is a “must-have” because I feel safer knowing we have it – it’s a cheap source of protein, but it’s also a psychological support for me.
  • Consider the meals you make most often. Which ingredients do they have in common? These are your targets for bulk purchases. Aim to have at least one item in every major food group (grains, proteins, fruits, veggies, herbs/spices, and fats/oils) that commonly appears in your cooking and that you can stock in bulk. You may not always have exactly what you want to eat that day, but you’ll likely have the ingredients to make something palatable.
  • Explore shelf-stable replacements for certain ingredients. Currently, the grocery store at the end of my street has almost no canned beans – but the shelves of dry beans are fully stocked. Why? Dry beans are cheaper. They’re more shelf-stable. They last longer, and you’re not paying for the extra water used in packing. Reach for the more shelf-stable options when you can.
  • Buy extras only of things you’ll use before they expire. Here’s where choosing the most shelf-stable version is your friend: The longer it lasts, the more likely you are to use it before it expires. Things you won’t use before they expire are a waste of money.
  • Take advantage of the weather. In many parts of the U.S., it’s still cool enough to store things like apples and potatoes in spaces like the garage or back porch. They’ll keep longer without wasting refrigerator space.
  • Repeat this process for other commonly-used items, like cleaning products, pads/tampons, toilet paper, and so on. My “staple-buy” list, for instance, includes one-subject notebooks because I write prolifically.

For me, the central foods have always been rice, potatoes, garlic, onion, carrots, broccoli, apples, navy beans, peanut butter, vinegar, basil, rosemary, and olive oil. If I have these things in my house, I know I can eat appealing, balanced meals with very little work. Work up a similar list of your own, using the foods that appear most often in your own cooking, and find ways to buy at least two weeks’ worth of them at a time.

Make Yourself an At-Home Workspace

If you’re working from home, an at-home workspace is a must. But it’s also important even if you’re not bringing your job into your house.

Once you’re stocked up on essentials, you’re ready to stay in the house for longer periods of time. Here’s the next challenge: If you’re not used to staying home, how do you do it without feeling trapped?

At-home social distancing time is the ideal time to tackle projects you’re curious about or have been meaning to get to, and it starts with having a workspace for these projects.

Set aside some area in your house to work on the thing you’ve always wanted to get to. Cover your dining table with a 5000-piece puzzle. Put a card table in the basement and stack all your cheese-making tools onto it. Park your laptop beside your favorite chair so you can work on that novel you’ve always wanted to write.

The goal is to have your project where you can easily reach it. This way, it’ll be on hand to occupy your time, and you won’t face the exhaustion of pulling out all your materials every single time you want to work on it.

My Space Is Too Small!

Not only were my parents big on introverted social distancing when I was a kid, but we also lived in a very small house – less than 750 square feet for three people. My own bedroom was 6 feet by 9 feet. There was barely space for my bed and clothes, let alone for big, sprawling projects.

In this case, your “workspace” may need to be a box or basket that holds your stuff. If you’ve decided to try watercolor painting, for instance, keep your paints, brushes, palettes and so on in a box near the space you’ll actually use when you’re painting (such as your kitchen table). It’s not quite the same as being able to spread out entirely, but it does keep your tools in your line of sight and make them easier to access when it’s time to amuse yourself.

Even in a very small space, you can find ways to divide your activities and locations to feel as if you’re actually transitioning from one to the other. In my 6 foot by 9 foot childhood bedroom, for instance, I used to do my reading and homework while sitting at the foot of my bed. This was enough to trick my brain into thinking that my reading-and-homework space was somehow different from my going-to-sleep space, even though they were literally two ends of the same twin bed.

Social Media Is Your Frenemy

Social media is a double-edged sword when you’re sequestered from the rest of meatspace.

On the one hand, social media is vital. It keeps you connected with friends, family and co-workers. You can share information, update everyone on how your life is going, and communicate with others who might need help.

We have more options for communicating with others – without sharing germs – than we have ever had in the history of humanity. Using them will help us maintain the sense of connection we’ll need to take care of ourselves and one another. Definitely use social media for this purpose.

But, at the same time, pay attention to how you’re using it.

The flip side of social media, when you’re stuck in your house for weeks at a time, is that it can suck you in. During my convalescence I would scroll Facebook and Twitter for hours at a time – a situation that turned out to be terrible for my mental health.

In COVID-19 world, there’s a fine line between “connecting with your loved ones” and “getting totally overwhelmed by all the virus-related news.” Use social media mindfully and proactively. Log on with the express purpose of updating your social circles or checking in on them.

Then, log off. Go take a nap, make a healthy meal, do some push-ups, play with your dog, talk to your family, work on a hobby, read a book or play a video game. Maintain balance in order to maintain your mental and emotional health – which you need just as much as your physical health.

It’s “Social” Distancing, Not “World” Distancing

I’ve made several references to “being stuck at home,” but the fact is that for millions of Americans, social distancing doesn’t actually require us to stay in our house/apartment.

If you don’t live in a large city (or even if you do), you can still leave your house without increasing your risk of catching coronavirus, as long as you go places that have no or few other people. In rural areas, most forests, nature trails, and the like are likely to be pretty safe, as long as there aren’t a lot of people around.

With schools and businesses shutting down over the virus, a lot of urban public places will be eerily empty as well. Parks, college campuses and the like offer an opportunity to get out, go for a walk, and stave off cabin fever without ever getting close enough to another human being to risk transmission of a virus.

Again, pack along your hand sanitizer, and wash your hands thoroughly before you leave your house and when you return. If you run into other people, smile and wave from a distance. It’s more polite to shout “How are you?!” across a park than it is to give someone COVID-19 or get it from them.

This All Kind Of Sucks

Yes, it does. But it’s doable. I’ve lived large parts of my life without leaving my house or sharing physical space with a non-family member for a month or two at a time.

Even if you’re a major introvert, though, it’s hard on the mental health. That’s why having defined spaces and projects is so important – as is getting out of the house in a safe and healthy way when you can.

Take care of yourselves and each other. It’s how we beat this thing.


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