will o the wisp

How to make Timing and Priming work for you in your business

In Irish folklore there lives a creature called a Will o’ the Wisp.  Its a small fascinating light in the darkness just out of reach from the path.  The weary traveller may stray from the straight road and go haring after it for the gifts it may bring, only to be lost forever in the woods.

Creative solutions are hard to catch

Creative ideas can seem like this – they hover around the edges but are notoriously unreliable and hard to catch on a schedule.  As a writer, a teacher of writing, and an avid consumer of psych hacks about the creative process, I have given this some consideration – after all, it is pretty hard to charge someone for copywriting services if you can’t deliver creativity on demand.

As I see it, creative solutions are hard to catch because our brains are split into the logical left hemisphere and the creative right hemisphere. Our facility for speech and language is located in the left hemisphere, but visual imagery and symbolic representation hang out more on the right – which is a bit quieter.  Also, the Right Brain sees and controls the left side of the body and the Left Brain sees and controls the right.  Fortunately, because each hemisphere can communicate with the other, they work together – although communication between the hemispheres is not always straightforward.   These are well accepted ideas, but their implications are a lot stranger and more unsettling than usually thought.

Consider the plight of people with ‘Alien-Hand syndrome’.

These are people who find that one of their limbs has ‘a mind of its own’ and will suddenly and unexpectedly grab something, or refuse to grab something against the wishes of their conscious selves.  This is amazing to look at.

When a person with no communication between the hemispheres is asked to solve a block puzzle, Right Brain (the one that deals with pattern recognition as well as creative ideas) speedily sees the answer and uses the left hand to move the pieces into position.  Sweat breaks out on the man’s forehead as his right hand (attuned to Left Brain) fumbles with the pieces, evidently at a loss, while the left hand impatiently keeps grabbing them and shoving them into position.  Eventually the experimenter asks the man to sit on his right hand and the left immediately solves the puzzle and then rests on the table in a relieved attitude.  The man’s shoulders slump – the puzzle has been solved, but who actually solved it?

In past eras when the idea of demonic possession was more current, this might have been dealt with the old fashioned way.  More recently, psychology and neuroscience has been able to explain that Left Brain’s ability to come up with a lightning fast logical explanation for something it sees you doing doesn’t mean the reason came before the action.  Left Brain is a story teller so it fills in the gaps and it does this so seamlessly you can’t really tell it is happening.  Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean there aren’t two separate intelligences riding around behind your eyes, only one of which can speak in words.

The creative brain deals with Angels and Demons

Why is it the brain organised like this?
One theory is that the separate hemispheres evolved to deal with different problems.

The logical Left is definitely the one you need to plan your product launch because it can use language to sequence a logical program of events, write them down, consider the ‘what if’s’ and decide that at 4pm on the 27th you will need the ice machine to be picked up from Oaklands Park.

The creative Right is there to deal with the unexpected crunching sound that suddenly starts when you are taking the bins out late at night when there is nobody around to hear you scream. It has a direct line to your fight, flight, freeze responses which might cause you to shriek and leap back into the house as a batch of creative ideas about what kind of demon is lurking there flash into your head. By the time you slam the door and stand, panting, on the other side, Left Brain might identify the emotion ‘fear’.

The word emotion, by the way, is from the Latin ‘emovere’ for ‘to move’.

That’s what emotions are for: prompting action

After all, we are descended from those of our ancestors that imagined they saw a snake in the grass and ran, not the ones that failed to imagine dark possibilities.

Back to the business problem.

Deadlines are not snakes, but if there are enough of them and they get close enough your creative Right Brain will start offering you any number of helpful visions of possible consequences from having to write an apologetic email to financial ruin. Infuriatingly, Wisps of creative solutions are dancing around out there just out of sight. We’ve all caught them before in the following places: the shower, sitting on your pillow as you woke up after a good night’s sleep, in the leaves on the path as you went for a walk after having given up on the problem, out of the blue sky during meditation or prayer, in the middle of a conversation with a friend as you complained about the problem, or at the bottom of a plate of cherry pie.

How can you reliably get the Wisp to deliver angels rather than demons?

A trapper’s guide to catching the Wisp

1. Timing is important
Much has been made of working with your circadian rhythms and setting aside two hours for deep work in the early morning – getting up at 5am if necessary. Not to mention the bulletproof coffee, the cold exposure, intermittent fasting, getting to your desk within 90 seconds of waking and variations on standing desks or sitting on the floor. I’ve tried all of those – did not love the cold exposure, or the 5am, but they are all useful tools to have in the kit.

Like so many people, I’ve come to understand that, for me, a couple of hours in the morning is the only really reliable time of day to do creative work. I am fresh enough to make good decisions (e.g. at least open your computer), not distracted too much by family members (mum I need a Roman Centurion costume for today’s play), meetings (can we just have a chat about the folder structure before the zoom call this afternoon), and unexpected disasters (Claire’s called in sick – someone needs to run the meeting).

I’ve noted that I get really inefficient when asked to make important decisions in the afternoon but can do it easily morning or evening. For my money, figuring out your own most productive times of day for different kinds of task is worth the effort of tracking tasks against outcomes for a month in some kind of diary. To the extent that I have control of this, I try to arrange writing in the morning, errands, admin, and meetings later in the day, a nap to re-set in the afternoon if there’s time, evening with family, then planning, email, and last minute writing in the late evening. There’s always that 5am slot if it should be needed for something pressing, so long as the afternoon nap is still in play.

Of course, just because creativity is scheduled for a certain time does not mean the creative idea will come at that time with complete docility.

This is why its important to build buffer zones into the process.

For instance: allow a week for an article and do research Sunday night, interview Monday morning, planning and organisation Tuesday night, horrible first draft Wednesday morning, edit Thursday morning, proof and send on Friday. Each part may take less than half an hour, but spacing out the parts is important a) in case it doesn’t go according to plan, and b) to take advantage of a secret superpower.

2. Priming is important
There is a reason that creative ideas can be built in a happy state of flow if you separate the parts as described or become a crushing nightmare if you try to do it all at once in an afternoon before the deadline. The secret superpower is called the ‘default mode process’: a network in the brain (potentially localised somewhat more in the right hemisphere) that keeps working on your most pressing problem even while you do other things. It’s like your own on-board version of GPT – its free and it will work for you while you make coffee so long has you do two things.

Firstly, you have to give it a prompt that is clear and specific with a nod to why the question is important. Something like: ‘how can I re-organise the information I’ve collected on syntropic farming so that regular farmers and a general audience find it interesting, relevant, and not preachy?’ If you want to wake up knowing the answer, this will work better than framing it as ‘write article on syntropic farming’. It also seems to be important to say it aloud or write it down because Right Brain does not seem to to get the message if it is just a thought rattling around in Left Brain’s logical echo chamber. This is where an evening routine of writing a to do list with your 1-3 prompts for the next day can set the conditions for a really productive morning.

Secondly, you have to check back in with Right Brain for the answer. Getting to work as soon as you wake up is effective because Right Brain’s offerings have not yet been overwritten by casual conversations. Doing any one of the pie eating activities listed earlier is another way to tune in to Right Brain’s creative solutions. What they really do is get Left Brain to shut up for a minute and stop trying to solve the problem (its like sitting on Left Brain’s preferred hand so it can’t interfere with the vision Right Brain is trying to offer). When stuck, re-working the prompt can be helpful: write for a few minutes about the experience of being stuck, why it might be difficult, what part is most troublesome – then ask a new question e.g. ‘How can I clarify the conclusion? Or even, ‘what would make this easy?’ or ‘What if there were no constraints on this?’ Watching as an answer instantly manifests is one of the delights of the creative process – it may not be a great or suitable answer, but it does come when called in this way and is often hilarious.

Who is really in charge?

So, if you seek the Wisp when you are most alert by choosing the right time, and you feed it pie and speak to it politely in its own language by priming with a clear prompt, you are improving your ‘trapping’ odds over just leaving it to chance. Hey Right Brain, anything to add? Cool.

Published On: January 17th, 2024

Share This Story

will o the wisp

How to make Timing and Priming work for you in your business

In Irish folklore there lives a creature called a Will o’ the Wisp.  Its a small fascinating light in the darkness just out of reach from the path.  The weary traveller may stray from the straight road and go haring after it for the gifts it may bring, only to be lost forever in the woods.

Creative solutions are hard to catch

Creative ideas can seem like this – they hover around the edges but are notoriously unreliable and hard to catch on a schedule.  As a writer, a teacher of writing, and an avid consumer of psych hacks about the creative process, I have given this some consideration – after all, it is pretty hard to charge someone for copywriting services if you can’t deliver creativity on demand.

As I see it, creative solutions are hard to catch because our brains are split into the logical left hemisphere and the creative right hemisphere. Our facility for speech and language is located in the left hemisphere, but visual imagery and symbolic representation hang out more on the right – which is a bit quieter.  Also, the Right Brain sees and controls the left side of the body and the Left Brain sees and controls the right.  Fortunately, because each hemisphere can communicate with the other, they work together – although communication between the hemispheres is not always straightforward.   These are well accepted ideas, but their implications are a lot stranger and more unsettling than usually thought.

Consider the plight of people with ‘Alien-Hand syndrome’.

These are people who find that one of their limbs has ‘a mind of its own’ and will suddenly and unexpectedly grab something, or refuse to grab something against the wishes of their conscious selves.  This is amazing to look at.

When a person with no communication between the hemispheres is asked to solve a block puzzle, Right Brain (the one that deals with pattern recognition as well as creative ideas) speedily sees the answer and uses the left hand to move the pieces into position.  Sweat breaks out on the man’s forehead as his right hand (attuned to Left Brain) fumbles with the pieces, evidently at a loss, while the left hand impatiently keeps grabbing them and shoving them into position.  Eventually the experimenter asks the man to sit on his right hand and the left immediately solves the puzzle and then rests on the table in a relieved attitude.  The man’s shoulders slump – the puzzle has been solved, but who actually solved it?

In past eras when the idea of demonic possession was more current, this might have been dealt with the old fashioned way.  More recently, psychology and neuroscience has been able to explain that Left Brain’s ability to come up with a lightning fast logical explanation for something it sees you doing doesn’t mean the reason came before the action.  Left Brain is a story teller so it fills in the gaps and it does this so seamlessly you can’t really tell it is happening.  Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean there aren’t two separate intelligences riding around behind your eyes, only one of which can speak in words.

The creative brain deals with Angels and Demons

Why is it the brain organised like this?
One theory is that the separate hemispheres evolved to deal with different problems.

The logical Left is definitely the one you need to plan your product launch because it can use language to sequence a logical program of events, write them down, consider the ‘what if’s’ and decide that at 4pm on the 27th you will need the ice machine to be picked up from Oaklands Park.

The creative Right is there to deal with the unexpected crunching sound that suddenly starts when you are taking the bins out late at night when there is nobody around to hear you scream. It has a direct line to your fight, flight, freeze responses which might cause you to shriek and leap back into the house as a batch of creative ideas about what kind of demon is lurking there flash into your head. By the time you slam the door and stand, panting, on the other side, Left Brain might identify the emotion ‘fear’.

The word emotion, by the way, is from the Latin ‘emovere’ for ‘to move’.

That’s what emotions are for: prompting action

After all, we are descended from those of our ancestors that imagined they saw a snake in the grass and ran, not the ones that failed to imagine dark possibilities.

Back to the business problem.

Deadlines are not snakes, but if there are enough of them and they get close enough your creative Right Brain will start offering you any number of helpful visions of possible consequences from having to write an apologetic email to financial ruin. Infuriatingly, Wisps of creative solutions are dancing around out there just out of sight. We’ve all caught them before in the following places: the shower, sitting on your pillow as you woke up after a good night’s sleep, in the leaves on the path as you went for a walk after having given up on the problem, out of the blue sky during meditation or prayer, in the middle of a conversation with a friend as you complained about the problem, or at the bottom of a plate of cherry pie.

How can you reliably get the Wisp to deliver angels rather than demons?

A trapper’s guide to catching the Wisp

1. Timing is important
Much has been made of working with your circadian rhythms and setting aside two hours for deep work in the early morning – getting up at 5am if necessary. Not to mention the bulletproof coffee, the cold exposure, intermittent fasting, getting to your desk within 90 seconds of waking and variations on standing desks or sitting on the floor. I’ve tried all of those – did not love the cold exposure, or the 5am, but they are all useful tools to have in the kit.

Like so many people, I’ve come to understand that, for me, a couple of hours in the morning is the only really reliable time of day to do creative work. I am fresh enough to make good decisions (e.g. at least open your computer), not distracted too much by family members (mum I need a Roman Centurion costume for today’s play), meetings (can we just have a chat about the folder structure before the zoom call this afternoon), and unexpected disasters (Claire’s called in sick – someone needs to run the meeting).

I’ve noted that I get really inefficient when asked to make important decisions in the afternoon but can do it easily morning or evening. For my money, figuring out your own most productive times of day for different kinds of task is worth the effort of tracking tasks against outcomes for a month in some kind of diary. To the extent that I have control of this, I try to arrange writing in the morning, errands, admin, and meetings later in the day, a nap to re-set in the afternoon if there’s time, evening with family, then planning, email, and last minute writing in the late evening. There’s always that 5am slot if it should be needed for something pressing, so long as the afternoon nap is still in play.

Of course, just because creativity is scheduled for a certain time does not mean the creative idea will come at that time with complete docility.

This is why its important to build buffer zones into the process.

For instance: allow a week for an article and do research Sunday night, interview Monday morning, planning and organisation Tuesday night, horrible first draft Wednesday morning, edit Thursday morning, proof and send on Friday. Each part may take less than half an hour, but spacing out the parts is important a) in case it doesn’t go according to plan, and b) to take advantage of a secret superpower.

2. Priming is important
There is a reason that creative ideas can be built in a happy state of flow if you separate the parts as described or become a crushing nightmare if you try to do it all at once in an afternoon before the deadline. The secret superpower is called the ‘default mode process’: a network in the brain (potentially localised somewhat more in the right hemisphere) that keeps working on your most pressing problem even while you do other things. It’s like your own on-board version of GPT – its free and it will work for you while you make coffee so long has you do two things.

Firstly, you have to give it a prompt that is clear and specific with a nod to why the question is important. Something like: ‘how can I re-organise the information I’ve collected on syntropic farming so that regular farmers and a general audience find it interesting, relevant, and not preachy?’ If you want to wake up knowing the answer, this will work better than framing it as ‘write article on syntropic farming’. It also seems to be important to say it aloud or write it down because Right Brain does not seem to to get the message if it is just a thought rattling around in Left Brain’s logical echo chamber. This is where an evening routine of writing a to do list with your 1-3 prompts for the next day can set the conditions for a really productive morning.

Secondly, you have to check back in with Right Brain for the answer. Getting to work as soon as you wake up is effective because Right Brain’s offerings have not yet been overwritten by casual conversations. Doing any one of the pie eating activities listed earlier is another way to tune in to Right Brain’s creative solutions. What they really do is get Left Brain to shut up for a minute and stop trying to solve the problem (its like sitting on Left Brain’s preferred hand so it can’t interfere with the vision Right Brain is trying to offer). When stuck, re-working the prompt can be helpful: write for a few minutes about the experience of being stuck, why it might be difficult, what part is most troublesome – then ask a new question e.g. ‘How can I clarify the conclusion? Or even, ‘what would make this easy?’ or ‘What if there were no constraints on this?’ Watching as an answer instantly manifests is one of the delights of the creative process – it may not be a great or suitable answer, but it does come when called in this way and is often hilarious.

Who is really in charge?

So, if you seek the Wisp when you are most alert by choosing the right time, and you feed it pie and speak to it politely in its own language by priming with a clear prompt, you are improving your ‘trapping’ odds over just leaving it to chance. Hey Right Brain, anything to add? Cool.

Published On: January 17th, 2024

Share This Story