The typical day of a typical artist looks much like anybody else’s. They wake up early and have some coffee, then trudge their way to a desk — likely one situated neatly in a cubicle, pre-covid — and work on their “day job” for 8 hours.
They talk to coworkers, send and respond to emails, try to keep up with texts and incoming projects, and they make all sorts of important and not-so-important decisions until, at last, it’s time to clock out.
Most likely they’ve stored away some vague idea that they’ll devote their “free time” to their art, whatever it may be. Writers dream of being one of those disciplined people who can get up earlier and write for an hour. Visual artists imagine evenings hard at work with a glass of wine.
Reality never seems to catch up with those laudable ideals. Instead “free time” is devoted almost completely to rest and recuperation after long, hard days, and there’s a lot less time than they pictured in their heads. Responsibilities and obligations don’t end with the workday, after all.
And everything — everything — demands a toll. That toll is paid in energy spent, and we all have a finite amount of it. Sadly (or at least it seems sad in this case), creative pursuits require even more of this energy than non-creatives could ever imagine. Most creatives never truly pursue their passions. They simply don’t have enough saved up to pay the toll.
But does it have to be this way? What if there was a way to spend far less energy than you thought possible on those mundane, daily tasks, and to do so without any significant cost to your overall success?
What if you could preserve more energy — in most cases a lot more — for creating? Well, I’m here to tell you that this is exactly the case. I’ll prove it, too, using some of the latest neuroscience and psychology available, as well as a wealth of personal experience as a writer and full-time creative living in a rather draining world.
Welcome to the conservation club.
Some Background Information Drawn From A Near-Miss Accident And The Magic Of Human Reflexes
I still own my first car, a bright yellow 2012 VW Beetle named John Lemon. I got him when I was 18 years old and fell in love with him the second I saw him parked at the dealership.
It was therefore quite distressing when I was t-boned by a Mercedes not two weeks after bringing J.L. home. Ultimately the accident wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, however — and that’s thanks to the wonderful and only-recently studied power of the adaptive unconscious.
In his bestselling book Blink, Dr. Malcolm Gladwell writes at length about “the power of thinking without thinking.” He describes the human brain as a kind of supercomputer, with many of its most impressive processes happening in the background of our daily lives.
It’s thanks to these subtle and largely unrecognized processes that you’re able to make what we call “snap decisions” with great accuracy. It’s why you get “hunches” that turn out to be true, and it’s how I managed to save myself (and John Lemon) from flying head-on into oncoming traffic.
On a surface level, my accident happened very quickly. Too quickly for my brain to register much on a conscious level, and certainly too quickly for me to recognize my own actions.
But thanks to the built-in supercomputer I share with the rest of humanity, I was able to reflexively pump the breaks ever-so-slightly and fishtail my car with eerie precision and end up facing the right way in the opposite lane. From there my body continued its autopiloted adventure by steering the car into a nearby side-street I hadn’t even been paying conscious attention to before that moment.
Thanks to that reaction, I wasn’t hurt, and the damage to my car remained in the realm of “repairable.”
You have one of these reflexive supercomputers, too. Like most people, you’re probably completely unaware of it 99% of the time — in fact, most of us under-use this hidden tool to a depressing extent. Thankfully, in life-or-death situations, these extremely efficient processes kick in with or without our directives.
They don’t have to remain in the realm of life-or-death decision-making, though. You can utilize this kind of instantaneous, efficient, and astoundingly precise mental tool in other areas, too. And this is where you can save huge amounts of energy on a consistent basis — energy that can then be used in and for your creative pursuits.
Learn To Trust The (Very Awake)“Unseen You” Waiting Beneath Your (Very Tired) Surface
One of the best parts of our adaptive unconscious is its vigilance. This supercomputer never stops running, and it also uses very little energy — it is naturally efficient, which is precisely why our brains developed to work this way.
Every decision you make requires you to pay an “energy cost.” Our brains use more energy than any other organ in our bodies, and most of that energy is used to make choices and perform related analytical tasks. If we had to use a ton of energy to make boring, daily decisions, we’d hardly have any left by the time we got out of bed.
The adaptive unconscious evolved to perform many of our decision-making functions on very little energy. By remaining firmly in the realm of the subterranean unconscious, this part of the brain is able to navigate us through most of our basic choices without exhausting us.
The conscious decision-making process, on the other hand, uses a lot more energy…and it’s no more accurate than the adaptive unconscious (the A.U., for short). In many — possibly even most — cases, it’s actually less accurate than the A.U.
There’s plenty of evidence to back up this claim. Older models of the unconscious, used in the field of psychology throughout the twentieth through the early-twenty-first century, relegated it to the realm of the untrustworthy, the murky, or the suspicious.
This is reflected in the way most of us dismiss our “hunches” and instincts out of mistrust. After all, the thinking goes, if it’s not conscious, how do we know it’s accurate or right? It’s hard to trust something we don’t understand.
Luckily, in the current era we do understand the adaptive unconscious to a growing extent. Thanks to the work of researchers like Dr. Gladwell, the University of Iowa psychology department, and numerous others, we have data and measurements to back up the once-questionable “magic” of the adaptive unconscious and support some measure of trust in its process.
The “snap judgments” we make — even the ones we aren’t aware we’re making — are often extremely accurate, correct, and useful. This phenomenon has created quite a stir in the scientific community, and it continues to be researched and reported on by journals and mainstream publications alike.
So, the first step in creative conservation, as I call it, is doing your homework and looking at some of the data that backs up the “unseen you” that’s making so many of your day-to-day choices. Learning to trust this quiet but reliable helper is critical to unlocking its full potential.
Learn The “Whens” And The “Whats” Of Your Adaptive Unconscious
I’ll continue this advice with a caveat: the adaptive unconscious is a powerful tool, but it’s not infallible. Certain situations can turn the A.U. into a stereotyping, wishful thinking, and altogether subjective force that may do more harm than good.
You have to know when to let your autopilot engage, and you need to know what blocks it from engaging properly before you do so.
The major roadblock to effective use of this ingrained tool is bias. In some situations that bias is fairly obvious. Race, gender, religious, moral, and philosophical biases are common and all of us have them.
These basic tendencies can pose a major problem when you remain unaware of the impact they may have on your adaptive unconscious. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re immune or truly believe you can be unbiased — you aren’t, and you can’t. In situations involving bias, you have to hold yourself consciously accountable.
Bias can take plenty of subtle forms, too. Do you have self-biases, beliefs about who you are and what you can do that have put down roots in your identity? This kind of bias can sway your adaptive unconscious, too.
Deeper views regarding the way you “should” be, the way your world ought to look, and other views can turn a tool into a tripwire if you fail to cultivate awareness.
The adaptive unconscious method — summed up as the ability to allow your natural “autopilot” to take over during the completion of mundane or daily tasks — is a huge boon when accepted for what it is. This includes acceptance of its limits.
Knowing when those limits might appear and what they represent allows you to conserve energy in a new way. They become a part of your underlying understanding of yourself as an artist and a person, which takes a lot of the guesswork out of your day-to-day actions.
Finally, Be Specific About Your Adaptive Unconscious So It Can Do Its Job Fully & Naturally
Despite what our overarching, work-ethic-obsessed cultures may suggest, using your inborn adaptive unconscious to coast through inane tasks is perfectly aligned with your evolved nature.
This is what your brain was made to do — to be efficient wherever possible and save its energy for the most complex and demanding tasks, however you may define them.
Be specific about what those tasks are. Write out a categorized list and decide where your adaptive unconscious could be the most useful.
Specificity takes out most of the unknowns you have to deal with each day, which further conserves energy for what matters to you. Decision-making is the number one user of brainpower, and most of it can be handled by the adaptive unconscious.
I don’t say any of this lightly. Decision-making is an executive function — a high-order task required to make it through life with some semblance of direction — and as someone with fairly intense, diagnosed ADHD I understand how precious and unpredictable these functions are.
It doesn’t change the fact that we place far too many resources into this array of functions on a daily basis. It’s almost as if, collectively, we feel we have something to prove by wasting our mental space on “important adult tasks” that, realistically, just aren’t that complex.
By getting specific about what you believe your adaptive unconscious can do, you “program” yourself to use it to its full advantage. Categorizing tasks ahead of time frees up mental space for your creative work and keeps you functioning in all other areas of life.
You’ll also free up space for things like relationships, dreams, and problem-solving, which are all integral to the ability of creative minds to operate at full capacity. It’s a beautiful compromise that you were born to make.
So don’t waste it — get specific about where your autopilot belongs, and let your evolution do the rest.
When the words adaptive unconscious comes up, most people’s eyes glaze over. It sounds like a vague, woo-woo term that someone (possiby Freud’s ghost) came up with to explain a litany of nonsense complexes.
This perception couldn’t be more off the mark. The adaptive unconscious is a well-researched, well-studied part of our physical and mental anatomy that dates back to a time when we weren’t even human yet.
It is, as the name suggests, an adaptation. And it’s a shame to let that adaptation go to waste.
In our modern era, we have let go of many adaptations. The reasons for this are manifold, and beyond the scope of this article, but generally speaking we are quick to dismiss the parts of ourselves that seem too “primal” to fit in with our evolved lives.
But ignoring our adaptations, many of which dwell in the oldest parts of our brains, is a waste. The adaptive unconscious is above all an energy-conservation tool.
Our ancestors couldn’t afford to waste calories or mental space on the mundane. They needed to have an autopilot around to free up space for more creative, reactive, and quick-witted pursuits, or they’d have been at a huge disadvantage in a harsh and unpredictable world.
In many ways our current world is just as unpredictable, though thankfully not as harsh. You probably won’t die if you dedicate too much brain-space to routine paperwork, and a sabertooth won’t leap out of your closet while you’re focused on vacuuming the dirty carpet.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a cost to ignoring the adaptive unconscious’s potential, however. As creators, we use up more brain power on our art than we do on anything else. Creativity is a huge investment of time and mental resources — and most of us are, on a basic level, more than willing to make this investment on a daily basis.
But we are tired. Because of the way our societies are structured, we use a huge chunk of our energy on things that don’t actually require much of it at all. It’s habitual at this point, and reflects the idea that we should consider x, y, and z mundane tasks “important enough” to dump those resources into.
They aren’t. If you are a creator, you were born to create, and no one has the right to tell you that tax forms, sales calls, or emails are equally as important as your art. You absolutely, 100% can do an adequate or even an excellent job at completing any of these activities while on autopilot.
This isn’t always easy to accept. It challenges many of our culturally held beliefs about the definition of hard work and effort, and it can make us feel like “slackers” to pull back from those beliefs.
Ultimately, the adaptive unconscious can’t help you with that feeling. It comes down to the way you identify yourself and your actions.
Is it “slacking” to do a decent job in an office, then create incredible things at home? Or is it simply a new way of organizing your life without sacrificing the things that matter?
The decision is up to you. I encourage you to end this article by thinking of possibilities: if you could take all of the energy you spend on the mundane and put that into your art without sacrificing your day job, what could you accomplish?
Within your answer, dear readers, lies the true power of the human brain. So use it.