What Charles Darwin can teach us about beating creative block

Take it easy.
Take it easy.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Charles Darwin spent a lot of time hanging out with worms.

Over the course of his lifetime, the 19th-century English scientist achieved a lot—from penning On the Origin of Species, the 1859 book that would revolutionize the way the world understood evolution, to writing on everything from infant development to coral reefs and barnacles. But in the background, from 1837 onwards, Darwin was also totally obsessed with earthworms.

“He fills his billiard room with earthworms in pots, with glass covers,” economist and author Tim Harford explains in his latest TED talk. He shines lights on them, to see if they’ll respond. He holds a hot poker next to them, to see if they move away. He chews tobacco and blows on the earthworms to see if they have a sense of smell. He even plays the bassoon at the earthworms.”

Darwin continued like this, off and on, for years, until in 1881 he finally published The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits.

With this in mind, there are two things we can do to be more like Darwin. First, we can all compose music for worms, which sounds like a relaxing and philanthropic hobby. Second—and this is Harford’s real point—we can follow in the footsteps of the master biologist, and learn the art of “slow-motion multitasking” in order to improve our creativity.

As Harford notes in his TED talk, multitasking often gets a bad rap—and with good reason. Switching quickly between tasks only drains us of energy while making it nearly impossible to get anything useful done. Harford recommends multitasking over the long term instead. “Having multiple projects on the go at the same time,” he says, is quite beneficial for creative types—shaking us out of ruts and helping us get new perspectives on our work.

Harford’s argument is perhaps most convincing when it comes to the value of spreading our interests around so that, when we hit a wall with one endeavor, we can simply hop over to another project we’re less burnt out on. Having a lot of balls in the air, he says, means that we’re less likely to succumb to “stasis, stress, possibly even depression.” He points to Albert Einstein, who got tired of working on the general theory of relativity—who can blame him?—and switched to pondering radiation for a while, publishing a paper that would help lead to the invention of lasers.

And then there are Darwin and his worms. “I like to think of this great man when he’s tired, he’s stressed… Darwin would go into the billiard room to relax by studying the earthworms intensely,” Harford says.

So if you sometimes worry that you lack focus, take heart. There’s no reason you have to choose between your day job or playing guitar or writing a novel or exploring your burgeoning interest in macrame. In fact, chipping away at all of those things over time may help you maintain an energetic, optimistic outlook—and perhaps even make a creative breakthrough of your own.

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