The Puzzle of Creativity – Time-Sensitivity Axis

We left off last post discussing the need for ‘creativity’ in the modern workplace, suggesting that in schools, the definition of creativity must be to be applied to more than just ‘artistic’ work, but to the act of creating, itself. We mentioned the three axes on which I have focused my classroom environment in order to promote creativity: the time-sensitivity axis, the incentivization axis, and the famous skills/challenge ratio.

The time-sensitivity axis revolves around the mind’s reaction to amounts of time-bound work. Americans will not find it hard to recall a time when they had a large amount of work to complete within a deadline, to the point that they had to prioritize what work to do first and that they did the work to ‘Get Things Done’ that needed getting done rather than doing the work ‘to be proud of it’. This type of scenario results in people thinking about all of the things they need to get done while trying to get done other things! The recent surge in the popularity of meditation as a ‘productivity hack’ has made clear to many ‘corporate-types’ that they tend to live in a ‘Getting Things Done’ world, with very little time devoted to slowing down to the speed of creative thought. They try to clear their minds during meditation and only focus on their breath, and find that their thoughts go anywhere but the breath – they create mental lists of tasks that need to be accomplished that day, plan their dinner, wonder if they can go to the grocery store, and re-live that tough comment with a spouse.

Creative thought and action requires a deliberate slowing of pace; a process of un-focusing and laser-focusing, at the same time. It requires that no other ‘need to get done’ tasks disturb the mind; that the focus of an individual is completely on the task of creating, yet they are detached from the immediacy of needing to actually do the creating – they are detached from the outcome.

Stephen Pressfield describes the key to success in this matter well in The War of Art: “Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ‘Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’” Thus, in order to be creative, we must detach from long-term outcomes, but remain committed to the daily grind. We have to sit our butts in the chair every morning with nothing else on our plate and write, or do art, or create furniture, or build, or whatever it is that we do.

A strange nuance to this general rule is that when we are thinking and creating every day, there will be moments when a creative thought strikes us when we’re least expecting it. While we are riding our bikes to the store, or taking a shower, or watering the garden we may be struck by the metaphorical lightning bolt. This occurrence is a result of your subconscious brain, which holds all sorts of genius that you don’t have access to on a daily basis, joining your quest and working alongside your conscious, rational self. You put in the prerequisite work to impress your subconscious, so embrace it!

Guy on bike

To summarize, then, the time-sensitivity axis of creative endeavors is really a question of long-term goal vs. daily work commitment. Because creative work is produced through commitment to the daily grind, it requires large amounts of self-discipline.

Slow your roll… Creativity requires self-discipline!? Not just inspiration?

Yes. Here’s the thing: out of thousands of potentially interesting things we could pay attention to in every moment, our brains must select the relevant bits from which we will make meaning. As mentioned, creativity requires a deliberate slowing of pace so that we select the bits that we may not attune to in an ‘everyday’ mindset. Our everyday mindset, science has now informed us, is a beta-brainwave state, characterized by moderate levels of stress that help to elevate alertness and focus attention to the details of what needs to get done. Yet, beta-brainwave states also occur when we are scrolling Facebook or YouTube – low alpha or high theta brainwaves are more characteristic of a relaxed focus state, or Flow state (as the term was popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Often, sudden bursts of insight – creativity – come from a mix of gamma waves that enter this mindset. Without getting too far into all this science-y stuff (if you are interested in the science-y stuff, a whole paper on the hard science of flow is upcoming, so follow this blog), the practical implications of this are that meditation trains our brain to produce these characteristic brain patterns. Social media and ‘The Culture of Disrespect’ (Sax 2016) destroy it.

Meditation is a whole topic on it’s own, and arriving at the place where one can reliably create an alpha-brainwave pattern has traditionally taken many years to master. In today’s world, there are options out there to rapidly cut down on the learning curve, including Heart Rate Variability and measuring your own brainwave states. Future posts will discuss the possibility of using these technologies in the classroom, but for now let’s assume you don’t have access to such devices. Instead, I suggest beginning and ending class with what I call ‘A Mindful Moment’ – ring a bell/chime and have learners take a few deep breaths to ground themselves in the here and now.

Of course, it’s also important to explicitly differentiate with learners between creative work and the time to learn skills that are prerequisite to being creative. This is especially important in mathematics, a field that is traditionally seen as only involving rote procedural knowledge. This way, learners have a chance to ‘prime’ their minds for the task at hand, given that you have prepped them with the proper metacognitive thought processes as part of your curriculum (e.g. in mathematics, you can easily include metacognitive work with the 8 Standards of Mathematical Practice). It is especially beneficial to have different environments in the classroom (a presentation area, a GroupThink area, an Individual Think area, etc.) if possible that exist for different types of work. This both increases the heterogeneity of the classroom (which, in itself, boosts creative thought) as well as provides a clear environmental indicator that there is a shift in the work taking place.

On the flip side, it’s important to note what not to do in the classroom where you hope to promote creativity. Don’t allow cell phones, or disrespect. Both of these do the opposite of training a student’s self-discipline, and without self-discipline toward daily creations and the space for creative thought, creativity cannot exist. Read future articles here or The Glass Cage (Nicholas Carr) and The Collapse of Parenting (Leonard Sax) for more information on why.

Keep in mind that not all students want to be creative, or they fear they vulnerability involved in creativity. “The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery.” Pressfield wrote later on in The War of Art, “While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.” Some students may seem totally happy to let another person tell them what to do – they have no need for innovative thought because they can get a job where they simply follow instructions. Of course, this topic warrents a further discussion, but briefly I would argue that until all people are able to self-govern and unlock their own unique intelligence, and the world ceases to have ambitious people who seek to gain power through finding others who will bow down to them and then stripping others of their power, humanity is faced with great challenge, strife, and potentially a crisis (be it environmental, conflict-based, or other). Thus, a teacher’s primary task is to help students overcome their fears and discover they can do more than they think they can. Self-discipline, curiously, allows us to decide when to work well with others in groups, engaging in dialogue rather than discussion and to regulate when to express our own unique selfs; it allows us to self-govern. So as educators, creating the right alchemy to develop self-discipline – conscientiousness – is essential.

To sum up, the time-sensitivity axis of creativity requires several things: a commitment to preserving ‘creative space,’ characterized by alpha brainwave states (trained through mindfulness and meditation), a commitment to the daily grind instead of the long-term goal, and a lack of ‘Getting Things Done’ tasks on the plate. If you want to nuture creative students and feel you don’t have time during the class period, start a lunch club where the purpose is solely to take apart stuff and learn how it works, then put it back together. This is creating in a space devoid of any other obligations, and you will have a blast. If you want to be more creative as a teacher, structure a Collaborative Assessment Protocol with other teachers where the whole purpose is to actually see a student’s work for what it is, not for the GTD purpose of assigning a grade and moving on. These protocols can look at one piece of work from one student for hours, and leave you feeling a renewed sense of what your students have to offer. And of course, if you want to explore another aspect of your creative teaching side, write. Not when you have students around or things to do, but every day in your scheduled creative space. And don’t forget to submit your work to Vena Cava, because we’re a curious community.


Carr, Nicholas. The Glass Cage. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Pressfield, Steven. The War of Art. Discover Books, 2002.

Sax, Leonard. The Collapse of Parenting. Basic Books, 2016.

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