Creativity, Background Processing and Procrastination

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It's a well-documented feature of the creative life that the biggest obstacles to productivity are internal. You know you should get on with the work, you want - in principle - to get on with the work, but in practice, you don't. You check your email, you eat a bowl of cereal, you do the hoovering.* Mark Forster refers to this active procrastination as resistance.

Another well-documented feature of creativity is what Sally Holloway calls 'background processing'. You work at something for a period of time, and get stuck. Then, later the solution to your problem will magically appear when you're out for a walk, or cooking, or just waking up. The inner recesses of your brain continue to work on things between your conscious sessions focused upon it. If you prefer a more organic, rather than computer-based metaphor for this process, I also think of it sometimes in ruminant terms - the conscious effort is the process of chewing the cud, then you send it down to your brain's second stomach for digestion between times.

Now, I've reflected on the experience of reluctance before, and identified that moment in the learning process where you are poised on the edge of conscious competence as representing a particular internal obstacle. Then last summer's 5-minutes-per-day practice experiment suggested a more direct link between these two dimensions. The reason that developing a habit of regular practice is hard is not because of the time commitment itself, but because it entails committing a significant proportion of your brain's background processing to it between times.

One of the things that got me thinking about this relationship anew was that Sally Holloway offers a technique to get the best out of your background processing that is remarkably similar to one of Mark Forster's techniques for overcoming resistance. They both suggest cycling through between tasks in turn. Holloway's take on this is to take maybe three tasks, and work on the first until you get stuck, then move onto the next. By the time you cycle back to the first, your background processing will have made progress on the bits you were previously struggling with. She calls this 'wheeling'.

Forster's approach is to cycle through your list in fixed-time increments. If you are really struggling with resistance, you might start with five minutes on each task and then move onto the next, increasing to ten then fifteen minutes as you gain momentum. This version of the technique recognises that the hardest bit is getting started, but your brain will generally cooperate if you promise it can escape from the task very soon. But once you've activated thought about that task, the continued background processing makes it easier to come back to.

Thinking about this connection has brought several facets of skill development and the learning process into clearer focus for me.

First is the role of practice - whether one means in the musical performer's sense of private rehearsal, or in the writer's/composer's sense of time spent writing/composing. Either way, there is a clear consensus that mindful, focused work where you dismiss distractions and get deep into the detail is the path to excellence. Dan Coyle's wonderful accounts of how the brain develops in response to certain qualities of action help us understand what is going on here.

But we also need to note how high-quality practice also has the role of setting-up the background processing function between sessions. Just as intensive exercise raises your metabolic rate for the rest of the day, deep practice sets up the background processing. Indeed, when we are told that it is the quality of practice not just the time expended that makes the real difference, my guess would be that the reason lies here. My totally untested but anecdotally-plausible hypothesis is that the deeper the flow state when focused on a task, the greater proportion of your background-processing gets committed to it between times.

This in turn resonates with experience of ignition. That moment when we develop a new (or renewed) passion for a subject blasts us past the resistance by hijacking pretty much all our background processing resource for that one subject. If you are genuinely obsessive about something, you don't have to carry the cognitive burden of trying to divert bits of your brain that were chewing on one thing over to chewing on something else.

And this reminds us that there are only so many things you can be brilliant at. If you just look at the hours you have available to commit to consciously-directed activity, you'd think there would be enough time to hold down a day-job as an engineer, make your own clothes, remodel your flat, act in plays and still cook dinner without setting off the smoke alarm. But in real life some things just need to be outsourced to your spouse. The absent-minded professor stereotype has its roots in this experience.

Because the issue when we're in overwhelm mode is rarely actual shortage of time, but fragmentation of attention. We schedule our days on the external hours of physical activity with scant regard for the background work our brains are doing to make us effective. When we schedule Activity A back to back with Activity B, our bodies arrive at the latter on time, but our brains haven't yet finished the former. So we flounder our way through the first ten minutes with a hideous crunching of mental gears.

All the time we feel bad about 'wasting' - time spent in idle chat, in drinking tea, in pottering - is the time we actually spend doing our most productive work. You feel mentally refreshed after a walk in the park not just because of the fresh air, but because the hidden, silent, powerful bits of your brain have finished a task you weren't aware of setting it.

* Actually, I think I can honestly say that I have never actually resorted to hoovering when engaged in work avoidance. However, this says more about my relationship with domestic virtue than my work ethic.

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