What are Creative Windows and How Can You Use Them to Increase Your Output?

What are Creative Windows and How Can You Use Them to Increase Your Output?

It'd be nice if we could all have multi-hour blocks to focus on what's most important. But then reality hits, and we quit on our goals because that's not happening for most people. In this article, we'll explore the concept of creative windows and share some tips for how to implement them. By the time you finish reading, you'll be ready to rock shorter time blocks, so you still achieve your aims, even with a hectic schedule. 

In a perfect world, we could all become a master craftsperson, like Daniel Day-Lewis with acting, Coco Chanel in fashion design, or, as we shared in a recent post, Enzo Ferrari building the best cars in the world. But the trouble with absolute essentialism is that many of us have a significant other and kids depending on our income and mortgage and car payments to make. As such, we’re stuck in our grind for at least a few years more, so we have to create multiple revenue streams. This means that the things we love to do most often get crowded out completely because we believe that if we don’t have big blocks of time to give to them, then there’s no point.

That’s BS! Sure, it would be nice to have all day, every day to devote to what Greg McKeown calls essentialism, but it’s a fallacy to keep thinking that no progress can be made otherwise during the hustle and bustle of daily dad or mom life. And the key that unlocks the potential you’ve been leaving on the table is the concept of a creative window.

Scheduling and Priming Creative Windows

Logically, you can only crawl through an actual window if it’s open. The same is true with figurative creative windows. To open one up, you must find gaps in your schedule where you’re fresh enough to create, practice, train, or whatever it is you wish you had more of in your life. So sit down and take a brutally honest look at your typical weekly schedule to find windows of opportunity. Write all of them down, and then start ring-fencing at least two or three. Color code them on your digital calendar and, if you use one, an old-school paper planner.

Now you’ve set the intention, you must make the most of each mini time block. Because you’ll only be dealing with a brief timeframe – say 15 minutes to an hour, you need to be “coming in hot,” as Lecrae and Andy Mineo rap about in their seminal song. Fortunately for us all, flow state expert Steven Kotler has written extensively about how to prime your brain for this kind of session. “Flow triggers reduce the number of things we try to pay attention to at any given moment,” he wrote in an article for the  company he co-founded with Jamie Wheal, the Flow Research Collective. “By lowering our cognitive load, we free up more energy that can be better used to focus on the here and now.”

Doing Deliberate Practice Right

Among the flow triggers he recommends are a degree of difficulty that will stretch but not stymie you, a novel experience, and purpose. Kotler goes on to suggest 19 more ways to make the most of every creative window. One of these – clear goals – relates to one of the most influential thinkers of the past 100 years. If you’ve ever heard the term “10,000 hours” made famous by bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, then you have at least an at-a-glance view of Anders Ericsson’s most famous theory.

He was the pioneer of the performance-enhancing practice known as deliberate practice. If you had three hours to work out with your friends, you’d probably take ages to warm up, turn on a TV that you’d look at every couple of minutes, and take long rest periods between each set and exercise as you laughed it up with your buddies. Contrast this to a short Tabata session you’d do alone. After a brief warmup, you’d go hard for 40 seconds, slow for 20, and repeat eight times. Then you’d call it a day. This latter session is deliberate practice and is analogous to creative windows.

Let’s take a closer look at the characteristics of that Tabata session. First, it’s clearly defined. The work-to-rest ratio – which Izumi Tabata from the Ritsumeikan University Graduate School of Sport and Health Science found is the most efficient way to raise anaerobic capacity with intervals – is immutable. It’s always 40 seconds on, 20 seconds off. The number of reps is also limited to eight. Forget it if you’ve ever heard of double or triple Tabata – you should go so hard that you cannot exceed Izumi’s protocol. Per Kotler’s point, the intention is also obvious – you’re trying to increase your power endurance.

Zooming In On a Single Intention

Take a similar approach to each creative window. Consider the one thing you’re trying to improve upon. Then set up a system that allows you to advance the ball, even if it’s like a running back gaining a couple of hard yards rather than a 97-yard punt return. Like with the Tabata protocol, you would also do well to identify the duration of work and rest periods. This will facilitate intense effort followed by much-needed mental recovery. Also consider what a realistic stopping point will be. It’s best to underestimate the amount you can get done so that you stack psychological wins by meeting or exceeding your goal, rather than continually falling short of unrealistic expectations.

Ericsson found that this kind of deliberate practice enabled violinists, gymnasts, and other elite performers to become world class in as little as an hour a day. The musicians would use short, all-out creative windows to focus on one particular technique, and they’d just do that until their quality level declined. Similarly, you could apply this whole-to-part methodology to physical training, woodworking, or whatever hobby you want to get better at during your own creative windows. By stacking enough of these short sessions over the course of a year, you will have made more progress than you thought was possible.