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Creative Space: A Few of My Favorite Strategies

I’ll take you in pieces
We can take all apart
I’ve suffered shipwrecks right from the start
I’ve been underwater, breathing out and in
I think I’m losing where you end and I begin

- The XX from their song Basic Space

Down under the roots of everything we do to make software, I see a creative process.  It might not involve a canvas, (although it may involve a canvas tag) but those of us working in software are often asked to solve hard problems and to answer difficult questions.  At this point, I’ve had a few different job titles in software, but in each one of them, I have always needed to find enough creative space to allow my brain to work its magic on the hard problems.  The ultimate goal is to decrease stress or anxiety and increase focus.

How do I know if I’m stressed?  Sometimes the signs are internal.  Having anxiety pain at the center of my chest or switching back and forth between lots of windows tells me it’s definitely time to walk away from the computer for a bit.  Externally, if it’s right before a release deadline or the end of a sprint, I know that even if I think I feel ok, I still need to work on managing my stress level.

So, a few strategies:

Going for a short walk
My friend Gordon and I used to take short, 10 minute walks around the technical campus where we worked in Atlanta pretty regularly.  He’s now a counselor, and has actually written his own article about this.  We spent no money, consumed no calories and inhaled some fresh air.  I’ve continued this in Sydney and plan to continue this wherever I work.  It’s a great way of re-booting in the middle of the day.

Do work away from your desk
I used to install “stuff” to a production system.  By “stuff”, I mean programs that decided whether or not someone would get a loan.  It was messy and stressful.  The only way I succeeded at installing the “stuff” correctly and consistently was to prepare for it away from my desk.  I would hide in a corner of the corporate cafeteria with printouts of what I was supposed to install and go through my own personal checklist.  There was no phone and no one knew where I was (or knew where I was and knew to stay away). I got the concentration I needed and had a high level of success with the installs I did.

Brain dump whatever you are thinking
There are few things more gorgeous to me than the mysterious way our brains can process several things at once and then bring them together when we least expect it in ways our conscious mind would not have put together.  If I’ve got a lot of stuff on my mind, I will often take a few minutes and just write.  I might write it in an email to myself or I might stick in a text file.  Most of these dumps are worth saving because I never know what will turn into a great blog post or test case (or both.)  I keep paper in the bathroom because I tend to get a lot of activity in the shower.  I used to keep paper in my car because I would think of stuff while driving.  It’s not like I action this writing right away, or maybe even ever.  I find that the stuff that’s important comes back to me.

Put a relaxation podcast on your iPod
I’ve got a few of these that I listen to at different times.  No matter how new age-y and lame you may say these are in public, if it’s on your iPod, nobody has to know.  Here’s a summary of a quick one that I like to do at my desk every now and then:  Close your eyes or lower them.  Visualize what you are thinking.  Think “10” and inhale.  Exhale and think, “relax.”  Think “9” and inhale.  Exhale and think relax.

One more because I love it:  Sitting at your desk, tense up as much as you can.  Neck, shoulders, toes, fingers, legs, butt, everything and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze for 5.  Release!

Wear headphones even if you are not listening to music
Is there any better “leave me alone” sign than a big set of headphones?  (I guess maybe a big sign that says “leave me alone.”)  If you wear the small headphones, and you have long hair, put it in a ponytail so people will see your headphones.  If you are wearing headphones to get some space, it might also be worth turning off your chat.

These are a few strategies that I have used to create space for myself and to give my brain the space it needs to do the work I love. If you have a tip that you’d like to share please leave me a comment.  Let’s take a deep breath together…inhale…exhale  :)

3 Comments on "Creative Space: A Few of My Favorite Strategies"

  • Ram says

    Great thoughts Marlena.
    i have strated going on a 10min brisk walk after lunch occasionally. But i only felt that i lost that time from work and if i could have completed some work by then. On the other hand i would feel happy that I was able to get at least that amount of exercise for the day :)

    Agreed about finding a corner. I often do that so i can be undisturbed for sometime to get some work done. Though is till get distracted with the Outlook (#1 distractor for me). At times, i should say, the computer is the sev0 pri 0 distracting devices for my creative space. apparently, i don’t leave the computer even if i go over to a conf room to hide myself or somewhere at the corner on a different floor in the building, but it helps me get some work done…

    great thoughts, thank you for the post..

  • Zhuang Xu says

    Thanks for the great blog post, Marlena!

    For me, the current distraction level at work is so high that sometime I feel I have to spend 1/3 of my time to keep track of what’s going on in the IRC channel, or check out whatever links get posted on it. If I don’t keep track of it, I will feel anxious that I might miss something “important”. So it’s both distracting and stressing.. One thing I want to do most is turning it off but I don’t dare…

  • Rick says

    Huh! I’ve done a few of these things for some time — it’s interesting that there’s a kind of partial intersection.
    I adore working on university campuses for a couple of reasons. First, there’s usually somewhere interesting to take a walk when you need some air. Second, there’s often an abundance of nooks and crannies to stow away in when you want to get away from your desk. When it’s time to plan out the architecture of a program or think up creative ways to test something, I’ll often ditch the computer and head for one of these hidey-holes armed with a pen and a thick notepad.
    Since I’ve picked up the viola, I’m finding music practice to be a great “mental reboot” when my brain’s been stewing in the computer vats for too long. It’s something productive that I can do that gets me completely out of the technical headspace. Twenty minutes of scales and simple tunes seems to give me a better mental refresh than doing something mindless at the computer (surfing, email) or even away from it (chores, getting a coffee).

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