'Usually, I finish a project with much more done on the next one than I thought. That's why I've developed this procedure for having a bunch of notebooks around, so that I can keep my projects straight. Once some music gets started in my head, it's usually very clear what the piece is. I'll take a break from what I'm consciously doing at the moment and write something down in the right notebook.'
John Harbison from The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process by Ann McCutchan
We seldom think about one thing for very long. We can be distracted from even the most attractive and captivating of ideas by something new, something unexpected, or simply something different.
Throughout our lives we are encouraged to fight distraction: to concentrate upon the task at hand and expel all errant thoughts.
This makes good sense: for driving, operating machinery, passing exams, brain surgery, stuff like that. None of us want to have a car accident or serious injury, or fail an important exam. Most of us most of the time do not wish to hurt anyone!
Our creativity, however, thrives upon distraction: upon the unexpected, upon the novel and the new. Distracted by the thought of a falling man Einstein eventually formulated his General Theory of Relativity. Distracted by a contaminated petri dish Alexander Fleming eventually discovered penicillin. Distracted by the cooking of waffles Bill Bowerman, quite quickly in comparison to the previous examples, invented the waffle trainer.
Distraction, in all its forms, is the life blood of creativity and innovation, so we need to learn how to embrace and use it to our advantage. We need to learn how to dance comfortably and enjoyably between the ideas that compete for our attention.
Dancing is fluid but formal; dancing is changeable but controlled. The best dancing, to my mind, has a simple and immediate effect upon those who dance and those who watch.
John Harbison's method of capturing and working with his ideas achieves similar things. His notebook system is flexible enough to allow him to move between ideas (like moving between different dancing partners) but formal enough to ensure that he captures and develops his ideas accurately and methodically; his partner ideas may change but the steps of his dance do not. His system is also simple and straightforward, helping him to change the focus of his thoughts quickly: to easily and immediately dance with the distractions of new, unexpected and potentially valuable ideas.
So, when you next need to think creatively, try dancing with your ideas. Create a system similar to John Harbison's and balance the fluidity of distraction with the formality of focus. Then you can welcome distraction with open arms, safe in the knowledge that you will not lose your place within the overall dance of your thoughts.