The Guilty, Crazy Secret That Helps Me Write

April 14, 2014 — 24 Comments

GEORGE: I can’t get it out of my head. I just keep singing it over and over. It just comes out. I have no control over it. I’m singing it on elevators, buses. I sing it in front of clients. It’s taking over my life.

JERRY: You know, Schumann went mad from that. He went crazy from one note. He couldn’t get it out of his head. I think it was an A. He kept repeating it over and over again. He had to be institutionalized.

GEORGE: Really? What if it doesn’t stop?

JERRY gestures “That’s the breaks.” – Seinfeld “The Jacket

I won’t say that I present the picture of mental health or anything, but most people would be surprised to find out I harbor a habit that hints at deep insanity.

I listen to the same song over and over again. Alone in my office, or on my iPod, or on my phone, I play them on repeat over and over and over again. Loudly.

In my iTunes library there are certain songs of an embarrassing nature that I have played more than 300 or 400 times in a row (that is a full 24 hours each). I’ve gone through so many computers over the last few years that I don’t have an accurate tally, but if I were to add them up, the numbers and the songs would seem preposterous, even to me. They are my version of the backyard shed, covered in incomprehensible gibberish in A Beautiful Mind, or the wall in Carrie Mathison’s apartment after a manic fit. And then I wake from my stupor and discard the songs like used condoms and pretend it never happened.

As a result, I no longer enjoy “music,” a fact that the 16-year-old version of myself–the one who was in a band and had hard drives full of rare music–would have found unthinkable. God knows, I never thought I’d find myself 142 listens in on a Taylor Swift song on a Tuesday morning.

But there is a method to the madness. I found that this secret habit has been the fuel for my creative output.

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See, part of writing–or really any creative endeavor from brainstorming to marketing–requires tuning everything out. There are a couple ways to do this. You have your noise canceling headphones or ambient noise machines. You can put your phone on “Airplane Mode” or tell everyone to leave you alone.

The problem with these reductive techniques is that they leave everything a little empty. In my experience, it’s not about quiet, it’s about finding your zone.

I think melodic music, played on repeat, puts you in a heightened emotional state–while simultaneously dulling your awareness to most of your surroundings. It puts you in a creative zone. The important facilities are turned on, while all the others are turned off.

Sometimes “good” songs can help you with that. But Bruce Springsteen only has so many songs that work for this (Try “I’m On Fire”). You exhaust them soon enough and have to start listening to songs on the Top 40. And you stop caring who wrote them–as long as it brings you closer to that state.

Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, The Blind Side, The Big Short) has spoken about this too. Writing a book–or really any major creative project–puts you in an “agitated mental state.” It’s hard to sleep, it’s hard to concentrate, it’s hard to be present in everyday. But you can’t afford that when you’re actually working. He fixes that by doing the following:

I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.

You might ask, can you accomplish this by listening to music like a normal person? I would have thought so too, but the answer is no. Repeat on the same song or the same two or three songs allows the songs to fade into themselves–to become a more or less a continuous stream. The reason I gravitate towards radio singles is that they normally have big, catchy choruses. The idea is that after enough listens to song becomes a perpetual chorus.

Time stops. Distractions stop. Extraneous thinking stops. (Proof of which is the fact that you’re not bothered by the fact that the song is looping every three minutes and thirty seconds.)

All that’s left is the work at hand. All that’s left is that little voice inside your head that you’re attempting to hear and translate onto the page. All that’s left is the book or the paper you’re reading. All that’s left is problem you’re trying to crack when you go for a walk. All that’s left is the workout you’re trying to complete.

The bullshit–well, it disappears for a fleeting second.

Creative work isn’t about pleasure. It’s not always fun. It’s about reaching something inside yourself–something that society and everyday life make extraordinarily difficult. This is one way to do it.

The fact that it basically ruined music for me is a cost I am willing to pay. I’ll take my fix from anyone–and I’m not ashamed to say that I have. Even if that means I have to listen to the Black Eyed Peas or some other god-awful group.

Every writer (or painter or thinker or adman) finds their own way. This is mine. Maybe it will work for you. Or maybe you’ll try it and never look at me the same way again.

The post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.

Ryan Holiday

I’m a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

24 responses to The Guilty, Crazy Secret That Helps Me Write

  1. Crib made her tapout, sauna made her tapout
    Jet made her tapout, pilot with the map out

  2. Of course, as a composer, this does not work for me.

    But the principle is good. It does explain why I listen to very familiar old rock when I am writing code, though.

    — Doug

  3. I remember coming across this in reddit.com/r/writing with the headline “A Trick To Entering Flow”, the writer did it with a track from the Tron Legacy soundtrack.

    For me I can’t go that insane, ever since I was a teen I would focus on one album, and that would become my “productive” album. It’ll be stuck on repeat while I’m working, looping over and over again. It’s gone from 2Pac to Grieg to Hans Zimmer.

    Now I usually just go to my massive attack radio station on pandora, which I’ve optimised the fuck out of (by optimise I mean click “like” and “dislike” over a year) and just keep it playing. The same tracks play again and again, but I don’t care, I’m in the zone man.

    I also experimented with this site http://www.rainycafe.com for a while. It worked for me for a while, but I have strong pavlovian response with rain and reading/writing from childhood.

    Long story short: you’re not alone.

  4. Funny, as I thought of applying this myself, the emotion of fear came up. On one side, the fear that I would apply it and lose my taste for music. (A HUGE part of my life.) On the other, that I wouldn’t apply it and not discover this fantastic and odd way to be productive. Maybe I’ll use it to lose any and all taste for pop music and keep my taste for the blues. Ha!

    Thanks for introducing this to us Ryan.

  5. Listening to music is definitely my favorite part of the writing process.

  6. Thank you! This was amazing post. I thought I was the only one who would listen to the same song for 12 hours while working on a deadline. It shuts everything else out and gives me laser focus. I used to think – just don’t tell anyone you are listening to the same song on repeat for hours and days on end, it just might seem a little crazy – but it makes perfect sense. Thank you so much for this!

  7. When I work, rather than radio singles, I love listening to bands like Radiohead (anything from Kid A forward), The Album Leaf, The Cinematic Orchestra, Sigur Ros and anything recent by Nine Inch Nails. They have a pace about them, but also this ability to create an ethereal, ignore-able backdrop for concentration. I don’t use playlists or shuffle though, that makes it too unpredictable.

  8. I do the same. Last of the Mohicans soundtrack over and over again.

  9. I have the same habit of listening to music in a loop. But I don’t feel bad about it. What I do feel bad about is sometimes if I’m not careful, I will spend too much time trying to find the right song to “zone out” to.

  10. The music is a device to help you achieve mindfulness (I.e. focusing on the task at hand instead of the unproductive thoughts in your head.)

  11. For Chris, above: I think with ‘good’ music it’s not going to work becuase you’re going to get too involved with it.
    At work we’ve pooled everybody’s MP3s on the server, so I can check out artists that everybody talks about, but which have never been appealing to me. That’s what I listen to at work, and my favourite stuff stays at home.
    And in most cases I’ve discovered that my disdain for mainstream artists was justified!

    • Thanks for that Phil. It’s exactly what I discovered in using this for the past two weeks. I won’t touch any Buddy Guy songs with this technique. But Justin Timberlake? No loss at all. Thanks for the reply.

  12. I think ive been disposed to this tool for impelling productiveness my whole life but have never truly realized it. I to, did experience a bit of impeding fear on trying this, but now that I have, I realize ive always had an inclination for this maniacal method of output. It just seems natural when the same song plays again.
    It helps me tremendously with sifting through and sorting out my brain in brainstorming for planning as well as writing.

    Sincere thanks Ryan for sharing with all of us your once privy and personal techniques for creative output. There are a few of you determined, lucid and generous guys that since the time Ive been exposing myself to have contributed to some real creative awareness for me.

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