In essence, mooching about or – like Enright said, tooling around. “The choreographer George Balanchine said he did his best work while ironing in the morning,” says Currey. The writer Doris Lessing often took breaks from work to tidy the house or wash dishes. “You’d think I was a paragon of concern for housekeeping if you judged me by what you saw,” she said. But this aimlessness was vital to help her formulate her ideas. “What she was thinking about while she was puttering around and washing dishes and putting things away, that was kind of the real work,” says Currey. For Margaret Atwood, this state comes from birdwatching. “Watching birds takes you out of yourself,” she has said. “It’s a flow state. Writing ideas come in sideways during such states.”
Walking is also cited by many creatives as being vital to their process. The filmmaker and artist Miranda July regularly sets off on a walk because “there are only so many good ideas you can have sitting in a chair”. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, the writer Rebecca Solnit says: “Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”
But walking, like many previously simple activities, now comes with added layers of stress. It’s hard to zone out when you’re focused on keeping 2m apart from everyone. That’s why Currey is doubtful that the pandemic will lead to a flourish of creative breakthroughs – even if some of us are feeling a nagging sense of boredom. “That state of mindlessness that lets your brain enter a creative state is in short supply right now,” he says. “We all have this background anxiety and all the extra logistical stuff to think about. It’s such a strange, unsettling time. This isn’t the moment to all of a sudden write your masterpiece.” If inspiration does happen to strike when you’re waiting in line for the supermarket, though, it won’t hurt to scribble it down for later…
All collages created by Javier Hirschfeld
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.