How do we CLEAR so we can CREATE?

March 23, 2011

Perhaps like me, you are constantly working to clear — your physical space, your head, your email inbox, your to-do list — so that you have an uncluttered springboard from which to leap creatively forward. I call it trying to get current. It’s hard to invent something new when you feel cluttered with unfinished business. It’s hard to drive if you haven’t scraped that ice off your windshield.

But while snow is less likely now here in the Chicago springtime, the digital distractions (or are they now requirements?) still beckon and I find myself creating less while engaging in the sisyphean pursuit of always trying to get current. Are you too waiting for your to-do list to be handled before you finally move forward with the things you’ve been wanting to do? What to do if you want to be a creator and not just a clearing-upper? Time magazine humorist Joel Stein recently captured this dilemma well, as he examined the great 21st century contributor to our never-can-clear state — the digital mess — in a column called the Mess Manifesto:

In the past few years I’ve become a compulsive organizer…I have been sucked into hours of deleting pictures on iPhoto, then organizing the rest into little titled folders…I’ve lost days fiddling with the bottom of my Netflix queue, which is the section that should be labeled ‘movies I will never see.’ I could have read a Tolstoy novel in the time I’ve spent managing my songs on iTunes, putting old e-mails into folders, watching TV shows I don’t really care about just to get them off my DVR and moving the downloaded Tolstoy novel from my computer to my iPhone and then to my iPad. We are all OCD now. We do these things not just because digital filing gives us the satisfaction of cleaning without the unpleasant feeling of getting up from our chairs. It’s because we’re constantly confronting the onslaught of information, and our brains are trying to make patterns out of the randomness.

In order to create something new, we need to move out of our OCD state and clear the mental decks in some way. In the classic creative process model, new insight (the “Aha!”) is preceded by a period “preparation” and “incubation”–we need to first prepare our mind for a new solution and then let it stew for a bit before an answer will appear. But I’m not sure we do good stewing when our minds are so overloaded. It’s usually during an incubation period of uncluttering — the most common being in the shower or while driving — that a great insight comes to us.

In more psychological and spiritual circles, the process of change leading to authentic creativity might be said to follow this process: 1. Clearing, during which you cast out blocks and worries that are keeping you stuck, 2. Connecting, during which you get in touch more deeply with your genuine wishes, desires and passion, and 3. Creating, during which you activate those desires in a form of expression.

Okay. But that doesn’t help if we get stuck in the constantly clearing mode, does it? Stein, though, does offer us a possible solution. The subtitle for his column: “Why we need to stop worrying and learn to love digital disorder.”

We need a digital Zoloft, something that will force us to allow messiness into our digital lives…We need an app — I’m calling it 1-Year-Old Boy — that grabs stuff out of our folders and throws it around, possibly while laughing, possibly while pooping, probably both. It will hide a few episodes of 30 Rock from us when we have more than five to watch, and it will hide them in its mouth. And it will remind us that anarchy is the best way to actually enjoy things: it’s the newness of watching a movie we didn’t know about, of hearing a song we didn’t set up on a mix, of seeing a cat do something stupid right in front of us instead of on YouTube.

Ahh. I think there is something here — more than just tongue in cheek. Let me leave you with some questions: Can you find a way to clear your mind despite the messiness, despite the unfiled emails and unfinished business? Can you accept the clutter in such a way so that it can be ignored at certain times and you can feel clear and able to move on to new pursuits? Can you dare to insert creative time during your day, periods where you are able to instantly melt the ice that you thought needed to be chipped first simply by deciding so?

Can we learn to love the disorder and overload so that we can ignore it and create anyway?

Want more from Adam? Check out his Innovation on my Mind blog.


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