We deliver only about 10 percent of our best mental performances at work, according to research from the Neuro Leadership Institute in the U.S. In order to be creative and to think freely, we need to be able to really delve into a subject and play with ideas. The stress that’s common at work is a powerful enemy for any good idea.
A career as a writer, musician or designers is usually associated with creativity and innovation. Yet mental creativity and the ability to improvise help us accomplish many other tasks.
Business executives are dependent on good ideas to push their products and services, and they have to be able to react quickly to new market impulses. Social workers can’t just do their job strictly by the book but have to respond to individual human needs.
Our work environment is largely ill-equipped to nurture creativity, mainly because we’re scared to be judged. While we shy away from being viewed as the playful dreamer, sometimes it’s those actions needed to open new paths – but we’ll come back to that later.
Most superiors want us to be above all efficient and productive. That pressure to succeed and to be fast creates stress that in turn undermines creative thinking – a clear dilemma.
Meltdown Instead of Vision – What Happens under Stress?
The brain uses hormones to send the body into a state of alarm when exposed to stress. Our heart rate increases, we’re breathing faster and our blood pressure rises.
It also messes with the mind. Our cognition and thinking are so greatly affected that we fail to recognize complex connections and cannot analyze problems. You could say that stress makes us a bit dumber.
While this stress reaction may have been helpful in ancient times when running away from a wild animal, it’s completely useless in our job world today.
Brains under Sustained Fire
We must be able to focus as well as think freely and flexibly to solve complex tasks when doing creative work. That means we need to be able to step back and think coolly instead of giving in to our inner chaos.
Whether it’s calls, e-mails, meetings or requests from bosses or coworkers – repeated interruptions torpedo free thinking. Multi-tasking may be a problem as well, as jumping between jobs prevents deep thinking. The distraction doesn’t stop at home. We’re watching TV or immerse ourselves in social media, and as a result, cannot find rest.
Not all pressure is external. Our own fears – mainly the fear of failure, of being judged and the perfectionism this sparks – can also block our creativity. How can we overcome these obstacles?
Creativity Is Not a Talent
The basis for creativity is a certain work mode, Scottish philosopher Donald M. MacKinnon wrote back in the 1970s. Talent, he wrote, plays but a minor role. It’s about activating the inner child, so we can explore and play with ideas without practical constraint or premature judgment by others or ourselves – much like in the theory of flow.
“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.’’
British actor and comedian John Cleese gave helpful suggestions how to get into the so-called “open mode” in his well-known lecture on creativity. He describes this mode as relaxed, less purposeful, more contemplative and playful. We can reach this open mode by creating stress-free zones. Cleese describes how to get there in five steps.
The Basis for Creative Work as per John Cleese
- Space: You can’t become playful and therefore creative in your usual hectic environment. We need some space for ourselves.
- Time: We should create our space for a specific period. Only then can we seal off our creative phases to be fully immersed in them.
- More time: Thinking innovatively means breaking new ground. The path leading to it is often accompanied by tensions and insecurities. The longer we can endure those feelings and keep working on our ideas, the more creative they will be.
- Confidence: Nothing will stop us being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake. To play is experimenting, and seeing what will happen.
- Humor: There’s nothing that frees our thinking more quickly from the shackles of routine than humor.
The Shop of Ideas
That means we don’t need to always blame ourselves when failing to come up with brilliant new ideas. If the framework isn’t right, they can hardly come. Our mind needs a workshop with the right space and tools to be productive and to be able to try things out — just like a mechanic needs his garage.
Mistakes are fine
“Human-centered design” offers a new kind of work culture, with its principles extending far beyond the realm of design. It’s about testing innovative products and services with the help of several prototypes to gradually get rid of mistakes within the design process. The creative development becomes a process that explicitly allows for mistakes. Eventually, that eliminates not only insecurities and stress from the workplace; it also leads to better results. It’s time to re-think how we work.