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The Write Question is a weekly video podcast all about writing. Today’s question focuses on whether it makes sense to change horses midstream. If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet me @pubcoach, or leave a message for me at the Skype account, The Write Question.
Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant and my topic today is about changing horses midstream.
I have a question from Isabel Bueno, a graduate student from Mexico City. Here’s what’s she’s asked.
[recording] “I have a question about a writing project. At some point it feels like I’m not fluent anymore in creativity. So at this point I’m usually looking for some sort of guide or indicators. How do you know whether it’s time to start over with the writing? Or, should I just keep on and maybe use other tools to get over the block?”
Thanks for your question, Isabel. I’ve never been a grad student myself but I think I’ve had a somewhat similar experience to what you describe. Some 40 years ago, I was completing my Bachelor of Arts in political science and I had to write an honours thesis.
I had spent several months on the topic, and I was really beginning to HATE it. It struck me as boring and dull and I felt as though I had nothing meaningful to say. Every day I had to work on it I became more desperate.
At the same time, for another political science class, I was doing some really interesting research with colleague of mine. Suddenly, I had a great idea! What if I changed topics and wrote my thesis on this interesting research project. I didn’t see how my professor could say no.
But he did. He told me it was too late to change horses. Do you know that American expression? It’s a metaphor and it means that you don’t want to get off one horse and onto another one when you’re knee deep in water, as this photo shows. If you tried to change horses at this point you’d not only get very wet but you’d also risk a terrible accident for both yourself and the horse.
I was really annoyed when my professor wouldn’t let me make the switch but even then I did kind of see his point. The new subject I was looking at would have required a great deal of additional research and all the research I’d already done would have gone to waste.
But here’s an even more interesting point that you may not have thought of. Psychologists used to believe that constraints were a barrier to creativity. But now they believe that constraints actually encourage your brain to be more creative. Why?
Well, when people face scarcity, they give themselves freedom to use resources in less conventional ways – because they have to. The situation demands a mental license that would otherwise remain untapped.
Creativity is not a personality trait — it’s not something we’re born with or without. It’s our response to certain situations. If you have a way around a problem — perhaps because of a professor who’s too accommodating — you won’t be inspired to use your creativity. My website has a special section devoted to creativity and I’ve provided a link to that below.
If you want to give your creativity a boost, I have a couple of suggestions for you. They might sound a little crazy but creativity isn’t improved by working harder. It’s enhanced by taking more breaks.
- go for more walks
- spend more time in the natural world
- get plenty of sleep
- work in a large room, preferably one with a high ceiling (there’s evidence that large rooms help with creativity)
- get more exercise
- spend plenty of time with friends
I know this all sounds like the opposite to what you should be doing but if you want to boost your creativity, you need to get your nose out of the books and into real life.
Being creative means making unpredictable choices and to do that you need to be relaxed and unworried. Make sure you give yourself enough time to achieve that state of mind.
Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the former president and CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer: “Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity loves constraints.”
Thanks for the question, Isabel! I know it’s hard writing a thesis or dissertation. To improve your creativity, take more breaks. Then, put your head down and get it finished. Then you’ll be able to move on to your next challenge.