List-making is an important part of staying organized (even—or especially—for those of us who are not natural list-makers).

What are your favorite forms of to-do-lists?

For inspiration, read Seeing Is Doing: Eight Creative Ways To Visualize Your To-Do List.



Photo credits: 225/365 Reminders by thebarrowboy (CC BY 2.0); "Survive" photo by Tom Ray (CC BY-SA 2.0)

We all know that physical exercise is good for our bodies, but it is also good for our brains and our creativity.


An article published in yesterday's New Yorker magazine, Why Walking Helps Us Think," describes many of the mental advantages of the simple, affordable, and enjoyable act of talking a walk:

Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight. Earlier this year, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford published what is likely the first set of studies that directly measure the way walking changes creativity in the moment. They got the idea for the studies while on a walk. “My doctoral advisor had the habit of going for walks with his students to brainstorm,” Oppezzo says of Schwartz. “One day we got kind of meta.”

In a series of four experiments, Oppezzo and Schwartz asked a hundred and seventy-six college students to complete different tests of creative thinking while either sitting, walking on a treadmill, or sauntering through Stanford’s campus. In one test, for example, volunteers had to come up with atypical uses for everyday objects, such as a button or a tire. On average, the students thought of between four and six more novel uses for the objects while they were walking than when they were seated. [emphases added] Read More

Photo credit: Eduardo (CC BY-SA 2.0)

2013-Participant-Square-Button.pngNovember is coming, and that means that NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is coming, as well. NaNoWriMo is a month-long challenge each November to write a 50,000 word imperfect novel in 30 days. Learn more at the National Novel Writing Month website.

The payoff? Kicking to the curb that nasty internal editor that keeps us from creative fluency.

Where to find the time? Prioritize homework and studying (or grading) but shelve other activities for November (e.g., I'm giving up Facebook for NaNoWriMo).

November is always a very busy month at MSOE, and if you are particularly organizationally challenged or are struggling to catch up with important studying and academic projects, you might want to save NaNoWriMo for another year. However, if you feel on top of your school work and have a story in you that needs to see the light of day, this might be the time. Also, remember that you will have a week between quarters in November when you can play word count catch up, if you need to.

If you are interested, please join the MSOE NaNoWriMo group ( where we can share NaNo usernames (mine is one to die for, I promise), cheer each other on (I need encouragement to finish this challenge after several unsuccessful attempts), share tips, and, on December 1st, celebrate our success!

Kerning.pngDo you love design? Typography? If so, you'll want to check out these fun, short learning games by Method of Action:

  • Kern Type: "A game that will help you understand letter spacing and kerning"
  • Shape Type: "Learn how to manipulate bézier curves and get a typography lesson at the same time"


To learn more about kerning and typography, visit John Boardley's beautifully designed blog, I Love Typography.

Email.pngI am an email hoarder. I admit it. The proof is in my gmail account, which reads "9.26 GB (61%) of 15 GB used."

That is a lot of email. Some of it is junk that I'm in the process of deleting, but much of it I want to keep. It's just that when my unread messages hit triple digits—many of those messages, by the way, I read but then marked unread as a way to know I need to revisit them—it's time for some serious email intervention, if only for my peace of mind.

Here are some techniques that work well, when I take the time to use them: setting up filters for emails that I don't need to read right away (e.g., blogs I subscribe to), being ruthless about unsubscribing to promotional emails, and once a month going to "inbox zero," even if it means sweeping armfuls of emails into an "under the bed" folder.

But let's face it: cleaning up email is no more fun than cleaning one's dorm or house, which is why Jesse Stommel offers a couple of creative ways to "gamify" the process in his recent Profhacker post, "How to Crowdsource and Gamify Your E-mail":

"I processed all the e-mail to zero and managed to figure out what I had to do the next day in the process. Then, just for fun, I did 'Thursday' before moving on to more topical queries. I announced my new game on Facebook and Twitter and folks began to join in the fun by throwing queries my way like 'budget,' 'legislature,' 'DH,' and 'zombie'. My personal favorite was 'pudding'.. Read More

Here is one final reminder for students: You may not want to check or be in the habit of checking and replying to email regularly, but it is a necessary habit and skill both at school and on the job. Most important, keep an eye on your MSOE email capacity and clean it up regularly so that your full inbox doesn't reject that one important message from a professor about what will be on next week's midterm exam.

What creative email strategies work for you?

An interesting article in yesterday's Washington Post discusses that while the percentage "of U.S. adults who attended at least one kind of arts performance or visited an art museum or gallery is the lowest it's ever been measured," this trend does not necessarily point to an overall decline of interest in the arts. Rather, it may suggest a shift in how we choose to participate:

"There's evidence that Americans are more interested in making art part of their daily lives: Arts volunteerism is up, musical instrument sales are rising from their 2009 low point, the number of arts degrees conferred by colleges has grown from 75,000 per year a decade ago to 129,000 today, and more than a third of Americans in the NEA survey reported consuming art in some form through their mobile devices. Some of it looks a little different: There's the more technology-oriented Maker movement, for example, and a boom in the discipline of industrial design." Read More

While I do still enjoy visiting art museums and going to live theater, I also know that I'm happier when the making of art, whether physically or electronically, is interwoven into my days in a more personal way. This summer, for example, I spent many enjoyable days learning the basics of video editing so as to put together music videos of our son's wedding photos for a DVD. Even more recently I made for my husband and myself his and her Warhol-inspired "banana plates," to begin stocking our newly "emptied nest" breakfast table. They are not gallery worthy, by any means, but they bring me much happiness.

Banana Plates.jpgHow do you make art a part of your daily life, especially in the context of busy lives as students and workers?

Lisa Rivero

When 3 - 1 = -23

Posted by Lisa Rivero Sep 23, 2013

"Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind"
~ T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

When T. S. Eliot's poem Four Quartets was published in 1943, distractions were nothing like they are now, but the words remind us that the problem of distraction is far from new. Today, however, we have more bells and whistles than ever with which to amuse inspire distract ourselves.

As much as we might gain from the wealth of information and entertainment available for the mere click or finger swipt, a recent Fast Company article, "The Sneaky, Sucky Way Distraction Punctures Your Creativity," discusses the high cost of our modern distraction habit. The author, Drake Baer, writes that while we might feel more productive (and probably more creative) as we constantly switch our attention, in reality we lose much more time than simple arithmetic might suggest:


"[W]e get hit with a minor interruption—something that takes a moment to take care of—every three minutes... And the kicker is the time it takes to recover from such sundry slips of attention: It's a full 23 minutes until we get back on track..." Read More


In other words, three steps forward and one step back lead to being much further behind than when we started.

Students are by no means the only ones affected. Teachers, parents, office workers—we all face the challenge of managing our attention rather than letting it be managed. We're not weak because we often fail: we're human.

One thing that has worked for me is to set short tasks of 45 to 60 minutes or longer that I do with no interruptions whatsoever. None. The easiest way to do this is to turn off my cell phone, open only the software program I need (and if I don't need the internet for the task, disconnect), hunker down, and work. When the task or the assigned time period is finished, and only then, I can take a few minutes to check email or reward myself with chocolate or play my turn in Words With Friends. It is difficult at first, but it's a habit that gets easier and more automatic with time.

What anti-distraction strategies and techniques work for you?

"What fosters creativity? More than anything else: The presence of other creative people." ~ Richard Florida



In his recent New York Times piece, "Cities Are the Fonts of Creativity," author and researcher Richard Florida argues that creativity thrives on and in community:

"The big myth is that creativity is the province of great individual geniuses. In fact creativity is a social process. Our biggest creative breakthroughs come when people learn from, compete with, and collaborate with other people." Read More

By living and going to school in the heart of downtown Milwaukee, rather than on an isolated campus removed from the hustle and bustle of the non-academic world, MSOE students have the chance to be inspired by the creativity of city life: the variety of people, the architecture, the museums, the lakefront.

This weekend, in particular, is a fun opportunity to get your creativity on by visiting (for free!) historic and innovative Milwaukee sites, including several buildings on the MSOE campus. The third annual Doors Open Milwaukee happens on Saturday and Sunday, September 21 and 22, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. See a full list of participating buildings at the Doors Open Milwaukee website.


Photo Credit: Jeramey Jannene, used courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

In "Slowing the Work Treadmill," creativity expert Teresa Amabile suggests that employers can increase workers' creativity and productivity by slowing the pace once in awhile:

“Managers and employees need to work together to constantly prioritize, to figure out what is truly important, what they can forget about, and what can they push to the back burner in order to reduce time pressure. My colleague here at HBS [Harvard Business School], Leslie Perlow, found that, in a department of harried engineers, it was powerful to simply declare ‘quiet time’ in the morning, three days a week: no meetings with or phone calls to colleagues, no interruptions, no expecting immediate responses to emails. People were way more productive. They also felt less stressed and more satisfied with their work.” Read More

What is your work experience in this regard? As college students, what can you do (or do you do) to step off the treadmill occasionally?

bored-with-homework-446665-m.jpgCal Newport writes on his blog "Study Hacks" (a thoughtful and original blog on success in and out of the classroom) about what to do if your "dream" major seems more like a nightmare:

"The idea that some students just love everything about their major, and are always excited by the work it generates, is a popular belief. I’ll let you in on a secret: such students don’t exist. So don’t get freaked out that your schoolwork annoys you. There is no right major for you. There are only right motivations." Read More

Newport, who is currently an assistant professor at Georgetown and began the blog when he was a computer science graduate student at M.I.T., goes on to explain how the joy and satisfaction we think we should feel from our chosen major or career probably won't come until later and that "nobody loves a subject during the process of mastering it."

Think about an activity or skill that you are good at and continue to engage in because you love it: playing a sport or musical instrument, for example. Chances are that at the beginning you didn't love everything about it quite so much. You were too busy learning the fundamentals: doing laps, getting stronger, practicing scales, learning fingering techniques. Only later does the passion happen--that is if we stick around long enough to experience it.

Highly creative students seem particularly irked by boredom and lured by novelty, a trait that can lead to innovation and seeing possibilities that others miss. However, a long-term goal of career satisfaction often requires staying with hard and, yes, even tedious work at times. That's not to say that switching majors is always a bad idea; read Newport's discussion of how "deep procrastination" can be a sign that a change is in order. However, you can be careful, as he reminds us, not to mistake difficult or fundamental work as a problem with your choice of major.

Also on Study Hacks: The Roberts Method: A Professor’s Advice for Falling in Love With Your Major

Thank you to one of my former students for reminding me of the helpfulness of Study Hacks. Photo Credit: melodi2

Lisa Rivero

Openness to Change

Posted by Lisa Rivero Sep 10, 2013

Change Alley.jpgFor anyone in the academic world--teachers, students, staff, parents--September is the month of change: new faces, new classes, new textbooks, new rosters of names. For those of us at MSOE, this fall brings even more change than usual: new classroom configurations and technology, a new website and social networking Hub, even new phones.

Change, including good change, can be stressful, so we shouldn't be surprised if our first impulse is to react with cynicism or avoidance or hostility. A creative approach to change, however, requires something different: openness.

Why can it be so hard to be open to new experiences? In short, when we are open, we expose ourselves to discomfort and pain. We grope. We fumble. We risk "looking stupid." We let go of what is familiar and easy.

This openness to change is not the same as blind acceptance or living with our heads in the clouds (a phrase that takes on a bit of a different meaning in the age of cloud computing). What psychologist, researcher and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found when he studied the lives of successfully creative people is that they shared one element: complex personalities. They were, at the same time, open and playful and discriminating and disciplined. You can read more about Csikszentmihalyi's "Ten Dimensions of Complexity" here: The Creative Personality | Psychology Today

So, what do we do if we are naturally resistant to change but want to take a more creative approach? What works for me is to start by simply noticing and acknowledging my reactions. That snide or cynical comment I am tempted to make (or think) usually masks some level of fear or jealousy or confusion. Then I remind myself of these words by Ralph Waldo Emerson from his essay "Success":

“[A] cynic can chill and dishearten with a single word."


Photo copyright (c) Matt Brown and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license

Lisa Rivero

The To-Do List Habit

Posted by Lisa Rivero Sep 9, 2013

ticked-checkbox-1280927-m.jpgSometimes I think that most people can be neatly divided into two groups: those who naturally make to-do lists and those who don't

This post is for the latter group (of which I count myself as a member), especially anyone who wants to establish the to-do list habit but hasn't been able, well, to do so.

A recent Fast Company article by Laura Vanderkam suggests that to-do lists often don't work because they reflect more of who we wish we were than who we actually are:

"The biggest problem, I think, is that our to-do lists don’t reflect what we actually intend to do. They reflect the things we think we should do, or that someone else has told us we are supposed to do. They contain items that we’d tackle in a different universe, or if we were different people." Read More

An example for a college student might be making a to-do list that includes three straight hours of homework without a break, a strict no-sugar and snack-free diet so as to ward off the freshman fifteen, and a five-mile run, even though you have never in your life done any of those things. What will the result be? Most probably, you will sneak a peek at your list before going to bed and feel like a failure, making it much less likely to continue your new habit tomorrow.

Vanderkam suggests, instead, to begin by listing only those goals and tasks that you know you will accomplish:

"The point is to turn the to-do list into a list of things that actually get done. Yes, it may feel strange to create a to-do list that includes attending five previously scheduled meetings, checking your favorite websites (like this one!), and grabbing lunch at the Chipotle three blocks away, but that’s a to-do list that can actually happen. At the end of the day, you can truly say that you did everything you intended to do. You’ll feel like a rock star! Do this enough days in a row, and a funny thing will happen. Your to-do list will no longer seem like a foreign document describing an alternate universe. It will feel like a contract with yourself."

After a few days, you can begin to add items that are more of a stretch, but only after your new habit is a friend rather than an enemy.

Do you make to-do lists? Do you enjoy the process or dread it? What works for you?

In his book What the Best College Students Do, historian and educator Ken Bain discusses three approaches to learning: surface learning (doing just enough to get by and avoid failure), strategic learning (focusing mostly on grades as proof of success), and deep learning (learning for understanding, critical and creative thinking, and the ability to adapt and apply knowledge to future problems and situations). He contends that deep learning--which includes a creative approach to learning--is the best approach for long-term success.

A TIME magazine article lists and explains several patterns that Bain found in deep learners and that we can integrate into our own work and learning:

  • Pursue passion, not A’s.
  • Get comfortable with failure.
  • Make a personal connection to your studies.
  • Read and think actively.
  • Ask big questions.
  • Cultivate empathy for others.
  • Set goals and make them real.
  • Find a way to contribute. Read More

Have you found one of the above attitudes or habits to be important for your own creativity and deep learning, or is there one that you would like to try to improve during the coming quarter or school year? How can you balance deep learning with the practical need for a decent GPA?

Listen to Ken Bain talk about his findings and suggestions in an interview on the Brian Lehrer radio show. The Brian Lehrer Show: Making a Success of College - WNYC