Creative Problem-Solving and Productivity Using the Cleese Method

by Crystal Paradis-Catanzaro

I’ve been able to supercharge my motivation and productivity lately — using a new method that doesn’t involve Evernote (shocking, I know!) or any digital tool at all. It’s a productivity method I gleaned from a talk that John Cleese gave on the subject of creativity some years ago. I’ve used it to decide what types of projects I want to be involved with, to better communicate my approach and to generate new ideas for ongoing projects. 

You can watch Cleese’s talk on YouTube (I hope that you can still access and watch this talk, as I’ve seen YouTube remove previous versions). The method I’ve extracted from this talk mostly lives in the last 7 minutes of his talk, and since he doesn’t name it, I’ve taken to calling it “The Cleese Method.”

The crux of his creative problem-solving method, as I’ve been able to put into practice, consists of three critical elements he says are necessary to get into “the open mode” that you need to get into in order to be creative: Space, Time and Time.

Space: Go to a Space Where You Won’t Be Interrupted

For me, this meant leaving my laptop and phone in another room out of earshot, on a day where I had the house to myself.

Time: A Predetermined Period With a Non-Negotiable Beginning and Ending

It may sound elementary, but defining an absolute start and end time is key to getting your mind into what Cleese calls “the open mode” where creative thinking may happen.

Time: It Can’t Be Too Long or Too Short — 90 Minutes is ideal

If you only give yourself 30 minutes, you’ll reach the end of your time just as your brain finally quiets down and is able to focus. Similar to a meditation practice, you must allow distracting thoughts to come and go. Maybe jot them down, or just let them pass, since adding to your to-do list is probably not the purpose you’ve set out to accomplish here.

Execution

Once you have set up this space and time period, you simply let your brain do its work. The deadline effect of the approaching end of your time will force you to focus. The space and uninterrupted environment will signal that this creative problem you’ve set out to solve deserves your full mental capacity. I’ve found the productivity benefits of this concentrated small period of time, focusing all of my creative juices on one problem or area of my work, to be exceptional.

Tools

I use a medium-sized yellow legal pad and a bunch of multicolored Papermate felt-tipped pens to keep track of my ideas and thoughts throughout the session. This keeps it analog, and allows me to tear off sheets as I go and spread them around. In my experience, brainstorming in an actual bound notebook doesn’t allow me to write as freely. It’s key to let yourself be very free when you’re in “the open mode.”

Repeat

Once your Cleese Method session is over, you can get into “the closed mode” where you organize and execute on your ideas — and then cycle back through for rounds of feedback from yourself or others as you iterate your own process for each project.

This may seem like a very simple method — basically, it’s just setting aside time to focus and then doing it. But treating it as a practice and adhering to the boundaries can make it a repeatable, motivation-inducing habit. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve come out of my “Cleese Creativity” practice super-motivated, filled with ideas that inspire me and actually excited to get to work.

It’s been a welcome addition to my overall workflow — which, of course, involves Evernote, as well as a variety of elements incorporating Bullet Journaling, Nozbe, Notes, Google Calendar and Siri. I hope it energizes and supercharges your motivation and creative problem-solving.