By all appearances, I've had a productive day. I checked off more than half the items on my to-do list, returned phone calls, and figured out why the hall lamp wasn't working.
But instead of accomplishment, I feel emptiness. I took care of the small stuff, but what I avoided was the big stuff: those wispy, unformed ideas in the back of my mind about the novel I've been working on for years, about my dream to live in South America, about topics for the writing workshop I'll soon be teaching to a class of eighth graders.
I frittered away my brainpower on everyday problems because they felt safe, solvable, and significant -- those bills do have to be paid, after all. I had no space left for things that really matter to me, the ideas that need time and wonder to come to fruition.
"Almost nothing beautiful or brilliant happens unless a person has thought about it a lot," says Eric Maisel, Ph.D., a creativity coach and psychotherapist. In his newest book, "Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions" (New World Library, 2010), he makes the case for losing ourselves in big ideas.
Maisel, who has written more than 20 books on the creative process, says that people tend to "waste their brains" worrying about the little things, growing numb with distractions, and feeling spent -- with not much to show for it.
The antidote, he says, is to shift some of our focus from the thoughts that are concrete but necessary toward the ones that are inchoate but inspiring. The reward for giving in to inspiration is a sense of fulfillment, purpose, and passion ... and maybe a novel, rock opera, or plan for a new business.
How to Be Obsessive-Propulsive
After decades of working with artists and studying their behavior, Maisel realized that something very much like obsession was at the heart of the creative process. When he enlisted test subjects to obsess on purpose, he found improvements in their concentration, capacity for tackling big projects, and ability to solve problems -- artistic, personal, or professional.
And so, he reasoned, by giving our creative impulses time and space, they can develop into what he calls a productive obsession -- something you choose to engage in because it fascinates you and ultimately leads you to create something (a documentary, a street fair, a screenplay).
Most of the time -- and for good reason -- obsession is word that has negative connotations, but in controlled bouts it's like falling in love: It can be exciting and can help hone your focus. What if, instead of spending most of my waking hours consumed by calls, e-mails, or negative thoughts (I wonder if she's mad at me), I let myself obsess about my novel? It just might get written.
"Once you can maintain interest in something, investigate it, and fall in love with it, you find that life is richer and more meaningful," Maisel says.
If great ideas really were like lightning, we could just wait for them to strike. But that's not how it works. According to Maisel, tapping your inner genius means seeking out your true passion -- and letting yourself get a little obsessed with it. Here are seven ways to start.
Choose something that fascinates you. What engrossed you as a kid (dinosaurs, the Salem Witch Trials)? What sorts of emotions and sensations did that trigger -- tingly excitement, anticipation, unabating curiosity? What do you daydream about? What have you always wanted to do?
Give it some real estate. Good ideas vanish if we don't have places -- mental and physical -- to put them. Dedicate a corner of the desk or table, start a file folder with ideas and articles, hang up images that inspire the project.
Immerse yourself. While it may seem odd to plan an obsession (don't they grab us, not the other way around?), you have to plant those seeds to yield fruitful ideas. This may mean sitting at your desk and writing about memories of your mother, taking a long walk to mull over plots and characters, or researching herb folklore online.
Consistency is key -- while a three-hour stint can be productive, if that's all you do that month, you won't gain as much ground. The more momentum you can generate around your creative process, the better.
Take it with you. The beauty of productive obsessions is their portability: They're right there as you stand in line at the bank, shop for groceries, or get your nails done. This is probably time you usually use to dwell on an incident at work or remember things you forgot to do. So harness your formidable obsessive powers and dedicate this time to feeding your idea. Carry a notebook or a mini tape recorder. E-mail ideas to yourself as they occur. Start using that smart phone for something besides dentist appointments and soccer games.
Don't stop short. The real work of inspiration, goes the famous American proverb, requires applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. And removing the pants from the chair, Maisel says, is one of the easiest mistakes we can make.
After we've had an inspiration and written it down, our tendency is to want to jump up in satisfaction and call it a day. Instead, he suggests, "relax, stay put, and reenter the trance of working." Try to stay in that mental space a little longer.
Deal with distractions. "You can halt a brainstorm with a feather," Maisel says. And those feathers come in many guises: an errand you need to run, a noisy truck rumbling by, your inner critic telling you you're foolish for trying.
When you find yourself getting distracted (or discouraged), borrow the three-step process used by cognitive behavioral therapists to deal with a disruptive thought: Notice the thought ("My ideas suck"), dispute it ("Is that really true?"), and replace it with a positive thought ("It's exciting to think where this might lead"). As you extinguish these unproductive obsessions, you're able to think productively, says Maisel.
Be your own personal assistant. Do creative minds like Lady Gaga answer every e-mail and return phone calls on time? Of course not. She's got people to take care of the small stuff so she can devote her brainpower to songs, choreography, and, of course, hats shaped like giant horns.
Those of us without a personal staff have to act as our own bodyguards and assistants, keeping the mental aisles clear so we can stay focused. When you get tempted to interrupt yourself to wash the dishes or return a library book, make a note to your errand-runner self to handle that later. You've got far bigger fish to fry.