Productive people are supposed to do the same thing every day. Eat the same breakfast. Wake up at the same time. Wear a uniform. Codify your life you so you can focus on the important things. Save your energy for what matters and let routine take care of the rest. I’ve given that advice myself.
And it’s true: reducing decision fatigue does free you to spend more of your limited cognitive load to solve analytic problems, using strategy and systematic thinking that are crucial for tasks like executing a plan or scrutinizing data. Pretty important, right?
But it’s not the full picture. Being an entrepreneur and successful leader requires more than great executive skills: it requires cultivating creativity. Startups are built on the premise of doing things differently, looking at problems a new way, and charting solutions that move beyond the way we’ve always done things.
An overly-structured day can be a creativity killer.
While structure can help with linear thinking, reducing your distractions can be counterproductive in cultivating creativity. Creative people actually are more prone to distraction due to a reduced filter of outside stimuli. By letting in more noise, they’re exposing their brain to more information.
But, imagination doesn’t result in creativity unless it can be validated. Think of how many “amazing ideas” never panned out. So, how do we strike the right mix of structured and free thinking time?
Know what type of problem you’re solving
Analytic problem solving that requires high focus is better done in an environment with fewer distractions. If you are analyzing a data set, for example, you’re better off making it part of your routine. Set aside heads-down work time in a quiet place like an office rather than a coffee shop.
If you’re solving an insight-based problem, however, a little distraction can be incredibly helpful. A reduced filter of outside stimuli allows us to think less systematically. We can use this to our advantage by introducing new experiences and changing environments or times of day to solve different problems.
Don’t pressure yourself to be productive all the time
You only have so much energy and attention to spend in one day. When you want to shift focus to creativity, something has to give. Temporarily take the pressure off of achieving certain goals or setting benchmarks for success. You’ll be downshifting on executive attention, i.e. the system that is responsible for complex problem solving and reasoning, and increasing activation of the imagination network. For highly successful people who are used to focusing on metrics, this may feel like a big leap, but it’s a worthwhile one. You only need one “aha!” moment to make a difference.
Engage with the world around you
You can ask Sir Isaac Newton or Archimedes: inspiration can come from anywhere. By letting your mind and attention wander, you can engage with ideas in a new way. Maybe you read a book unrelated to your work that helps you connect the dots differently. Maybe you overhear a conversation that sparks a fresh idea. You never know what your falling apple will be, but you have to be out of your office to see it.
Schedule unstructured time
I know it sounds ridiculous to put on your calendar that you’re going to take unstructured thinking time, like recess for adults. But, just like recess, it’s crucial for cognitive skills and creativity to take breaks. Breaks in executive focus improve cognitive performance. Go for a walk, try a new coffee shop, and turn off the podcast. Find time in your day when you can let the world in.
When all else fails, take a shower
Showering combines three factors that can help cultivate creativity. The first is that they release dopamine, which is essential for creativity. The second is that they relax us, which lets our attention turn inward to find free associations that can lead to insights rather than outward toward the problem itself. The third is that they are a distraction, which can help you disengage from a train of thought that was unproductive and let your mind wander to creative solutions. These three factors together make showers a perfect incubation space for your best ideas.
If you’re not in the right place to take a shower but need a stroke of brilliance, find the task for you that combines those three things. Maybe it’s meticulously making a pour-over coffee at the office or taking a break to go to the gym at lunchtime. As long as you are relaxed, feel good, and are distracted, your brain is free to make associations that you can’t reach systematically.
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