250 Researchers at 60 institutions say it’s the number one 21st Century skill.
An IBM survey of 1500 top executives in 60 countries picked it as the most desirable CEO quality.
Red Bull Completed the first phase of Hacking Creativity in 2015. They determined creativity is the most important skill for success in our fast-paced world.
Organizations want more creativity to happen at work but don’t know how to make it happen.
Creativity isn’t neat or cool to have in the workplace—it’s vital. Creativity is the new literacy. You should do everything in your power to further its presence in your life.
The good news is that flow science is helping us to uncover how to encourage more creativity at work.
Read the tips below to discover how you and your coworkers can become more creative.
The Key to More Creativity Anywhere is Being Able to Access Flow States
Is there a state of consciousness that can train you to be more creative?
Yes. It’s flow.
Let’s first look at the neurobiology of creativity.
Creativity is recombinatory. This means new information and old memories get mixed together for a new flavor.
Flow supports this process by helping you shift between thoughts quickly and combine them. Brainwaves slow down in flow to a sweet spot between alpha and theta (daydreaming and REM sleep). It is often in this pocket that the most creative ideas are formed.
The part of the brain charged with self-monitoring and impulse control (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) also goes quiet during flow. This allows for creativity to run free without the resistance of the brain’s inner critic.
People are not only more creative in flow, they also report being more creative the day after a flow! Teresa Amiable at Harvard found Flow improves creativity not just in the moment, but also long-term. That’s a pretty amazing tool that anyone can use to be more creative.
What keeps us from being in the creative flow state at work?
Two big flow blockers are:
- Lack of focus.
- Too much anxiety.
We focus best when a task is 4% greater than our comfort zone. You have to be in that sweet spot between stressed and bored.
Self-efficacy is also crucial. You have to be confident in your ability to exert control over your own motivation, behavior, and social environment.
The ability to focus at work has become a major problem.
It takes workers an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to focus after a distraction. When they finally do return to their task, they tend to work faster with increased stress.
Distractions at work include the self-inflicted ones:
- Looking for a lost file.
- Checking email and social media too much.
- Too many coffee or smoke breaks.
- Searching for the right GIF to reply with on the office chat.
As well as the ones beyond our control:
- Network downtime.
- Coworker interruptions.
- Phone calls.
- Those meetings that should have been an email.
In one study commissioned by Microsoft, the average worker was found to be interrupted by an average of 4 emails and 3 IMs every hour. Each email and alert accounted for between 8-9 minutes of focus time lost.
Before we can hope to be more creative at work, we have to be productive for more than two hours and 53 minutes per day.
How can operations managers help?
- Limit meetings.
- Create a culture where email isn’t responded to immediately.
- Leverage technology to automate simple tasks.
- Remove environmental distractions and encourage a distraction-free workplace.
- Give employees the autonomy to block chats, mute alerts, and schedule focus and collaboration hours every day.
Resource management also plays a role. Research done on demand vs. resources in the workplace found that not having enough resources has a direct effect on employee stress. It also found too many resources raise stress levels as well.
For other science-based strategies, check out our recent post on Time Management.
When workers feel anxious, they also can’t tap into creativity.
The negative news cycle contributes to mass anxiety. When you are constantly bombarded with negativity, your cortisol levels rise and you can’t tap into flow.
Restrict your news sources. Only check the news once or twice a day.
Otherwise your anxiety is going to build up and it’s going to be hard to get creative.
A few sources of anxiety at work are:
- Too heavy of a workload.
- Too much turnover in management.
- An uncertain work future.
If you recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you can’t be “hangry” or scared and hope to get any creative work done.
In the workplace safety might be physical (relating to the building itself) or psychological (am I going to get fired?).
Once work becomes a place of low anxiety and high focus, it contains more potential to be a place where creativity and innovation flourishes.
A high-flow work environment would contain these qualities.
- Culture that encourages deep focus.
- Autonomy (self-directed work/learning).
- Uninterrupted concentration time (90-120 min. blocks).
- Deep embodiment (learning while doing).
When your work culture has these qualities you will get what Steven Kotler calls the “High Performance Triangle” of Motivation, Learning, and Creativity.
Creativity is a State of Mind
There are three mental functions that produce the most creativity.
- Pattern recognition (your ability to link ideas together)
- The size of the database searched by your brain’s pattern recognition system.
Flow amplifies all three functions. It shuts down the part of the brain that shoots down creative ideas and allows you to move from idea to idea faster.
We have found that people report being 7x more creative in flow—a 700 percent boost in creativity.
Managers should know that people who follow their passions will trigger flow more frequently.
The brain is primed for flow (and enhanced creativity) when people are engaged in the present doing something that switches them on.
A Gallup study last year found that 34% of employees feel engaged at work. The most successful organizations make engagment a goal of their business strategy.
This strategy might include:
- Making more employees stakeholders in the business.
- Giving workers more autonomy over their hours and PTO.
- Clarifying expectations and setting appropriate challenges.
- Getting people the technology and tools they need to do their work.
Organizations with engaged employees enjoyed 21% more profitability than their peers.
Creativity is a by-product of passionate people showing up to do a job they love.
Olympic snowboarding silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler said, “You don’t wake up and say: ‘Today I’m going to be more creative. You do the things you love to do and try to get at their essence and allow things to emerge.”
Creativity in a Group Setting
A 2012 study conducted at the University of Sydney used transcranial magnetic stimulation to induce a state comparable to flow in their subjects. Then they administered the nine-dot problem.
Less than 5 percent of subjects usually solve this problem. In the Sydney control group, no one did.
In the flow-induced group, 40% solved it.
DARPA and Advanced Brain Monitoring have used neurofeedback to induce a state of flow in soldiers. They found that soldiers in flow solved complex creative problems 490% faster. The soldiers also mastered new skills quicker than normal.
In Keith Sawyer’s book Group Genius, the professor reported on his extensive studies of jazz groups and theatre ensembles. He discovered that “groups are more likely to generate surprising new ideas, faster, than solitary individuals.”
A jam session is very different from a meeting in the conference room.
For groups to maximize creativity at work they need to:
- Listen to each other very closely.
- Every member must contribute small ideas moment to moment.
- New Ideas must be inspired by and build on other members' ideas.
- Start with remote associations before jumping right into specific tasks.
The best creative collaborators check their egos at the door and don’t care who gets credit for an idea in the end.
In our work at the Collective, we’ve identified 10 Group Flow triggers:
- Complete concentration.
- Shared goals.
- Shared risk.
- Yes and… (the concept used to further dialogue by improv groups).
- Close listening.
- Blending egos.
- Equal participation.
- Open communication.
The triggers that produce the best work also make the work environment more pleasurable to be in.
The Paradox of Work
Workers have stated that they experience more flow at work.
They also report being happier during leisure time.
If we’re in flow more when we’re working, shouldn’t that equate with more happiness?
This paradox was first explored by Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre in 1989.
The factors Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre found for this paradox existing were:
- Society conditions us to believe that work shouldn’t be enjoyable.
- Participants were unable to structure leisure to capture more flow.
The key to being happier at work is intrinsic motivation and flow.
You have to spend maximum time in flow while working. You also need to be intrinsically motivated to perform.
Intrinsic motivation is a flow inducing behavior where you work without being motivated by external rewards.
Enjoying being more creative at work can be an intrinsic motivation.
Playtime at Work
Nerf wars, video games in the breakroom, virtual happy hours, and office mini-golf. It seems every creative ad agency has stocked up on toys and encouraged employees to play.
Most of us don’t work in a factory anymore. There are ample opportunities to structure play for the modern office.
Research supports the idea that making play part of office culture increases flow and timelessness. As we’ve already stated, more flow = more creativity.
Meditation and Creativity
The idea of a mindfulness practice improving work conditions has caught on in the last five years.
But not all forms of meditation support creativity equally.
What type of thinking do you want your mindfulness practice to support?
Thinking has two broad categories.
- Divergent thinking — a style of thinking where many new ideas are generated. Often, more than one solution is correct. Brainstorming sessions and alternate use tasks are two examples of divergent thinking activities.
- Convergent thinking — generating one possible solution to a particular problem. It benefits from cognitive speed and applying logic.
The type of meditation that has been shown to improve divergent thinking is called open-monitoring meditation.
There are two goals of OM meditation.
- Open the breath.
- Open the mind.
During an OM session, as a thought occurs, the practitioner observes and acknowledges the experience without any judgment.
Both focused-attention meditation and OM reduce stress and improve mood.
Stages of Creativity
British psychologist Graham Wallas was sixty-eight when he outlined the four stages of creativity for his book “The Art of Thought.”
While Wallas' book has been long out of print, his theory is expanded in “The Creativity Question” by psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg and philosopher Carl R. Hausman.
Here are the four stages of the creative process.
- Preparation, looking at a problem from all angles. This should include “first-order” thinking—breaking a problem down to its original source.
- Incubation, taking a break from actively working on the problem. During this stage, two things happen: we don’t consciously think of the problem, but our unconscious does. The writer T.S. Eliot who used to let poems incubate while battling poor health, said, “we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on.”
- Illumination, the light bulb moment of inspiration and new ideas. Illumination happens when we are in that flow brain wave state between alpha and theta. (That’s why you get more creative ideas in the shower than at work.)
- Verification, testing our creative ideas to see if they’re any good. As the French polymath Henri Poincaré said, “All that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations.”
How do these stages of creativity correlate to the flow cycle?
Harvard Cardiologist Herbert Benson, found four stages in the flow cycle.
The stages of creativity and the flow cycle compliment each other.
In the preparation stage of creativity, you might feel like you can’t get your head around something. That mild frustration kicks off the struggle phase necessary for flow.
Norepinephrine and adrenaline are released by your brain. This brings on heightened focus and alertness.
Then, as you enter the incubation stage of the creativity, you experience the release that previews flow state. You relax, let pattern recognition take control and with it the release of dopamine and endorphins.
As you go back to work and enter flow state, the illumination spark of the creative stage appears.
Once you have the working model, your brain (which has been optimized by flow) is ready to recover.
Your recovery should be active and planned. A few good activities to include are:
- Breathwork (try 10-12 minutes of box breathing, followed by a 3-5 minute breathyfier.
- Open awareness meditation.
- Short naps (10-20 minutes).
Steven Kotler gives a great overview of his recovery strategy in this interview with Jim Kwik.
Remember, it’s all about finding a recovery strategy that works for you. If you want to know the biology and science behind recovery—that’s where we can help!
Check Out Our Podcast to Learn More About Stimulating Creativity Individually or at Work
EPISODE 7: Unlocking Creativity and Maximizing Gratitude with Dr. Glenn Fox and Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman.
This episode talks about the neuroscience of creativity, how gratitude impacts the brain and how it can boost both your creativity and level of baseline gratitude.
Dr. Fox is one of the world’s leading experts in the neuroscience of gratitude and the Head of Program Design, Strategy, and Outreach at the USC Performance Science Institute.
Dr. Kaufman is a humanistic psychologist He received his PhD in cognitive psychology from Yale University and was named by Business Insider, one of “50 groundbreaking scientists who are changing the way we see the world.”
EPISODE 3: How to Develop Grit and Amplify Your Creativity with Dr. Angela Duckworth and Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman
In this episode, Dr. Angela Duckworth who’s TED talk is among the most-viewed of all time, talks about the power of passion and perseverance. We recently recommend Duckworth’s book “Grit” as one you should add to your positive psychology library.
She is accompanied by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, who shares his enthusiasm for the psychology of creativity through his teaching, writing, speaking, and podcast.