Creativity can be tricky. The ability to transcend cookie-cutter ideas and strategies to create meaningful, original work and novel ways of thinking is important for any business leader. And yet, unlike other vital workplace attributes such as diligence and focus, creativity is hard to will into being. It’s frequently elusive, which is why creative breakthroughs often occur when they’re least expected.
In an effort to incite creativity among employees, companies are increasingly going to elaborate, often unconventional, lengths. Nap rooms, play pens, chalk boards, beer taps, standing desks and the ilk can be found in many a modern office in an effort to encourage creative sparks to ignite. Steve Jobs famously positioned Pixar’s one and only bathroom in the center of the building, so employees from different departments were forced to mingle (through serendipitous conversation, his thinking went, innovative strategies would be born.)
While a bolt of creative inspiration is frustratingly difficult to schedule, here are three research-backed strategies – beyond workplace perks – that can encourage it to strike.
1. Overworking the brain.
On the surface, the end of the work day – when hours dedicated to juggling responsibilities without losing focus have exhausted one’s mental capacities – isn’t the best time for original thinking.
But as it turns out, a study published earlier this year in Cognition suggests that this mental fatigue can actually serve as fertile breeding ground for creativity as it lowers inhibition, allowing the brain to make connections it would reject as irrelevant if it was operating under normal conditions.
In in one experiment, researchers divided 25 undergrad participants into two groups and had them perform a computerized task that required focus, namely selecting the direction of a central arrow from a field of surrounding arrows as quickly as possible. For one group, the center arrow pointed in a different direction from the surrounding arrows 10 percent of the time; for the other, the direction of the center arrow conflicted with the surrounding ones 50 percent of the time (thus requiring a higher-degree of concentration and focus to correctly identify).
Afterwards, the researchers had participants from both groups come up with innovative uses for daily objects (bucket, newspaper, shoe etc.), a standard exercise to measure creativity. On average the students in the second group, who had just finished the more mentally taxing exercise, came up with a longer and less generic list of uses for each item.
Meanwhile, in a separate experiment, the researchers displayed two ‘words’ in succession and asked students to determine whether or not the latter was an actual word (50 percent of the time, it wasn’t); those in the second group were more likely to identify non-existent words as real, Scientific American reports, particularly when they were seemingly connected to the first word. (For example, ‘loni’ was more likely to be identified as a real world when it followed ‘tiger,’ as the students reordered the letters to form ‘lion.’)
Together, the studies provide “direct evidence for the link between the inhibition function and some forms of creativity,” the study’s authors wrote. In other words, when executive functions are taxed, the brain begins to make connections and come up with solutions that it would, under fresher circumstances, reject outright.
This idea – that lowered inhibition can result in higher creativity – isn’t new. Anecdotally, it’s why writing, painting or any other creative pursuit can often be kick-started by a glass of wine, a good antidote for quieting the inner critic that shuts down phrases, brushstrokes or ideas before the brain has allowed them to fully form.
Similarly, and fascinatingly, a symptom of frontotemporal dementia – in which the prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functioning, slowly disintegrates – is a flood of creativity. As the area of the brain that houses inhibition degenerates, patients often exhibit compulsive creative behaviors.
All of which is a long way of saying that inhibition, so necessary for focus and problem solving, is sometimes the enemy of creativity. Finding useful strategies for suppressing it, then, may lead to creative breakthroughs. Brain fatigue may be one answer.
It may be discouraged in school, but allowing one’s mind to drift can encourage creative connections and novel solutions. As with lowered inhibitions, a wandering mind appears to subvert the prefrontal cortex’s tendency to reject connecting ostensibly unrelated observations and ideas.
In a 2012 study, participants were given the standard creativity-measuring exercise of assigning uses to daily objects. Afterwards, they were given a break and broken into groups; some were required to perform a mentally demanding task, some were given an easy, mundane task (designed to encourage day-dreaming), and some were allowed to simply sit, doing nothing. Then, all participants re-took the same creativity exercise.
The students in the tedious-task group significantly outperformed the other participants, coming up with an average of 41 percent more possibilities, which suggests they had been, consciously or not, ruminating on the first test while performing the boring task between exercises. While their minds wandered, the researchers speculate, they were flipping through the list of everyday items, coming up with uses that may have initially eluded them, which suggests that day-dreaming may be even better at inciting creative thinking than an overworked brain (again, the participants in the rote-task group outperformed those in the demanding-task one).
Similarly, in a series of experiments, researchers at Northwestern University used brain scanners and EEG sensors to study neural activity in a number of participants tasked with solving complex word puzzles. While a percentage discovered the correct answer by systematically running through possible options and others remained stumped, a select few lit upon the solution in a sudden flash. They were stuck, and then suddenly the brain scanner lit up as the answer arrived, as if by magic.
3. Taking a walk.
The simple act of walking has long been anecdotally linked to the generation of original ideas. (Steve Jobs was renowned for conducting peripatetic meetings in the hills behind his house.)
Last year, researchers at Stanford University set out to make the connection explicit. A group of undergraduate participants were tasked with completing the standard creativity-measuring exercise (which should now be familiar), i.e. assigning uses to a list of everyday objects. Each student performed the task both while sitting at a desk, and while walking on a treadmill at a leisurely pace. The difference in performance was striking; on average, the students were able to come up with approximately 60 percent more uses for an object when they were walking as opposed to when they were sitting.
Turns out, walking’s impact on creativity doesn’t end with the walk itself. In a second experiment, researchers found that when students took a stroll on the treadmill and then sat down to perform the creativity exercise, they came up with more uses (and more unusual and useful ones at that) than when they sat at the desk and commenced the task without exercising beforehand.
It appears to be the simple act of walking – rather than the scenery encountered on a stroll – that matters. In a third experiment, researchers found that when students walked around Stanford’s picturesque campus before taking the creativity exercise, their results were better than if they’d simply sat down at the desk, but comparable to when they’d walked for the same amount of time on a treadmill.
Why does walking encourage creativity? “It may be that walking improves mood,” lead author Marily Oppezzo speculated to The New York Times (good spirits have been shown to get the creative juices flowing).
But more intriguingly, Oppezzo suggested that walking – like mental fatigue and daydreaming – may function as a defense against the brain’s tendency to shut down ideas that are not strictly linear and rational.
Perhaps the best method for generating creative thought, then? After a particularly grueling day at work, take a stroll around the block and allow the mind to wander.