August 18, 2014
Here are four well-known ways to boost creativity:
1. Work near crowd noise, such as in a coffee shop.
2. Take a walk (alone)
3. Drive a car to a familiar destination (alone)
4. Take a shower (yeah, alone)
I’ve experimented extensively with all four methods and I can report that doing any one of those activities has a huge and immediate impact on my quality and volume of ideas. This is purely anecdotal, but the impact on idea flow is so immediate and dramatic that something good is clearly happening.
Interestingly, the element that all four methods have in common is distraction. But the distractions are the type you can easily compartmentalize and move to an automatic processing part of your brain. They are distractions that don’t distract.
My armchair guess about what is going on with the brain distractions is that we evolved to keep some important part of the brain on high alert for danger, food, and mating opportunities. If you distract that part of the brain with driving, walking, showering, and background noise it loosens its hold on the creative processing part of your brain.
This supports my hypothesis that creativity is something that happens naturally so long as your brain is not actively suppressing it for some sort of survival advantage. That makes sense because creative thinking usually isn’t helpful in immediately dangerous situations. If we were cave dwellers I would be the one that didn’t see the mastodon stampede heading my way because I was daydreaming and inventing new stone tools in my head. Sometimes you don’t need creative ideas so much as you just need to run.
Putting it in simpler terms, creativity is a mental luxury that your brain will not allow until it feels safe or until the watchdog part of your brain gets busy handling some routine task such as driving the car.
I would be interested in seeing a study that compares each of the distraction methods to find which one works best. And from there I would like to see A-B testing on new distraction methods until the best of the bunch emerges.
That might sound like a trivial study that would only interest cartoonists and academics. But imagine if the top 1% of creative folks in the world knew exactly which kinds of distractions helped generate the best ideas. These are the cats that invent the future and solve the biggest problems in the world. Removing even a tiny bit of friction from the effectiveness of that group could pay huge dividends.
Co-founder of CalendarTree.com
Author of this book