One Simple Thing You Can Do To Be More Creative

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One Simple Thing You Can Do To Be More Creative

Woman relaxing in a hammock on the beach

Quick Quiz:
Which of these women is more likely to find a creative solution to her problem?

Woman relaxing in a hammock on the beachFrustrated woman staring at laptop

The Answer
Current neuroscience tells us that the woman on the beach, who is relaxed, outside of her usual environment, and not thinking about the problem has a better chance of finding a good solution than the tense woman in the office. In fact, the woman in the office may actually be making things tougher on herself by focusing too narrowly on the first solution that came to mind. It doesn’t quite work, but she’s determined to make it work. And in doing so, she’s ignoring all the other possibilities.

Four Faces of Insight
David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute identifies “the four faces of insight” (see page 10) to explain how our brains approach creative problem-solving:

1. Awareness—becoming more aware of the problem and its various parameters

2. Reflection—shutting down the prefrontal cortex and letting the subconscious work on the problem

3. Insight—seeing the solution clearly—the “Aha!” moment

4. Action—harnessing the energy of your insight to take action

What Keeps Us from Being Creative
The second step, Reflection, is crucial, yet is often overlooked in our action-oriented culture. Our brains need downtime to process information and make the connections across the whole brain that produce creative solutions. This happens only when we shut down external stimuli for a while and enter a relaxed state where we aren’t thinking consciously.

And yet, imagine the lady at the beach explaining to her boss that she really is working on that problem. That’s a hard sell to make. We don’t trust downtime in our culture. It looks too much like goofing off.

Our technology also works against us, keeping the external stimuli streaming in 24/7. We’ve gotten really good at bringing in information—terabytes and terabytes of it. We’re just not very good at doing something with it. So, as both Newsweek and the Creativity Research Journal have reported, our creativity rates are actually decreasing.

As reported in the New York Times, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco and the University of Michigan have found that “when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.”

A Case Study in Unplugging
Recently, a Fast Company writer challenged himself to unplug for 25 days—no social media, no email, no Twitter. What he found was:

  • Since he wasn’t always checking his phone for updates, he was more aware of his physical environment, and he was actually having experiences instead of just documenting them.
  • He was “reading long books, engaging in meaningful conversations, and allowing my mind to wander and make passive connections I had previously short-circuited with social queries, responses, interruptions, and steady documenting and sharing of unripened experiences.”
  • He was getting new ideas and solving problems that had previously stumped him.
  • He began to appreciate the value of unoccupied moments.
  • He became more aware of the price we pay for being hyperconnected and hyperproductive: “lack of depth, reduced accuracy, lower quality, impatience, selfishness, and mental exhaustion, to name a few.”

Schedule Downtime To Be More Creative
So, although you may feel as if you’re being more productive by working all the time, if you want to be more creative, you need to take time to disconnect, relax, and tune out. Maybe it’s while you’re driving your car, or exercising, or taking a shower. You’ll be amazed at the creative new ideas and solutions that your brain will produce if you take the time to step away from your desk and focus on something else—just for a little while. Even taking 10 minutes to stare out the window can make you more creative. Or as FastCompany suggests: Take a vacation. Changing your environment can give you a new perspective that will help you see new options.

It’s difficult. I know. People will think you’re goofing off. You’ll have to fight that rising sense of panic inside, that urgency to get the answer, any answer, right now. Just remember, though, downtime doesn’t mean shirking your responsibilities. It means using your time and your brain effectively so you can be more productive and creative.

What’s one thing you can do today to add a little reflective downtime to your schedule?


Bonus Sidebar:

The Creative Process that Works for Me:

Whenever I really need to be creative, when people are counting on me to come up with a cool design or an inspirational idea right now, here’s the process I use, which has never failed me:

  1. Feed My Brain: I spend a day, afternoon, or even an evening filling my head with information about the applicable topic. I read everything I can read. Do research. Talk to people. I draw pictures. Jot down initial ideas. Make mind maps to start to connect concepts.
  2. Step Away: I put all my work away and go through my afternoon/evening routine: carpooling, cooking dinner, cleaning up, watching TV or reading a novel. Then I go to sleep and let my subconscious get to work.
  3. Capture: When I wake up the next morning, the entire design has taken shape inside my mind. All I have to do is get it down on paper and refine it.

It sounds and feels like magic, but it’s just the way the brain works.

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