This is a guest contribution from Ellen Jackson of Potential Psychology.
Are you ready to rock a brilliant blog post? Do you want to write faster, think more creatively, just do it all better?
Writing is a thinking task. It requires creativity and problem solving. We need to process information, retrieve things from memory, read, develop ideas, research, plan and review. We’re considering the next word as we’re writing this one, and we’re managing our own thoughts and feelings about the process and results as we go. On top of all of this we’re typing or handwriting and probably flicking back and forth in different browsers and applications. Your brain is working hard here, people.
To get into the writing zone in which the ideas come easily, you’re not distracted by every little thing and the brilliance flows from brain to fingertips, it helps to provide your mind with the right setup. You need to give it the time, space and environment to work at its best.
Here are five tips from psychology to get you in the blogging zone.
1. Keep things quiet, but not too quiet.
Different people cope better with different levels of noise but we know from studies that if you want to get creative you need just the right amount of background sound.
If the ambient noise in your work space creeps up above about 85 decibels (about the sound of a large truck passing close by) your brain is too busy and distracted for fresh ideas and ‘a-ha’ moments. You can’t think creatively with that kind of sound.
If it’s too quiet though your brain doesn’t make it into the creativity zone. We need some sound to kick the brain into gear and get those ideas flowing. Too quiet and we tend to be distracted by our own thoughts.
The ideal ambient noise for creativity is around 70 decibels. That’s the sound of the shower running, the dishwasher humming or maybe a lawn mower out in the yard. A bit of background sound without it getting in your ear.
Different people will find different types of sound distracting. I’m writing this in a busy café surrounded by plenty of chatter and background noise. It’s perfect for me. My mind feels cocooned by the ambient noise and I can focus fully on my ideas.
Others might find the content of close conversation distracting and be better off with white noise like distant traffic, bird song or kids playing (as long as they’re not yours and on their way to disturb you).
Tip: If you’re trying to find the right noise type and level for you, play around with it. Think about when and where you’re at your creative best. What type of noise surrounds you? Turn the music up. Turn it down. Change rooms. Change locations. Try a white noise app. Experiment and find what works for you.
2. Get the timing right.
Every one of us operates on an internal body schedule known as circadian rhythm. These rhythms roughly follow a 24 hour cycle and they respond primarily to light and dark in our environment. Some of us function better in the morning and others work at our best in the evening and at night. (Not sure whether you’re a morning or night person? Try this questionnaire).
There’s some research that suggests that morning is the best time for creativity for everyone, regardless of whether you’re an early bird or a night owl. Your willpower is stronger in the morning (it’s a finite resource and may not stick with you all the way til an evening writing session) and the creative connections in the brain fire more readily in the early hours of the day, just after sleep.
If you want to get analytical, however – the type of thought required for editing – you can leave that til later in the day when those neurons have settled down and are ready for more methodical, structured thought.
Tip: Keep a journal of when your best ideas come to you (waterproof notepads do exist for the shower creatives). Do this for a week or more and look for patterns. Find ways to capture the ideas when they land. According to some research, morning people might get their best ideas at night and night owls in the morning. It’s something to do with the brain being better at creativity when it’s a little fuzzy.
Take note of your best times for editing and other blog tasks too. If you can plan your day around when your mind works best for each type of task you’ll improve your efficiency.
3. Engage in rituals.
Legend has it that Victor Hugo, to avoid procrastination and get down to writing, would strip off and instruct his valet to hide his clothes so that he couldn’t leave the house. This may or may not work for you depending on the availability of a valet but you may have other rituals that get you into the writing frame of mind.
Maybe you always use a particular pen and notebook, or you like to be seated by a window with a view of the street. You might work best after exercising or in your PJs. I get my writing mojo in my favourite café after a yoga class.
Rituals are important because they serve as ‘cognitive cues’, signals to the mind that a particular activity is about to take place and it needs to get into the zone. It creates an association between the steps you take as part of your ritual and a preparedness to knuckle down and get stuff done.
Tip: The key to creating a successful blogging ritual is consistency. You need to enact and repeat the same steps over and over to make it work. Some of you might write every day. Others will only write in a certain location. Your task is to create your writing ritual, put it into practice and repeat it again and again.
4. Ditch the phone.
As any practised procrastinator will tell you, distraction is the enemy of productivity. When you’re sitting at your desk ready to write there is no end to tiny tasks that loom up and demand your instant attention. Junk mail is fascinating. Desk items require rearranging. You may even be tempted to work on your taxes.
To write a brilliant blog post you need focus and attention. You need to train that brain on the task at hand and resist the urge to be distracted by the many little items tempting you, particularly the technology that goes ding and beep, calling you with a message, notification or email.
Cruelly, the part of your brain that you need most to focus your attention and do all of the complex thinking that writing entails (the pre-frontal cortex) is also the part of the brain that is most easily distracted. Your pre-frontal cortex loves a distraction, particularly if it’s offering something novel and entertaining. Cat videos come to mind.
Don’t think you can multi-task either. Every time you are distracted from your blogging task you lose focus and productivity. It takes longer and longer for the brain to switch back into work mode. Studies have shown that there is no such thing as muti-tasking as far as the brain is concerned. It can’t do two things at once. It can only switch quickly from one task to the other and this is inefficient and exhausting.
Tip: To increase your efficiency, remove as many distractions as you can from your work space. Switch the phone off or leave it in another room. Use only the apps or programs that you absolutely need to or set yourself up with a program like StayFocusd that locks you out of websites that you have nominated as time wasters.
To manage distracting thoughts or a busy brain trying paying attention to your attention. Acknowledge that your mind will wander and you will be distracted, particularly when your blogging task is challenging. When you notice yourself thinking about something other than the task at hand or looking around for distraction, remind yourself that it’s just a normal brain doing its thing and gently bring your attention back to where it’s meant to be. Now get back to work.
5. Find your flow.
There’s a psychological phenomenon called ‘flow.’ You might have heard of it. When you’re in flow (known also as ‘the zone’) you’re in an optimal state of consciousness for getting stuff done with the added bonus of feeling great. You’re not thinking, you’re just doing. Time disappears. Nothing distracts you and the quality of your output is unparalleled. When you’re in flow, you’re on fire.
The beauty of flow is that when we’re in it we lose self-consciousness and inhibition about what we’re doing. A segment of that pesky pre-frontal cortex deactivates and quietens our inner critic. We are free to be more creative, to think more expansively, to worry less about what we’re writing and whether it’s any good.
The experience of flow also causes of a whole avalanche of happy hormones and neurochemicals to release into the brain which further enhances our productivity and makes us feel good at the same time. It’s a great place to be.
Tip: To find your flow you need to get the balance of challenge and skill for the task just right. Challenging tasks increase the likelihood that you’ll drop into flow and stay there. If you’re not challenged, you get bored and boredom leads to distraction. If you’re too challenged and your skills aren’t up to the task, that’s when anxiety sets in and you can’t work effectively when you’re anxious.
Training your focus and attention when you’re blogging will also help. Avoiding those distractions and staying mindful and focused will improve your chances of getting into the flow state.
Finally, do what you love as much as you can. ‘Good work’ as it’s known by positive psychologists aligns our strengths, out interests, our values and our sense of meaning and purpose. It’s the kind of work that fully engages us. When you’re doing something you love you’re in the right zone for flow and you’ll be rocking those brilliant blog posts in no time.
Ellen Jackson from Potential Psychology is a workplace psychologist, blogger and author who specialises in well being, positive mental health and helping working parents to flourish.