In my book The Accidental Creative, I wrote about the importance of stimuli to the creative process, and how critical it is to have a deep well of ideas and resources from which to draw when you need a great idea. However, in the hustle of the workplace, many of us are already overwhelmed, and the notion of taking time to intentionally absorb inspiring and mind-expanding inspiration can see like a “nice to have”, though not entirely practical activity.
The opposite is actually true.
If you dedicate time in your calendar to regularly absorbing and processing new insights from other people, you’ll be far better positioned to have brilliant ideas when you need them most. For many people, the idea of “study” died the moment that they graduated from school, but it shouldn’t have. In fact, most of the incredibly successful people I encounter in the marketplace have some form of study plan that they follow in order to help them spot patterns in their business, anticipate client needs, and simply spark new ideas and new categories of thought. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson wrote about the creative process as the process of “pursuing the adjacent possible.” This means playing with ideas and combining them in unique ways until something clicks and a combination is actually useful in helping solve a problem that you’re working on.
However, in order to be able to do this effectively, you need to first have ideas to play with. You must fill your mind with potentially valuable stimuli, and regularly consider how they might help you solve the problems you’re working on.
Here are the steps to establishing a study plan:
1. Dedicate a regular time for study. First, I encourage you to set aside time a few days a week – at least – for the purpose of study. This doesn’t mean dusting off your old trigonometry textbooks. It does mean intentionally reading material that sparks your curiosity, and that causes you to have to pause and think. For example, this week I’m reading three books: I’m working my way through Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss, I’m reading a book by a French Catholic philosopher called The Intellectual Life, and a book by an upcoming AC podcast interview guest called Creative Change.
I set aside an hour each morning for study, but it’s not just reading. I only spend about two thirds of it actually reading a bit of each book I’m working my way through, the I spend a third of it writing about my thoughts and observations, and how they might apply to my work. I learned this from my interview with Keith Ferrazzi several years ago, in which he recommended taking an hour of reflection for every hour that you spend studying. I adjusted it downward a bit, but the principle remains – don’t just read without application. If you do, it won’t be nearly as productive.
Also, read actively. As you’re reading, consider the work that you’re doing right now and how what you’re reading might apply to problems you’re trying to solve. Even if you’re reading a book on particle physics or history, you might find something super helpful in your work if you keep your antennae up and look for patterns. Take notes, and write down any quotes or interesting turns of phrase on a notecard or in your notebook. Then, before you read the next day, review the previous days’ notes. I get more ideas for books and for clients this way than in any other way.
2. Study broadly and deeply. With regard to content, I’d recommend about 50% what you read be comprised of topics that spark your curiosity. These could be biographies, books on specific topics like psychology or art, or anything else that you will look forward to reading. About 25% of what you read should feel like you are eating your mental vegetables. These are books that you’re reading because they are helping you develop a new skill, or gain a better perspective on your work or clients. These could be business books, technical books, or something else that will help you spot trends and sharpen your skills. Finally, the reamining 25% of what you read should be related to upcoming work in some way. If you know that there’s a direction you’d like to go, or that you have a specific project on the horizon with a client, dedicate a portion of your study time to getting ahead of the project and filling your mind with ideas that could be beneficial at a later date.
One final thing with regard to the reading process: I do a lot of it while I’m walking or in the car. Dangerous? Not really, because I’m not really reading, I’m listening. I listen to 3-4 audiobooks per month via the local library on an app called Overdrive. You can also use a service like Audible.com to purchase audiobooks, but I go through so many that I prefer to borrow them. (Is that terrible for me to say, as an author? Maybe.) I also listen to a lot of podcasts, and read a lot of magazine articles in my “in between” times, like while I’m waiting for an appointment or eating, via a service called Texture. It’s a magazine subscription service that operates a lot like Netflix – you have access to dozens of magazines, including all back issues, on your devices. I also use a service called Feedly to subscribe to various news sources, and add them to a reading queue in Instapaper so that I always have articles to study and highlight when I’m out of the office.
“The mind is like the aeroplane which can only be kept aloft by going forward with the power of its propeller. To stop, is to crash.” – Sertillanges
Also, I recommend you develop an actual “stimulus queue”. This is a list of books or resources that you’re going to work your way through over the coming months. Set your list, then work through it systematically so that you are never without something to read. You can keep your stimulus queue as an actual list, or just stack the books on your shelf as a reminder. I encourage you to actually work your way through the list systematically.
3. After you read, reflect. Finally, spend time after you read reflecting on the book or resource. Consider these questions:
- How might what I just read apply to a problem I’m trying to solve, or to my life? New information isn’t for hoarding, it’s for applying to problems in your world and for helping you achieve new breakthroughs. Consider how what you’ve just read might apply – even loosely – to work that you’re currently doing. The magic is in the application.
- What did I learn that I didn’t know before? Spend some time considering new insights that you’d not previously heard or considered. By reflecting on these, you’ll increase the odds that they’ll be available to you as you go through your day. Also, consider sharing one or two of them with someone else that same day, because you often retain ideas better when you teach them to others.
- How does what I read today connect to other things I’ve been learning? This last question is key, because it’s not a single insight alone that matters, it’s the synthesis that results from disparate areas of exploration coming together that leads to breakthrough. Your dedication to connecting dots will result in greater results than the dots alone.
As Sertilanges wrote in one of the books I am currently reading, “The mind is like the aeroplane which can only be kept aloft by going forward with the power of its propeller. To stop, is to crash.” If you want to be prolific, brilliant, and healthy, you need to stoke the fires of your mind.
Set time for study and inspiration, connect the dots, and keep your mind moving forward.
This article is from an episode of The Accidental Creative podcast. Listen or subscribe here.