Earlier this year, I started “urban sketching”. Going out for a stroll in interesting neighbourhoods, and sitting down to draw and paint whatever captures my attention. It only takes about 15 minutes to finish a sketch — and in that time, there is nothing else. I’m able to be fully present, notice small details and movements, and completely let go of any anxieties and worries I may have.
I come back from my sketch-walks rejuvenated, often with new content and business ideas. It’s like having a happiness stimulus package delivered right into the brain — elevating mood, reducing stress and boosting creativity (without the political consequences :).
Dr. Rex Jung, assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, has been studying creativity and the brain since 2008 as part of the Mind Research Network. His studies show that one of the key elements of creativity is a “loose” frontal lobe — down-regulation of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine that drive our fight-or-flight response. [source]
Research finds that unusually creative people have the ability to shut down the brain’s habitual responses, and let go of conventional solutions. This allows them to come up with new, creative thoughts — including those sudden flashes of insight and Aha! moments, when you come up an amazing marketing or business idea.
It turns out that all of us have the ability to induce hypo-frontality and take the brakes off our creative inhibitions with immersive experiences — activities such as warm baths, long walks, exercise, meditation, art, alcohol, and drugs. It’s why sketching and painting work for me, and some of my marketing friends.
I believe that creative expression such as drawing, playing an instrument, photography, painting, or improv is a great way to combine a few of those immersive activities. These activities are incredibly important for us as marketers and entrepreneurs, because they allows us the ability to step out of our own heads, shift our thinking and replenish our creative juices.
If you would like to give your brain a creativity booster shot, read on for some suggestions and resources.
Learn something new
I never painted before in my life, until a few years ago when I came across a traditional Japanese style of painting called Sumi-e. It involves grinding a stick of ink on a special stone called Suzuri, and using elegant, minimalistic brush strokes on rice paper to capture the essence and energy of your subject. Already sounds cool, right?
This was my first foray into art since high school art class (which I didn’t do that well in, by the way). It was also incredibly immersive. Learning how to grind the right amount of ink, how to use water to mix shades of black, and how to move the brush with my whole body to create expressive lines. I would sit down in the evening after my wife went to sleep, and paint. An hour or two would go by without me even noticing — I was in state of flow.
This happens when you are open and devoted to learning something new. For me, it was painting — for you it might be photography, riding horses or taking a cooking class.
In order to generate the best creative juice, I would encourage you to explore an art form that captures your attention.
With that, you are combining the experience of learning something new and the act of creative expression. Check out your local college for art classes, or a local art meetup group and just give it a shot. At worst, you’ll have an ugly painting of a horse for your garage. At best, you’ll create some new neural pathways in your brain and solve world hunger :)
When I sit down to sketch a street scene, everything else slowly fades away. In order to transfer my visual experience to paper, I start noticing things like the colour of brick, the shade of green on a Starbucks cup, and which way the shadows lay. This process requires me to be present, and I’ve come to look at it as a meditative practice.
Being present means not thinking about your to-do list, the e-mail from yesterday or the grocery list for the upcoming weekend. This is an incredibly hard concept to grasp for most marketing and business professionals — and yet it’s incredibly important if you want to get out of a rut or elevate your thinking. Creative expression such as art-making essentially forces you to focus on the present moment as you have to co-ordinate your senses, mind and body to create a doddle, or a strum out a guitar tune.
I would highly suggest reading James Altucher’s “How do you live in the present?” article, for some more interesting (and esoteric) thoughts about living in the NOW.
On top of all this, you’ll find that most top performers in any field have some kind of regular meditation practice. Art is one way of doing so, while also having some fun.
Get outside, live longer
Another reason I like urban sketching, is that it forces me to be outside — to get out of the computer chair, and get off the couch. It’s bad enough that our spines are degenerating with every hour on the computer and with every text we receive, but we also tend to have weak immune systems due to self-imposed office-arrest, and are for the first time in human history expected to have shorter life expentancy than the previous generation.
A recent piece of research, published in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at the lifespans of 661,137 adults over 14 years to determine the ideal level and type of exercise that lowers mortality. The studies found that the sweet spot for a long and healthy life is about an hour of walking per day. The subjects who averaged 450 minutes of moderate exercise (walking) per week were 39% less likely to die prematurely than people who never exercised.
The benefits to walking and being outside are too many to mention, so I would encourage you to take your creative endeavours outside. Get some Vitamin D, while you cook up some creative juices for your next idea.
I hope this was helpful, and that you will take some time for yourself, and give your brain a creative break. You never know what kind of insight you may come back with :)
PS: and if you really have no idea how to get started, check out these awesome colouring books for adults!
PPS: As I hit publish, I came across this video titled Why We Should Draw More (and Photograph Less). Timely and fitting :)