Courting a Work Muse With Auto-Analytics

Courting a Work Muse With Auto-Analytics

Boost your creativity at work -- just like Picasso.


They’re the Holy Grail for businesses: creativity and its left-brain cousin, productivity. They’re evasive qualities of the human consciousness, mysterious gods — chimeras of inspiration, action and energy — that come and go of their own accord. Despite their origins in your mind, they don’t often come when you send for them — when you’re facing a blank page, heading back to the drawing board or just trying to find a way to rewrite sales copy you’ve tackled a million times before.

The Greeks, of course, personified the idea of muses — nine often capricious goddesses of artistic disciplines, ranging from lyrical poetry to music. They gave the idea of creative inspiration its own special term, calling it “daemon,” which refers to a kind of spirit guide of the soul, as well as the central idea behind a popular TED Talk about creativity by “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert.

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In this age of mobile integration, those muses aren’t just music, art and poetry anymore — they’re motivation, optimization and work ethic, among other buzzwords. Whatever name you call them, they’re still elusive to harness, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. In this digitally-immersed age, bosses put a premium on the trait. A creativity boost is like a secret sauce to a recipe: an extra kick that can push you to the top. But to court that inspiration, you’ll need to optimize your work habits. Call it Creativity 2.0. You can’t call it on command — but tech tools are here to help.

Measure for Measure

I’ve long been fascinated by the ways artists, writers and musicians courted inspiration to boost productivity — their work habits and superstitions. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov, for example, liked to write his first draft on notecards, giving him the ability to compose out of order and shuffle scenes more easily. Mark Twain, meanwhile, disappeared into his office each day after breakfast, skipping lunch to write until dinner — all the while prodigiously smoking cigars. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, author of acclaimed novels like “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” ended every writing day with a long run without fail. Picasso himself slept late into the day, then taking time for extravagant meals before working well into the night when everyone slept.

If Picasso and those geniuses were alive today, no doubt they would indulge in auto-analytics: the field of study that aims to boost creativity and performance. Using mobile and tech devices to gathering data, software slices and dices the bits of information to gives you a portrait of your work habits and patterns.

Ideally, the insights point out the unconscious little things you can adjust to make big differences in your daily work output and creativity. You might discover, for example, that replying to e-mails at the start of the day reduces your ability to focus on bigger projects in the afternoon — so you’d be better off delaying your replies to lunch. The point is, by tracking your activities, you can boost your inspiration, hone your productivity and sharpen your focus — all adding up to a more creative and inspired workday, leading to better job performance and, ideally, a raise.

Auto-analytics is a natural extension of a bigger “quantified self” movement, which uses technology to measure almost every aspect of your existence. Want to measure how well you sleep? There’s an app and special mobile add-on for that. Moods? Yes, there are plenty of apps for that as well. Calories, physical activity, time, stress levels, distraction — if there’s a way to track it, there’s a way to measure it and squeeze out some insight from it.

Some criticize the movement as excessive, navel-gazing and OCD, but the core impulse of quantified self is self-knowledge through data. There’s no realm of human experience that can’t be measured and analyzed, and by scrutinizing even the most throwaway moments under the lens of data analysis, you gain greater insight into what makes you tick and where you can improve.

Scientist Stephen Wolfram, for example, tracked his work habits for 23 years. While he sent e-mails throughout his waking day — albeit a slight dip around dinner time — he discovered he’d send more e-mails when he got more involved in the management of his company. While tracking keystrokes, he uncovered that he’d hit the backspace key nearly seven percent of the time — a reflection of a need to outline messages before writing, perhaps. If Picasso lived in a data-driven age, that’s how he’d measure the impact of his regular afternoon siesta on the quality of his work.

The impulse to analyze everything with a relentless eye for improvement isn’t new: athletes have long measured every aspect of their physical, mental and emotional selves to increase performance. The difference? Technology has brought down the cost of auto-analytics, so you can do it with an iPhone.

Businesses are also discovering the goldmine. Of course, they’ve measured output and worker productivity for years, but auto-analytics reverses that top-down approach. Rather than dictating targets to hit, they encourage you to track your habits to boost your performance. You get to choose what to measure and what adjustments to make — it’s the ultimate in personalized job improvement.

Text Me, O Muse!

But what can you measure to up your creative A-game? With computers and smartphones such a central feature to work life, you can start with how and when you use your devices, tools and time. No matter what the job, you spend your working hours staring at a screen in one capacity or another. Yet screen time is rife with clutter — it’s too easy to dart to Facebook for a quick break, only to look up and realize you spent hours liking vacation photos, chatting with friends and participating in other nefarious Zuckerberg-engineered distractions.

Those breaks can be a pleasant idyll from a demanding task, allowing you to return to your work with a refreshed mind — but more often than not, they’re productivity vampires, sucking your energy reserves dry and stealing your focus. That’s where auto-analytics can help. It can tell you the difference and let you to figure out the “sweet spot” between a nice break and a major time-suck.

Tools like RescueTime.com, IDoneThis.com and Tallyzoo.com, for example, help you collect data on the time you spend on various websites and apps. RescueTime does it automatically, tracking your screentime, but IDoneThis and Tallyzoo makes it easy for you to log and journal your activities manually — which might be helpful if your work consists of significant non-computer time, especially if used in combination with a service like RescueTime. Whatever your tools of choice, the core mission is the same: to help you glean whether you’re spending your time the way you want to.

If you’re frittering it away on the piles of nonsense, they’ll tell you. By tracking your time, they’ll show the distracting impact on your output, so you’ll know truly whether that daily dose of Mobiledia is a boost to your inspiration — it is. For a more interactive approach, Work.com, formerly Rypple, helps you set performance goals and check your progress through quick, continuous feedback, much like a real-time coach.

You can track other factors that affect your work life and creativity, of course — Lumosity, an online platform that develops games for workers to play during downtime, promise to develop entertainment to boost mental dexterity, quick thinking and problem-solving. And since physical health strongly correlates with creative and mental performance, a tool like HeartMath’s EmWave2, for example, gives you insight on situations that spark stress instead of inspiration. The device monitors your pulse throughout the workday. You can then look at your stats on a desktop dashboard to see what sorts of situations give you the most stress — and give you ways to tackle that stress.

If you’re a worker or a boss, auto-analytics will appeal to you — it’s easy to log into a site or turn on an app or device. And if your boss lets you direct your own experiments, measure your own goals, and keep your data protected and private, it can be fun to discover how small adjustments to your routine can make a big impact.

After all, it takes more than talent to reach the full extent of your creativity. It takes more than fleeting inspiration to make great work — you also need the right drive, skillful effort, fortuitous conditions and just a bit of luck. Artists like Picasso and writers like Mark Twain harnessed their incredible talent with strong work ethic honed after years of practice. Muses may change their shapes and faces to suit the age, but regardless of what names we call them, they still demand sacrifices of time and effort.


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