A creative breaking point?
There was a moment, back in spring 2020, when many of us did a little happy dance as the first national lockdown was announced. Exhausted by the daily grind of commuting and frustrated at never seeing quite enough of our families, we marvelled at how much better our work-life balance would be without the stresses of office and commuter life. The anticipation of less noise and fewer interruptions lifted our spirits. For creative thinkers and problem solvers, uninterrupted thinking time felt like a gift.
Fast-forward 10 months and there is a genuine fear, in the creative industries, that creativity and problem solving have suffered rather than thrived in our prolonged isolation from one another. As author and marketing expert Martin Lindstrom wrote in his article for Contagious: “I spoke with a friend of mine, the global chief marketing officer of Burger King, Fernando Machado. He told me that nearly everyone he knows in the creative field is at breaking point. They’re simply losing their creativity.”.
But why is this? What has happened to our ability to originate ideas or have breakthrough ‘aha’ moments when trying to solve problems? Of course, it’s no surprise that home-schooling while trying to do a day’s work is not conducive to creative thinking or that the mere thought of grocery shopping while a pandemic rages doesn’t put one in the best frame of mind to innovate… but is the sudden drop-off in creativity also connected in some way to the fact that we are no longer leaving our homes to go into our workplaces? There are many who would argue that it is.
It seems that being cloistered in our homes has resulted in three changes that directly impact our ability to create:
Change #1: Our ‘orbits’ are much smaller
Our worlds have shrunk so dramatically that our personal ‘orbits’ are much smaller. With smaller orbits, we encounter less variety, less colour, less texture in our lives. We meet fewer people, see fewer new vistas and stumble across fewer fresh opinions or points of view. With so little variety, there is simply less juicy fodder for our brains to feast on. If we consider that creativity is often defined as the making of connections between things that wouldn’t normally go together, it stands to reason that the greater the number of unconnected things our brains are exposed to, the greater the potential for connections to be made and for creativity to flourish.
And conversely, the fewer unconnected things (particularly new things) that our brains are exposed to, the fewer connections we can make. The brain is a gloriously efficient thing. It is often described as a pattern-detector, always on the hunt for similarities in experience, so that it can make the sourcing of a solution easier. While this is a fundamental contributor to how we grow and learn and is ideal for the myriad small decisions that we make every day, efficiency does not encourage creative thinking. It may, in fact, stymie it.
Change #2: Schedule-first cultures
We have inadvertently created a schedule-first rather than a people-first culture. Our diaries are frequently packed with hours of back-to-back video conference meetings; often beginning before the traditional working day and ending long after. We post-rationalise by telling ourselves that with no commute and no need to build in time to move from one meeting room to another, we can surely squeeze in another call. The problem with this is that not only are we threatening our productivity by failing to pause to breathe, stretch and process, we are also removing any possibility for idleness… and idleness is crucial for creativity.
We are already cultivating a terrifying lack of idleness in twenty first century life. Watch passengers on trains or on station platforms. Notice your own behaviour as you wait for the kettle to boil or you stand, socially distanced, in a line outside the supermarket. The chances are that you’re busying yourself on your phone. This might feel like idleness, but it is actually focused activity. True idleness has another name: daydreaming. When we walk from one meeting room to another or walk to our workplaces at the start and end of the day, our minds wander, and we daydream. And this provides fertile soil for creative thinking.
Research done in 2012 discovered that letting our minds wander can boost creative problem-solving. It’s the reason we can spend a day trying to generate ideas, or solve a conundrum, yet get nowhere, but as soon as we’re walking to the bus stop or lying in the bathtub, the solution comes. Why does this happen? Because the brain is continuing to work on the problem beyond our conscious awareness. In our work life, those moments in between meetings, or waiting for a lift are crucial. Behind the scenes, the part of the brain that analyses, organises and focuses on tasks – the Executive Network – is taking a back seat to the part of the brain associated with daydreaming and imagination; the Default Mode Network. Neuroscientists say that creativity requires both the Executive Network and the Default Mode Network. The former is needed to assess and understand the challenge and to organise the eventual solution, while the latter enables those grand leaps in creative thinking. Sadly, we are not giving our ‘imagination centres’ the space to do their thing.
Change #3: Isolation
Finally, our isolation from other humans is doing untold damage, not just to our mental wellbeing, but to our creativity. We are neurobiologically built for connection with others and connection can only be partially achieved through a screen. When we are developing creative ideas or solving problems as a team, we are embarking on something that is already delicate. Sharing our ideas is not easy. What if they are laughed at, rejected, or worse still, completely ignored? To throw your idea into the ring or build on another person’s contribution takes courage and requires vulnerability. Many a brainstorm or idea development session has failed because participants have not picked up on their colleagues’ subtle cues in facial expression and body language or because the energy in the room has dipped. The reason that facilitators often bring about successful sessions is because they can assess a room and temperature check the energy levels, notice small expressions of excitement or interest and develop the session accordingly. While this is not impossible via Zoom, it is much more difficult.
Tryna make a joke on zoom pic.twitter.com/15QaAd0FWz
— Bojito (@Bomanizer) January 15, 2021
We often talk about ‘water cooler moments’. In many ways the water cooler moment encapsulates everything that we’re currently missing when it comes to feeding creativity. Around the water cooler, we’re likely to see, hear, maybe even taste something new. In walking across to it, or waiting our turn, we switch to daydream mode and our brains start to solve the unsolvable. We may also meet a couple of new people or have a laugh with close colleagues. In either case, we’re inadvertently building comradeship and psychological safety, cornerstones of successful brainstorms and problem-solving sessions.
So, when we are in a safer place in this pandemic-blighted world, will we run back to our offices, whooping and cheering? Like many, I hope we can have some balance and work can take place both at home and in workspaces with our colleagues. I have treasured the precious time with my family and have not missed the unrelenting crush of the commute one bit. I have managed to carve out quiet time to complete big pieces of work with more ease than I would have done while working in a busy, bustling office.
But I will welcome back with open arms, those unexpected moments of discovery on the route to work, the ideas that pop into my head while I walk from one end of the office to the other and perhaps more than anything, the camaraderie and warmth of good humans with lots of stories to tell, who want to solve problems with me.
If you liked this, why not watch Carla and our panel discuss ‘Can Creativity Survive Remote Working’ on our YouTube channel here.