When do you get your most creative ideas? The chances are that it won’t be during office hours when you’re at your desk striving for an answer. It is more likely to be when you are doing something mundane – routine chores, driving your car or going for a walk.
Creative thoughts and innovative ideas cannot be forced. Instead, they bubble forth when the mind is in a quiet, reflective state. Frenetic activity, stress and the hubbub of the office are not conducive to creativity.
How we think
In his book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, Professor Guy Claxton asserts that the default mode for modern-day thinking is fast and unreflective, what he classes as ‘hare brain’. This contrasts with more reflective ways of thinking – ‘tortoise mind’ – that increase perception and create the conditions for fresh insight.
To make sense of the world we tend to distinguish patterns and give things labels. But when we next encounter a similar pattern we often take a shortcut and leap to the label without looking too closely at the phenomenon itself.
Claxton suggests these ‘shortcuts’ or channels in the brain stand in the way of original thought. If we consciously stop our ‘thinking drills’ and induce a state of relaxation, we can allow our brain activity to flow across the landscape rather than along these pre-existing channels and thus allow truly fresh thought patterns to emerge.
Light bulb moments
However, it’s not just a case of putting your feet up and waiting for inspiration. Creativity involves hard work too. Thomas Edison is a case in point. He would think long and hard about the details of a problem to understand what it was all about – often until he was ‘stuck’ – and then allow himself to relax completely to the stage where he was beginning to drop off to sleep. It was in this passive, hypnagogic state that some of his best ideas surfaced.
Creating the conditions
That is all very well you might say, but how does this work on a daily basis? The demands of working life get in the way. Noise, interruptions, meetings, the omnipresence of social media, all mean that people are in a constant state of reacting. Open plan working means you are often hard pressed to find a quiet spot for reflection.
Often the frustrations of daily life provide the very stimulus required. If like Edison you take time to focus on particular problems of concern, you prime yourselves to come up with answers and these may come to you when you’re not necessarily expecting them.
Putting it into action
Coming up with ideas is usually the easy part. The challenge is often to transform creative ideas into viable, workable solutions. For example, the development of new products or services may require the collaboration of different specialists and many iterations of specifying the brief, analysing problems, coming up with approaches, testing propositions and devising solutions. This requires organisation, collaboration and teamwork.
However, many of us are engaged in creative thinking on a daily basis. Most problem solving is creative problem solving. We are always devising ways to work around difficulties, overcome shortages and get back on track when things don’t work out as planned.
Faced with challenges, the key is to look at things as they are in context rather than leaping to conclusions and then reflect on what we see. It is this that allows us to see new possibilities and new directions.