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 obsession with productivity is making us unproductive.
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 complacent, routine aspects of our work — our most valuable contribution will be ingenuity and inventive guile.
Creating and learning the right conditions for creativity.
So how do we create the right conditions for creativity, especially when our routines are so geared toward barreling through a to-do list?
Learning to be creative from Aaron Sorkin
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.
Learning to be creative from James Young
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.”
Learning to be creative from Steve Jobs
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.”
3 steps to building creative thoughts
Webb Young also lays out a remarkably simple technique for building creative thoughts.
- Gather raw materials as a stimulus. Draw together thought-starters related to your area of interest. He cautions that this is often systematic, laborious, and rather unrewarding. At this stage revisit (and read) Chrome tabs that are 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.
- 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. 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.”
If your workday 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.
Anshul Kumar is a productivity consultant, YouTuber, and blogger who strives to write rich and meaningful content. He enjoys exploring the principles, strategies, and tools that help people live happier, healthier, more productive lives. While he’s most active on YouTube, he also write a fair bit about productivity, tech, effective study techniques, entrepreneurship, personal finance, and more. Read more of his articles on Nextgen Digital and also on Our Productivity, along with Book Notes from some of his favourite books, and a review of some of his favourite tech products and apps. You can sign up for his weekly newsletter here.
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