Beethoven’s surprisingly simple habit for creative breakthroughs

Creativity does not rest on eureka moments; it is a process, designed to consistently bring abstract ideas into the tangible world.

For creatives, this emphasizes the importance of routines. Random bits of profound inspiration are few and fleeting; consistent work in your craft requires a sustainable way to develop good ideas into great ones. Recall the wise words from Chuck Close: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just show up and go to work.”

Perhaps one of the best ways to improve your own processes is to study the masters. Thanks to books like Daily Rituals, our desire to see what “go to work” means — by getting a peek into regular routines — has been thoroughly satiated.

Though the output of these geniuses is often intimidating, how they conduct their work is often surprisingly easy to relate to. One such person I took inspiration from was Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Woods Are Lovely, Dark & Deep

Beethoven kept his creative promises by strategically using his time to incubate ideas. His favorite method of thinking things through? Long, solitary walks through the forested valleys of Vienna.

He placed great importance on this planned time for reflection and idea evaluation. It appears he wasn’t alone; notable craftsman the world over share similar sentiments on the utility of breaking up their day with walks.

Beethoven went for a vigorous walk after lunch, and he always carried a pencil and a couple of sheets of paper in his pocket, to record chance musical thoughts.

Gustav Mahler followed much the same routine — he would take a three- or four-hour walk after lunch, stopping to jot down ideas in his notebook. Benjamin Britten said that his afternoon walks were “where I plan out what I’m going to write in the next period at my desk.”

Recently, psychologists took an interesting step (or two) forward in understanding the creative benefits of walking. Stanford study was able to show that walking helped subjects produce more novel ideas and enhanced creative thinking during the walk and immediately after, compared to sitting.

As the title of the study so humorously points out, walking may be the missing ingredient to consistently give your new ideas some legs. There are a few reasons why walking is genuinely useful to the creative process:

  1. The fact that walking is exercise. It has been well established that exercise is beneficial for thinking creatively. The key seems to be that exercise consistently improves one’s mood, and further studies on creativity show that working during a strong mood (especially a positive mood) will result in more novel ideas. Although walking isn’t strenuous, it is certainly better than being hunched over in a chair.
  2. Allowing time to re-conceptualize. Notice how Beethoven and others used their walks as breaks. They didn’t start their day with incubation, they included it to break up an earlier work session where they had already put thought into a project. Eureka moments will remain illusive if the work isn’t done first: “In general, creativity seems to come when insight is combined with the hard work of analytical processing.”
  3. A separation of stimuli. The use of stimulus control to change behavior is nothing new (often used by Dr. BJ Fogg, discussed here). But what if a strict association of external stimuli could help with creativity? Walks help create divide between a work environment and a thinking environment. Engaging in both at your desk makes it a nebulous location where too many things happen at once.

In particular, the second and third points deserve a more thorough investigation. Let’s begin with why the separation of inspiration and execution seems to be a necessary part of the creative process.

Absorb State vs. Synthesis State

Given the often muddy nature of creativity, it is an understatement to say that I’ve greatly enjoyed the practical, down-to-earth advice from Harvard psychologist Dr. Shelly Carson.

In her book Your Creative Brain, Dr. Carson highlights the importance of using strict boundaries between your absorb state (taking in and evaluating information) and your synthesis state (when you execute on your ideas). Her research has led her to believe that this is potentially the biggest roadblock to being consistently creative:

Everyone has a built-in censoring system in their brains that filters thoughts, images, and memories, and stimuli from the outside world before they reach conscious awareness.

Learning to loosen up this mental filtering system to allow more novel ideas and stimuli into conscious awareness is one of the biggest challenges for people who don’t think of themselves as creative.

She’s published research that shows how those capable of high creative achievement are benefited from a lower “latent inhibition,” meaning they are less likely to ignore seemingly irrelevant stimuli. They absorb what others would filter out; whereas most people see a red wheelbarrow, some people see a Red Wheelbarrow.

Put another way, the absorb state is when you are open (playful thinking) to new ideas, and the synthesis state is when you are closed (logical thinking) in order to execute. Creating a clear boundary makes your creative process more consistent, by allowing you to schedule a system around creating rather than relying on serendipity.

Notice how this closely relates to the divide that walking creates. One might argue that a regular walk through Vienna’s woods was Beethoven’s preferred time to be open to new ideas; his scheduled hour for an absorb state to freely go down the rabbit hole.

Walking separates these two states of the creative process. It allows time to expand on what you’ve already worked on, and removes you from work so you can think clearly.

For the lay man, this creates a convincing argument that trying to force the entire process to occur at your desk is a mistake. Separating work from consumption and incubation becomes far easier when the locations are different.

Perhaps it is time to quit your desk and do your best thinking somewhere else.