Sharpening the saw

I’m in the middle of a writing project and it is treading a well-worn path…

My literary journey begins with a spark, an idea, a moment of inspiration.

Once commissioned, I begin the second stage: research. My research is at first internal – I make notes on everything I already know and want to say. Once I have a rough plan and am confident I have enough original thought and sufficient experience and expertise to speak in a credible voice, I begin researching externally. This involves reading through the many books that line my shelves and are stacked upon my desk, the various research papers and academic articles I’ve collected electronically and that adorn the digital shelves of my iPad and Kindle, and the ragbag of ideas (riches and rot in equal measure) that pour from the fruit machine of a Google search.

For the third stage, I read and make notes on my research then type up all my annotations and quotations alongside my original scribbles.

It is usually in the fourth stage – when I read through and try to make sense of my notes – that my energy and enthusiasm veer off the path and into a dead-end.

The purpose of this stage is to sift for gold nuggets among the worthless silt and sand, and – once I’ve panned – to polish, to rewrite my notes so that they make sense, and follow a valid, logical, and rational argument.

Often, in fact almost without exception, I fall flat on my face at this stage. I become frustrated because my notes appear to make no sense, are illogical or contradictory, and the words and sentences I try to carve out from the formless granite sound cacophonous even to the tin-eared, word-babies not even a mother could love.

Unfortunately, I never learn. I hurtle headlong into this stage and waste hours, even days staring at the screen, angrily trying to break the deadlock.

And there is really only one thing that works: to switch my machine off, throw my coat on and take the dog for a walk.

I think I might dedicate my next book to my dog. If it wasn’t for her daily desire to walk the streets and moors, collecting her pee-mail and wagging herself silly at every passing stranger, I would never clear my head and emerge from this fourth stage of writing. I would, in a final fit of rage, delete all my files and give up.

I rarely feel like going for a walk but the moment I open the door, breathe in the air and head down the valley, I am glad I did. Fresh air, exercise and a change of scene are elixir for the soul. And, more importantly, they help me turn my conscious attention away from my work and this allows my subconscious to ruminate on the roadblock in my thinking, to incubate thoughts and ideas, and to find a way forward.

Stephen Covey calls this ‘sharpening the saw’. If you spend the whole day sawing wood but don’t find time to sharpen your saw, Covey says, then your work will suffer. In other words, we need to take care of our most vital resources: our physical, social, and mental wellbeing, because it is these resources that enable us to be effective in our lives.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied the most creatively prolific people in a variety of fields and he found that everyone he interviewed described the same five-stage process, namely: 1. Research, 2. Incubation, 3. Insight and ideation, 4. Evaluation, and 5. Elaboration.

The most productive and creative people, Csikszentmihalyi concluded, began by conducting research, working out what questions to ask, developing an understanding of the background to those questions. Then they made time for ‘incubation’ – they stepped away from the problem that occupied the space at the front of their minds and allowed it to push back into their subconscious whilst they worked on something else. And that’s why dog walking helps me move beyond stage four of my writing journey and head towards the finish line before deadline day.

Returning to Csikszentmihalyi’s five-stage process, the third stage is a period of insight – the lightbulb moment. Sometimes when people have placed ideas into incubation by switching off, something clicks in their subconscious and everything comes together naturally and this pulls them out of incubation and into insight. Other times, they have to actively force ideas out of incubation and into insight. They do this through ideation – such as brainstorming. Even if ideation has to be forced, the research suggests that people have more and better ideas when they’ve had a period of incubation.

Incubation doesn’t have to take place over weeks or days. It doesn’t even need to take place over the course of a half hour dog walk. In fact, ideas can incubate in as little as five minutes or during a short bout of exercise. Physical activity, though not essential, is known to be a particularly effective way of instigating incubation because it forcibly switches the conscious mind away from a task. The faster the walk, the more forcibly it does so.

According to Csikszentmihalyi’s research, the next stages after insight are evaluation followed by elaboration. First, people assess the validity and quality of their insights – are the solutions they’ve come up with any good? Will they work in practice? Are they achievable? Elaboration, the final stage, is the process of putting a solution into practice, trying it out for real.

The most crucial stage, it will not by now surprise you, is incubation for this is where ideas are created and shaped.

So what does this tell us? In short, if we don’t find time to switch off – if we never step away from our work emails, for example, because we have a smart phone that follows us everywhere and allows emails to intrude into our every waking moment – then we’ll never be able to incubate properly.

This is why we shouldn’t take work home with us every evening and weekend. It’s why we should draw some boundaries and make some time for us and for other interests. Exercise is a great way to kickstart the incubation period, as I say, but so is socialising with family and friends.

My clarion call to you? Find a better work life balance this term. Working fewer hours will make you more, not less, effective at your job.

That said, the dog’s at the door.  I’m off out for a walk.


Follow me on Twitter @mj_bromley


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: