If you sit at your desk all day, get up and move your body. If you are usually surrounded by people, seek solitude. If you are closeted in your office alone, find people to talk to. If you are fixated on a difficult problem or situation, set it aside. If you usually read the WSJ over breakfast, do a crossword puzzle. Wash your feet before you wash your hair, whatever.
Many of us spend 8-12 hours a day sitting and thinking, alone or in back-to-back meetings. We follow our routines like good little soldiers, under our own strict leadership. But there is immense value in periodically disrupting the status quo and doing the opposite – in moving your body and thinking about something other than work. Even an “opposite hour” can ratchet up your productivity and creativity. I have finally and gratefully come to understand and respect the process that works for me to make me the most productive and creative I can be. A few things I have learned: (1) if you don’t move your body, your brain will slowly also come to a standstill; (2) time away from problems often delivers the best solution; and (3) new ideas and solutions to thorny problems can come from most unexpected places.
In a competitive global market characterized by increasing complexity and rates of change, companies must innovate or die. We are beginning to understand this: in an IBM study of over 1500 CEOs, creativity was cited as the leadership quality most needed in the future. A TIME magazine poll showed that 83% of respondents believe creativity is important to their professional life, and 65% believe creativity will be central to the US’s role as a global leader. Creativity is fundamental to business success, but it requires conditions other than what our workaday lives often afford. We need to get better at fostering creativity in order to be nimble and innovative. Longer hours in the office aren’t the solution. More thinking: also not the solution. What IS needed is better appreciation for the behavioral patterns that promote good, creative, productive work so that we can work smarter.
We need to start doing what our own hearts and research keep telling us:
- You’ve got to move it, move it. There is ample research that physical activity is good for productivity. I personally find that I can sit in my office all day long at my hamster wheel, and only when I “give up” and go for a walk will nearly fully formed ideas and solutions drop into my mind. We have posted previously about the value of walking meetings, but they are good for your solitary mind as well. A 2014 Stanford study showed that people are more creative when walking versus sitting, and that this effect even lasts after people stop walking. Other research has shown that walking improves memory and attention, which are pretty handy to have at work.
- Don’t undervalue R&R. The longer you look at a problem, the more likely you will see only what you have already seen. Sometimes you need to separate yourself by tackling something different or taking a complete break in order to get a fresh view. There is a reason we tell people to “sleep on it.” Recharging, resting, recuperating: these aren’t just nice-to-haves. They have a function and serve a purpose. Without R&R we get depleted and mono-goggled. Letting your focus be elsewhere allows various pieces of information to clunk around together and sort out in a new way. This includes periodic “brain breaks” during the day, but also more substantial periods of rest in the form of weekends and vacations. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that 80 hour weeks are sustainable.
- Examine more dots. If you want good ideas to come out of your mind, you need to put lots of different stuff into it. Travel outside of your comfort zone, and network beyond your niche. Be a voracious consumer of the written word. Gobble up anything from fields as study as far flung as business management, evolutionary psychology, and economics to archeology, astronomy, and literature – whatever tickles your curiosity. Don’t just repeatedly trudge through the same sources – read the gamut from journal articles, popular business mags, and industry periodicals to fiction and literature. You don’t have to be an artist or writer or designer to benefit form this practice. In this day and age, we all need to be poised to create and innovate, whatever our field. Digesting diverse stimuli is an amazing practice to bring to bear on your problems and solutions.
- Lead by example. We are so busy all of the time. Constantly meeting, constantly thinking. Even during our “down” time we are slavishly attending to our iProducts. But we need to stop sometimes, stop data-gathering, stop thinking – and let it marinate and see what coheres in a novel, potentially useful way. What patterns emerge? We are highly trained to criticize and cull, but we forget the natural curiosity and creativity we possessed as children is still available to us, and can still benefit us. My kids and I play a game called “Yes, and…” in which we build a story together. Imagine if this is how meetings were run! Improvising and creating together, building on what each other offers without needing to first knock down others’ ideas. If you want your people to be productive and deliver results versus hours, you have to walk the talk. Show them they are safe if they don’t check email at night; encourage them to use their vacation days. Take them on a walking meeting. Sponsor brown bags on topics outside of your area. Communicate openness to new ideas and reinforce this behavior in team meetings.
If you want to be an effective problem solver, if you want to cultivate a high-performing team or build an adaptive, innovative organization, don’t just do what has always been done. Make room for creativity. Today, do the opposite. Get up, get out, and connect some dots.
“Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected.” –William Plomer
“Creativity is contagious. Pass it on.” –Albert Einstein
“Creativity is not a talent; it’s a way of operating.” –John Cleese