It’s funny. For years and years we’ve thrown around terms like “mental energy,” and for the most part, none of us really questions what we’re getting at. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately in my own photography, and it’s looking like some of the new research on creativity is confirming what I originally thought. There is such a thing as mental energy, and if you can learn how to harness it, you’ll get the most out of the time you spend taking pictures. Here’s what I mean.
Now when I say "mental energy", I mean energy in the same sense your car needs energy so you can drive to work. It involves food, metabolism, and all of the biological things we take for granted in our everyday lives.
I’ll admit that I never really believed in mental energy until I picked up Daniel Kahneman’s new book Thinking Fast and Slow. In it, he talks about parole officers who are more willing to grant parole if they’ve just eaten lunch. Why? Because the food sends a signal to the brain, telling it they’re not starving and it’s okay to spend more energy on thinking. When the parole officers are at an energy low, they’re a little less willing to think over someone’s parole request. They just say “no” instead.
Thankfully you don’t have someone’s fate in your hands when you pick up your camera (unless you’re doing some hard-hitting journalistic photography), but it’s still worth paying attention to Kahneman’s message. When do you do most of your photography? Do you do it when you’re feeling alert and energized, or do you try to sneak it in at the end of your day when you’re feeling drained? Chances are you’ll be more creative if you take pictures just after you’ve eaten something.
Kahneman, by the way, is in no way implying anything sinister by saying the parole officers are less likely to grant parole before lunch. He is merely pointing out something about all of us. We all have our defaults. It takes less mental energy to do what we’re used to doing, so we simply go with our defaults whenever we’re at an energy low. However, if you’ve just eaten, slept, or gotten a fresh cup of joe, you’ll probably have the energy to do something different from your default. In other words, you’ll be more creative.
I know my best time is in the morning right after my first (well... second or third) cup of coffee. That’s when I have a ton of energy to kick around new ideas. Oftentimes, it doesn’t take that much to snap out of a lull. Have a cookie or something with a little bit of sugar. Diet gurus are going to hate me for saying this, but it goes a long way toward improving your mental state. If you’re going to do a lot of thinking, you’re going to need a lot of mental energy.
Here’s another thing to consider. We photographers often wake up at some pretty strange hours just to get the shot. Getting up at 4 A.M. sucks, but it sucks a lot less when you’ve got your coffee machine ready and a nice quick breakfast in your belly. You should feel like you’re at your mental peak once the sun starts coming up. If you’re still tired, it will come through in your images.
Most of us are only creative for a few hours out of the day. It’s much better to work efficiently when you’re at your peak than to half-heartedly attempt to break past your limits through a mid-afternoon haze. Listen to your body (and your mind). Only take pictures when you feel inspired and energized. You’ll be much happier with the result.
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