Innovation has become a prized commodity in business and commerce. With regular disruption becoming the norm in most industries it is more critical than ever for organizations to be able to shift and adapt with new ideas and approaches. The pressure to innovate has become accepted but it is often this pressure itself that stunts the innovation so desperately sought. Under stress the human brain goes into fight-or-flight mode, flooding the body with hormones and chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline that focus the sympathetic nervous system on defense and survival. Under these conditions the divergent thinking that underpins creativity is unavailable.
However, even when stress is moderated, most working environments do not stimulate creative thinking. This goes beyond edgy graffiti on office walls and table tennis in the chill out area, it requires an understanding of the approach to thinking itself. Typical corporate systems recruit and develop high levels of convergent thinking: the progressive, analytical and logical thought processes that deliver amazing results in problem solving, but elicit few fresh new ideas. In order to enter phases of divergent thinking the mind needs to feel relaxed, safe and open. There is correlation here with brain activity. In a typical work day people spend the predominance of their time in singular focus on particular tasks. This ‘getting things done’ mode is associated with beta wave patterns in the brain, which facilitate productive results-oriented thinking.
Raw creativity, however, cannot be accessed through beta brainwaves alone. Mark Beeman’s work on the Eureka Moment has revealed that these ‘Aha!’ experiences are typified by bursts of gamma wave activity that light up multiple neural networks. Importantly, though, these flashes only occur when the brain is in, or has recently spent time in, alpha brain wave states. These are the states we enter when we feel calm and relaxed, but alert. Time in nature, for example, is an almost automatic trigger of this state, with bird song alone being shown to tune the brain into alpha wave patterns.
Postmodern life being what it is we all know that experience of needing to be creative, but just not feeling it. It might be fatigue or mental overload, but we just can’t seem to access what we need to call in the new. This is not a hopeless situation, though. There are ways to shift the tide in your favour:
A few slow deep breaths calm the mind and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is particularly helpful if you feel anxious and need to be creative on demand. Breathing in this way also helps oxygenate the blood which brings greater mental clarity. Try this quick and simple practice (repeat three times): breathe in through the nose to the count of 4 (all the way to the belly), then exhale slowly through the mouth to the count of 8.
Regular exercise has multiple proven benefits, one of them being a better-regulated autonomic nervous system that is more resilient and less sensitive to stress. If you have to create something and it’s feeling impossible, a quick burst of exercise is an intelligent investment. It clears the mind, stimulates endorphins and helps build a feeling of empowerment – one of the biggest blocks to creativity is the feeling of being overwhelmed and disempowered. What type of exercise? Whatever feels fun or enjoyable – anything from a jog to a quick round of squats.
3- Change your surroundings
A shift in environment and stimuli activates the brain’s innate curiosity and tickles the creative muscles. If you’ve ever noticed that you work well in a coffee shop full of noise, this is partly why. If that change of environment allows you to engage with nature you’re winning. Walks in green areas have for centuries been known to open the creativity taps.
4- Fill the well
As Julia Cameron, author of the Artist’s Way, says, creativity cannot be a one-way process. If one thinks of creative pursuits as tapping from a source, that source needs to be filled. In order to have creativity available to you when you need it make sure you regularly partake in solitary activities that stimulate and feed you. That could be listening to music, drinking a cup of coffee at a sunny window, a swim in the ocean, or 15 minutes looking at beautiful photographs on unsplash.com– it’s truly personal.
5- Take a happiness break
This feels counterintuitive when we are under pressure but taking a break to do something you find fun or enjoyable pays dividends later. You may discover that you don’t allow yourself these breaks often, because few of us do. We’re not talking here of gratuitous indulgence, just a little shot of joy. Often this itself asks you to be creative (‘What can I do right now that would be fun?’) and that gets your work started for you.
6- Call a friend
Humans have a remarkable ability to stimulate each other’s creativity. Feeling stuck? Get up from your desk and walk away. Call a friend or loved one for a 10-minute chat with no agenda other than to say hi and talk about whatever comes up. If you have nothing to say, tell them you’ve called to talk nonsense for 10 minutes so that you can be more creative. Combine this with numbers 3 and 5 above for maximum value.
7- Slay the dragon of resistance
Sometimes a lack of creativity is not a lack of creativity at all – it is resistance to doing work that we feel blocked against. The reasons for this could be numerous and to get through the resistance we need to engage with it directly and with courage. Find guidance here.