Do you remember where you were the last time you had a really great idea about work? Chances are it wasn't sitting at your desk, staring at your computer. More than likely you were doing something completely non-work related like taking a shower, sleeping, or going for a walk.
Why is it that "ah ha" moments only seem to creep up on us when we aren't looking for them? For many of us, this is a real challenge as finding creative solutions to today's problems is so important not only in our work but in all aspects of our lives. So if we want to enhance our ability to come up with new ideas, what can we do?
To begin, let's look at what moments of insight have in common. Most of the time, the common element is that you were not actively thinking about anything. In fact, most of our "ah ha" moments come when we are in what is known as a "perceptual" as opposed to a "conceptual" frame of mind.
We are perceptual when we perceive the world around us through our senses - sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. We are conceptual when we process things through our cognition or thought. A perceptual mode is experiential and wordless whereas a conceptual mode is associated with thinking and words.
While we are all highly perceptual beings, many of us don't pay much attention to our perceptual experiences. Perhaps you can relate to rushing through a meal and not noticing any taste. You may not notice the taste, but the part of your brain that processes taste does. And if something isn't right, your subconscious will be sure to let you know. It is constantly evaluating all kinds of information from your environment and influencing your thoughts and behavior whether you are aware of it or not.
So what is the link between being perceptual and creativity? When we open ourselves up to be more aware of our experiences, we create opportunities to tap into a much greater store of information outside the limits of our conscious conceptual awareness.
It stands to reason that if we can solve a problem simply by thinking about it then we are just accessing information we already know - we aren't being creative. Real moments of insight are when we uncover something that we didn't already consciously know. For most people, these flashes come precisely when we stop thinking; when we let go of our conceptual processes and create mental space for novelty and innovation.
In the middle of a busy work day, it isn't always possible or convenient to take a shower, sleep, or go for a walk. But there are other ways that we can tune in to our perceptual mind and enhance our creative potential. In particular, there are specific mindfulness training exercises that help us be more clear minded, in the moment, and see things from a fresh perspective.
In fact, a growing body of research has demonstrated clear linkages between mindfulness training and enhanced creativity. Specifically, mindfulness training has been shown to help people be less habitual in how they see things and generate more out of the box or "divergent thinking" - key for creative insights.
Furthermore, researchers from the University of Toronto used functional MRI scanning technology to observe differences in our "default" state of mind versus a mind that is present in the moment i.e. mindful. What they found was that for most of us, our default state is conceptual but with training, we have the ability to intentionally be in a more perceptual mode. In other words, we can train ourselves to let go of unnecessary thoughts and be more aware of our experiences. It stands to reason that this can be a powerful pre-condition for new ideas.
Steve Jobs was a well-known advocate of the benefits of mindfulness. He stated:
"If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there's room to hear more subtle things - that's when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before."
Now I am not saying that if you take time out of your busy day to train in mindfulness you will come up with the next iPhone. But, since creativity is so key to innovation and results, a simple yet powerful technique that helps people be a little more calm and a little more capable of generating new ideas has to be a good thing.
In 2010, a Newsweek article entitled, "The Creativity Crisis" warned about an increasing decline in creativity in the United States since 1990. The article talked about the importance of creativity in terms of addressing the complicated challenges we face in our society at large.
I believe if we want to find ways to increase creativity and innovation in our work and our lives the place to start is with the mind. We have tremendous opportunity to cultivate the vast creative potential that exists within ourselves and today's organizations. To do so, we need to re-evaluate and re-design our habitual modes of thinking and working. Specifically, we need to place more value on our perceptual mind and create more mental space in ourselves, our work environments, and our world.