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Don't wait for inspiration

Thinking right on schedule
Flickr user @boetter

(MoneyWatch) A graduate student emailed me recently with a good question. Earning advanced degrees often involves producing new insights about the universe. This is a universe that approximately 100 billion people before you -- and 7 billion still living -- have also pondered. Coming up with the right problem and solving it could take all the time you can throw against it. So how do you manage your time in such circumstances?

Most of us are happily free from the clutches of graduate school and academia in general, but this question has relevance for those of us in many lines of work. Coming up with new categories of products is an uncertain science. Or perhaps you're writing novels, choreographing dances or composing Broadway musicals. Regardless, it seems comical to announce that "I'm going to come up with a new mathematical theorem by Friday!"

But the more I study how people spend their time, the less comical it seems. In choreographer Twyla Tharp's memoir, The Creative Habit, she wrote of reaching a point in her career -- decades into it, to be sure, but still a point -- when she knew that, having sold thousands of tickets to a dance performance in give weeks, she would come up with a great show in that amount of time.

How do you do that?

In short, you welcome inspiration when it comes, and you make your life a welcoming place for inspiration -- but you do not just wait for it. You set aside hours to work on the question at hand. You train yourself to focus, often by creating rituals that signify that now is the time to think. And then you develop the discipline to adhere to that schedule, even when it would be easier to do anything else.

While this isn't as fun a way to go through life as sitting in coffee shops complaining about the muse, it turns out to be shockingly effective. And the good news is that if you do devote a set number of hours per day to thinking about the big problems you are trying to solve, you can do other things with your life at the same time.

You can also nurture your relationships, getting together with friends knowing you've done a solid four hours of thinking during the day. You can exercise, search for a job, volunteer or even think about future projects. Very few things in life must be all-consuming. Creative work need not be either -- as long as you remember that it still needs to be work.

How do you make time for creativity?

Image courtesy of Flickr user @boetter