Since I was an anxious 16-year-old, I’ve been trying to partner with my mind. Back then, I noticed one of my first mental patterns: When my mind grew quiet and still, I’d ask myself, “Wait a minute. Did you forget to do something? Shouldn’t you be worrying about something?”
Sad to say, that pattern still emerges. But glad to say I recognize it more quickly and finesse some ways to redirect and create a new pattern.
And around the same time, when my mind would swirl in anxious loops, I taught my mind another trick. I’d ask it, “Now, what’s the worst possible outcome? And is that so bad?” It wouldn’t be.
Truth be told, I track wonder every day in part because I have anxious grooves. Tracking wonder has helped me rearrange the circuits, so to speak.
In my quest to understand what works and what doesn’t for my and others’ creative work flow, I’ve come up with a metaphor for the mind.
Imagine much of your mind’s activity as a movie screen. Characters, drama, and stories flash by constantly in the form of thoughts, frets, memories, and image shards like a Bollywood musical-meets-a Marx Brothers flick.
But a good movie has an audience. And behind even the audience is the projectionist, an amused projectionist. The projectionist stands back and watches the drama flickering across your mind’s screen with engaged detachment. Engaged because the operator cares. Detached because the operator is not swept away by the drama but watching it.
Our ability to see things periodically from that operator’s point of view, it turns out, is a key way to increase our productivity for the long term, not burn out in our endeavors, and enhance our creative problem-solving.
This capacity is called meta-awareness, and, when you become adept at it and have fun with it (rather than view it as “more work”), I call it creative mindfulness.
WHY META-AWARENESS IS A SUPER POWER
Meta-awareness is your awareness of your creative mind’s activity. It allows you to recognize how your mind unwittingly gets stuck in grooves that exhaust you instead of energize you. In turn, it allows you to replicate the states of mind and patterns of thinking that serve your best self’s work.
Neuroscientists such as Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin as well as psychologists and productivity experts at last are praising meta-awareness as an indispensable ally in your creative quest if you wish to thrive as a healthy, innovative creative for the long run.
Why? At least three reasons.
1. Meta-awareness correlates with your using less physical energy to solve problems or perform tasks. We’re talking about basic blood sugar, and we’re talking about basic mental bandwidth in the pre-frontal cortex, your brain’s center for conscious decision-making.
Three huge energy burners:
- Trying to inhibit distractions and re-direct your mind
- Allowing anxiety and anger to go unchecked
- Focusing on and performing creative work
See the conflict? Just performing your creative work in flow consumes a lot of physical energy. You know that from experience. But if your mind is constantly and unconsciously distracted or consumed with anxiety, much of your energy reservoir gets redistributed away from your creative mind to tending to that swirly mind-goop.
That energy inefficiency burns out your circuits and your body after a few years or decades.
2. Meta-awareness correlates with your ability to capture your ahas! and act upon them.
You can read more about my break down of the latest research here.
3. Thus, meta-awareness unsurprisingly, then, correlates with better health, overall better well-being, increased productivity, and increased creative insight.
Who doesn’t want that?
TWO META-AWARENESS CHECK-INS
Is developing daily meta-awareness more work? Well, yes, at first. It’s retraining your mind. But you can choose to retrain how you wish – with a demanding ruler in hand or with a compassion touch.
I favor compassionate vigilance.
Here are two quick ways to check in with the projectionist throughout your day and during your create-n-work flow.
First, check in with your state of mind. Are you focused or distracted? Are you feeling energized or exhausted? Are you moody or manic? Is a train of thought or random website fixation derailing your productivity or are you chugging along like a hearty engine?
Just pausing and observing shifts attention.
Second, when you’re trying to solve a creative problem, recognize your patterns of thinking, the grooves your mind follows when trying to solve it. Are you approaching a problem with hyper-focused analysis? Are you trying to solve a client’s unusual issue the same way you usually do? Are you trying to come up with the next scene for your novel in a hack-it-out or shoot-in-the-dark mode? If so and if you’ve hit an impasse, soften your focus. Step away from the problem.
If you notice an undesirable state or thinking groove, you can learn to switch gears. This is where creative mindfulness comes in.
This idea might sound beyond reach, but it’s not.
And if you think “being creative” is all about spontaneity and letting your mind run wild all of the time, then ask if that’s worked for you over the decades.
When you tend to the projectionist instead of only the movie screen, you’re not eliminating the mystery of creativity. You’re engaged with one of the ultimate mysteries – – the wonder that you think at all – and that you can witness and change how you do it.
Sometimes, I have a romantic view of that projectionist, an aged but content fellow whose belly hangs generously over his belt. From his private perch, he watches, a knowing smirk on his face, the fleeting flash of sun spots one gray June morning, the crashed hope of dawn intentions gone awry, the feeling of promise renewed when a sidewalk saxophonist lifts a widow’s spirit.
He’s seen it before, hundreds if not thousands of times, in fact. But he keeps watch. He keeps vigil. He keeps smiling. And for that I’m grateful.
What habits and tools do you have in place to watch and re-direct your mind’s grooves? I’m curious and would love to learn from you, too.