If you were to visualize a productive day, how would it look? Would it start with getting up early, checking off items on a to-do list, then taking a triple shot of Bulletproof coffee before powering through a substantial piece of work? Now, how about a creative day? Do you picture long stretches of reflection, pen cocked and loaded as you gaze dreamily into the air? Few would imagine both scenarios looking the same. And unfortunately, we’ve created a dichotomous choice between the two.
Our current work world is obsessed with productivity. We read about other leaders’ productivity hacks, trying to model how to get into hustle mode. We are bombarded by books, articles, and experts urging us to time block, turn off digital distractions, and step into quiet spaces so that we can churn out our work with laser-like focus. But our relentless quest to be productive is undermining one of the most important abilities in today’s workplace: creativity. We’ve all been warned that in the future — when machine learning and artificial intelligence perform the perfunctory, routine aspects of our work — our most valuable contribution will be ingenuity and inventive guile.
So how do we create the right conditions for creativity, especially when our routines are so geared toward barreling through a to-do list?
Consider this comment from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (the mastermind behind the television show West Wing and films like Moneyball and The Social Network ). He told The Hollywood Reporter that he takes six showers a day. “I’m not a germaphobe,” he explains but when his writing isn’t going well, he’ll shower, change into new clothes, and start again. Sorkin’s trade relies on him minting something fresh on a regular — sometimes hourly — basis. And it occurred to him that his best thoughts were not happening in moments of fevered concentration, but when he was in the shower. So he had a shower installed in the corner of his office and makes regular use of it. He has described the process as “a do-over” for triggering original ideas.
The idea of six showers a day may seem odd to some, and certainly not doable for most, but Sorkin’s insight reminded me of the best advice I’ve ever heard on the topic of creativity.
In 1939, James Webb Young, a Madison Avenue advertising executive, wrote a definitive guide to the process of creativity, A Technique for Producing Ideas . In this short book, Webb Young reminds us, “that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” In his view, the skill of creativity is the ability to spot new connections between familiar thoughts, and the art is “the ability to see [new] relationships.” Fifty years later, Steve Jobs observed something similar: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
Webb Young also lays out a remarkably simple technique for creative thought.
First, gather raw materials as stimulus. Draw together provocations and thought starters related to your area of interest. He cautions that this is often systematic, laborious, and rather unrewarding. For me, at this stage I like revisiting (and reading) Chrome tabs that I’ve left open, forcing myself to get to the end of articles that I’ve set aside for a rainy day, and generally immersing myself in other people’s musings.
Next, mentally digest the raw material. Webb Young proposes filling in small index cards with notes — like you would if you were cramming for a high-school final — and seeking to draw connections between the elements, as if you’re trying to solve a puzzle. Again, Webb Young suggests that this process will frustrate your mind. He then suggests shuffling between the physical cards looking for connections. For this step, I’ve used Post It notes and also tried linking doodles on huge sheets of paper, almost like a vast[mind map.
The final stage of his methodology is the greatest anathema to the productivity-obsessed world that we live in. It is simply to do nothing. In the manner of Sorkin’s shower, Webb Young urges us to find a way to disengage the mind to allow unconscious processing: “You drop the whole subject and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can,” and then “turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions.” Webb Young says that having done the (often frustrating) preparation work, “out of nowhere the idea will appear,” whether that’s on a walk, while listening to music, watching a film, or, yes, in the shower.
Most of us can probably identify with this time-tested approach. Our best ideas do seem to approach us in moments of disengagement. Recent history gives us plenty of examples of inspiration striking creators when they were on vacation. Lin Manuel Miranda said he was struck by the idea of the billion dollar musical, Hamilton, as he was trying to unwind on a beach in Mexico. Kevin Systrom, the creator of Instagram, also found himself strolling on a Mexican beach when inspiration struck him for the app. This phenomenon of executives observing their best aha moments while on their downtime is further evidence that creative cognition isn’t triggered by deep, productive focus, but by something rather more diffuse.
Neuroscientists would readily point out that this unfocused state of mind is when the default mode of the brain is activated. The notion of the brain’s default mode was conceived in the 1970s when it was observed that even in rest states there seemed to be large amounts of mental neural activity. Most of us find ourselves in this state when we’re drifting off, our thoughts lost a million miles away in dreamy distraction, maybe most obviously when we’re in a state of boredom. While society has essentially eradicated boredom by leaving us without any unstimulated moment, the invisible consequence is that we’ve lost times of being in the “daydreamy unfocus” of the default mode.
Wanting to optimize our own productivity is a perfectly reasonable response to increasing demands. But our relentless pursuit of efficiency has become an over-correction — if we do truly value the originality of creative thought, then it’s time to recognize that productivity and creativity often exist in opposition to one another. Productivity is focus, creativity is “unfocus.”
If your work day looks like little more than a series of meetings and emails, you might reflect on Aaron Sorkin’s experience and ask yourself: Where is my moment for thought? Put down your to-do list, step away from your desk, turn off your podcasts on your commute. Have a moment every day where you’re trying to achieve nothing. Giving your brain a moment to relax might lead to your best idea yet.
Article By Bruce Daisle : Bruce Daisley was previously Vice President across Europe, Middle East and Africa for Twitter. He is the author of EAT SLEEP WORK REPEAT: 30 Hacks For Bringing Joy To Your Job (HarperOne; February 2020).
Article from : Harvard Business Review