Andrew Wiles, the recent solver of the 350 year old mathematical mystery of Fermat’s last theorem said of his process: “You have to really think about nothing but that problem — just concentrate on it. Then you stop. Afterwards there seems to be a kind of period of relaxation during which the subconscious appears to take over, and it’s during that time that some new insight comes”.
Closer to home, it is known in the circles that D.E. Knuth, the famous author of the seminal work “The Art of Computer Programming”, has abandoned email since January 1, 1990 with the poetic words “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.”
Wiles and Knuth provide a glimpse of how they manage their creativity. These are great men and I am under no illusion of being in their class. However, in my own little world, I have to engage in the creative process as part of both my work and my interests. Hence a question often emerges in my mind these days — how can I allow creativity the attention and the time it deserves, on a regular, and ideally on a daily basis? Specifically, how many hours of time should I make myself engage in creative work, and during what portion of the day, and whether at one stretch or over multiple sessions? This question becomes more important over time with the increasing distractions of the modern work life such as email, blogs, twitter, meetings, interviews and so on.
Before we make headway, I need to define creativity, at least broadly. Because it is easier, I will define non-creative work instead — as any work that is reactive, any work that makes us a net consumer than a producer. By this definition, reading anything is non-creative. So is watching TV or consuming any information or facts. I want to put pretty much anything else in the creative category. Examples include thinking of new ideas, writing, even making a powerpoint presentation, writing a software program, deciding the goals of a team, etc.
I realize that problems can be trivially pointed out in this definition, as consumption and production are often intimately connected, but I don’t feel the need to explain myself more here. I can not believe that anyone believes that reading an unsolicited email is creative, or that thinking about a new way of doing what one needs to do is not. Further, my question probably doesn’t apply to some jobs by their very nature, but I have no particular interest here in getting to the general answer for all natures of work. Having said that, creativity seems applicable to me to a vast majority of works.
What is my purpose in asking this question? My own work requires a mix of creative and other work and certainly creativity needs the input of and interaction with external information to prosper. However, my goal is to maximize my creative output and tune my non-creative work to the level that only serves that goal. (There is also the very important role of relaxation, as Wiles has said above, but let’s ignore that for the time being).
I am doing my own research into this question, but am also quite interested in everyone’s opinion on this matter since I suspect several people wrestle with this problem in the modern era.