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Busyness is the enemy of creativity

Our lives are being filled with so much activity that we no longer have time to think creatively. The old adage that “busyness is not effectiveness” never applied more than it does today – when we are working longer and faster, and multitasking more frequently.

Our tendency is to fill every minute with activity. We seem to have a fear of empty space. Just as an emptied drawer doesn’t stay empty long, so freed-up time doesn’t stay free long. If there’s a pause in a conversation, we’re quick to fill it. If we ask a question and there’s no immediate response, we answer it ourselves. If we’re waiting in a line-up, we grab for our smartphone to check email or send a quick text message.

It’s difficult to make time for creativity in this digital age of speed. Electronic tablets, smart phones and other PDAs are efficient beyond imagination. Unfortunately it’s the imagination that is the key to successful ventures. And smart phones are just plain stupid when it comes to creativity. I sometimes think we would be better off with more doodle pads and fewer keypads.

I’m not knocking technology. It has been the greatest time saver of all time, and it makes our earlier efforts at efficiency seem pathetic. But we have to control it. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Don’t be afraid to turn off your smartphone, ignore email and engage voice mail for an hour or more during the day. History has proven that we can survive for at least 60 minutes without the use of technology.  The key is to make use of the virtual world while still feeling great, having healthy relationships, and remaining connected to the here and now.

Most of the latest books on creativity, such as Your Creative Brain (2010) and Imagine: How creativity works (2012) agree that we are all creative and every day we perform hundreds of creative acts. And everyone is able to train their creative brain.

If that’s true, why do so many people struggle with coming up with novel ways to market, write, promote, produce and so on? I would suggest that one of the reasons is that we don’t have time to be creative. You don’t get your most creative ideas while rushing to a meeting or racing to get to the grocery store before it closes. Ideas come when you’re relaxing in a hot tub, lying on the beach or strolling in a park.

When a NY Times reporter interviewed several winners of the MacArthur “genius” grants, most said they kept cell phones and iPads turned off when in transit so they could use the downtime for thinking. That’s what most people are lacking. Research shows that people think more creatively when they are calm, unhurried, and free from stress. Time pressures lead to tunnel vision.

Michael Gebb, author of How to Think Like Leonardo daVinci, asked the question “Where are you when you get your best ideas?”  The answer was seldom “At work.”  It was usually “while walking, taking a shower, listening to music” or some other non-work-related activity.  Making work your whole life is detrimental to your work.

People usually get their best ideas, not when they are busy working, but while relaxing at home, on vacation or just before dozing off at night. You are not doing yourself a favor by skipping lunches or vacations or continually multitasking. Make time for creative thinking by going for long walks, taking regular breaks, having leisurely lunches and keeping normal hours. Don’t feel guilty if you find yourself staring at the sky or watching steam rise from your coffee. That’s when you might get your best ideas.

And it’s good for your health as well.


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Managing your brain, part 9


Creativity in action.

My habit over the past twenty years or more was to go for a walk in the morning with my writing tools tucked inside a computer bag, thinking along the way about the article I was to write that morning. When I reached my destination – a coffee shop about twenty minutes from my home, I would take out my pad and pen, and amazingly I would complete the article without difficulty in the span of 30 minutes or so. It had almost written itself in my mind as I had been walking.

I originally thought it was the fresh air, relaxed state of mind, and the free time available to think about the topic that made the ideas and thoughts flow so easily.

But it was actually the body movement. Our creative ability is enhanced by walking, exercise or even simply gesturing. As expressed by Sean Beilock in her book, How the body knows the mind, (Atria Books, 2015) “moving the body can alter the mind by unconsciously putting ideas in our head before we are able to consciously contemplate them on our own.”

Movement can help us to solve problems and even increase productivity. And it’s one of the keys to remembering long lists of information in workshops through the storytelling, thinking and association techniques that we teach. (See my ebook, Boost your memory and strengthen your mind, published by

Moving your body can actually change how you think. Whether you are an actor rehearsing lines, a speaker memorizing a speech or a student recalling facts, when you include motion either physically or in your mind during the memorizing process, it makes memory and recall easier.

You have no doubt heard the expression “thinking outside the box” when talking about creativity. Well, researchers at Cornell University actually had volunteers sit inside a huge box while solving problems. They were outperformed by others walking freely outside the box. So resist the impulse to sit at your desk when solving a problem. And don’t sit around a boardroom table when brainstorming new ideas in your company. Research appears to substantiate the wisdom of stand-up meetings from more than simply a time management perspective.

The neurotransmitter, dopamine, which declines with age, plays a role in creativity, and exercise helps to slow or prevent this decline. So keep active your entire life; because if you’re idle, your mind may be idle as well. By managing your body, you are helping to manage your brain as well; because the body and the brain work in tandem.

This doesn’t mean you won’t get ideas while working at your desk as well. Ideas could flash through your mind and then disappear while you are busy working on a project. It’s a good idea to capture those thoughts immediately – either in a journal, smart phone or booklet – something more substantial than a scrap of paper that could itself disappear.

For example, we have a “Back Burner” page at the back of our Taylor Planner where we can quickly jot down those fleeting thoughts before continuing with the task at hand. The Daily Priority Pad also has a section for these ideas.  Creativity frequently happens when you’re busy doing something else. You can see both of these items at our website,

By the way, I still take that walk – sometimes varying the route and coffee shop. I still write the article, or book chapter or whatever longhand, in cursive writing – perhaps from habit – but I do believe it is also good exercise for the brain. Then I dictate it to my computer when I get home – using voice-activated software.