Doing Nothing to Enhance Creativity

July 12, 2010  

Enhancing Creativity and InnovationWe are in such a fast paced society that we are always focused on achieving our goals.  In business, these goals might be hitting quarterly earnings targets, sales quotas, or operating budgets.  Even innovation initiatives are goal-driven.  We measure ideas generated, time-to-market, and percent of revenue from new products.

We are indeed a goal-driven society.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  But there are times when this obsession can be counter-productive.

In previous posts, I talked extensively about the “Performance Paradox” (the link brings you to several articles on the topic). This is the phenomenon whereby a hyper-focus on your goals is the very thing that prevents you from achieving them. Dan Pink also wrote about this concept in his recent book, Drive.

Yesterday it was a beautiful, sunny day here in Boston, so I decided to walk the ocean near where I live. I spent most of my time walking up and down the beach, listening to my iPod, and eating a delicious lobster roll. As I started to walk back home, I decided to walk into the water and just stand there. I did nothing for about 20 minutes. The picture above is what I looked at (you can click on it for a larger version). I just stood there. My mind wandered. At first I wondered what others were thinking of my “statue-like” position. Then my mind drifted towards work…in particular the marketing efforts for my new book, Personality Poker. I let my mind meander, but I stayed focus on the book. After about 5 minutes, a flood of ideas started to come through. By the end of the 20 minutes, I had more ideas than I had in the previous few weeks.

I have been incredibly busy lately. And I never felt I had the time to reflect. But what I realized very quickly was that I needed to detach myself from my goals in order to help me achieve the goal of a New York Times best seller. The more I hyper-focused on the work I needed to do, the less it seemed I could develop new ideas and solutions.

As I walked back home, I realized very quickly that the phenomenon I experienced is something I had written about many times before. I forgot the value of doing nothing.

In my book, Goal-Free Living, when discussing the process for clearing the mind, I wrote…

The word Mushin is used extensively in Japan. It means silent mind, empty mind. A mind that is void of thought patterns and mental chatter. The ability to listen to that inner voice is critical on the journey to self-awareness. It is said that Aristotle used to lie in bed with a ball in his hand so that when he would fall asleep the ball would drop and bang a copper plate below. The noise would wake him up, keeping him in a quasi state of sleep and consciousness. This is where he generated his best ideas and insights.

In Personality Poker (due in stores November 2010), I provided some of the neuroscience behind this…

A particular area of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is most active during conscious thought. This is among the most advanced parts of the brain, parts which separate us from other animals that cannot analyze and calculate the way humans can. However, when we are in a state of “flow,” this part of the brain is quiet, and we move into a more playful mindset. Flow casts the human brain back to a more primitive state where thoughts and sensations come through without being controlled, judged, or censored. Anyone who meditates knows what it’s like to be in this state, as the purpose of meditation is to go behind the judgmental veil of that prefrontal cortex and enter a state of flow. When the conscious part of the brain is activated, the flow state is interrupted. Interestingly, in children, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, which allows them a more natural state of play.

Research by Northwestern University neuroscientist Mark Jung-Beeman shows that people who are in a good mood not only tap into different parts of the brain, but also solve more problems through “flashes of insight.” Playfulness helps to put us in a good mood and enjoy a more relaxed frame of mind. Studies have shown that people in this state generate more unusual ideas when brainstorming. This explains why we get so many good ideas while showering or half-dozing; a relaxed frame of mind is conducive to insight, helping us bring forth new knowledge or ideas without forcing them. Like playfulness and a positive mood, the “drowsy” brain induces a relaxed state and encourages insights. How many times have you been bombarded by an amazing idea or thought, or solved a problem in your mind just seconds before falling asleep? This “stroke of genius” is a flash of insight thanks to your brain’s calm state.

I realize that businesses are designed to provide financial returns to the shareholders. And as a result, there is a lot of goal-setting going on.

But in order to achieve long-term goals, innovation is a must. And one component of innovation is the development of creative ideas. And sometimes the best way to develop those new insights is to stop focusing on innovation.

So, take time to do nothing. Sit and stare out the window. Relax. Meditate.

And if your boss asks you what you are doing, tell him/her, “I am quieting my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in order to be more innovative.”

I’m sure after that, they will stop asking you questions.

Leave a Reply

Old Comments

One Response to “Doing Nothing to Enhance Creativity”

  1. Conor Neill on July 16th, 2010 4:57 am

    Steve – a valuable reflection. I have had several moments of frustration that I can’t seem to produce a constant output from 9am to 5pm… until I started to speak to many successful people, who all told me that they are highly productive for 1 hour a day, moderately productive for 2 hours and vegetables for the rest of the day.

    I just finished “What I talk about when I talk about running” by Haruki Marukami. He is a prolific author. In this book Haruki talks about the role of running and writing in his life. He says the two go together in his life. Running gives him the disconnection that allows access to new ideas, writing captures those ideas. If he stops running, he finds he stops writing.

    I need to go down to the beach today… ;-)