Customers are sprinting away from your products, sales are plummeting and competitors are ripping the company apart! You need a creative solution yesterday so jump out of the proverbial box and manufacture one tonight.
If it were only that easy. As absurd as the scenario sounds, it takes place innumerable times every day and fails almost as often. Answering the following questions will demonstrate why.
Take no more than one minute to answer the following question. What are your plans for tomorrow? Move forward after you have a handful of answers.
What are your plans for five years? Again, please list three-five or so ideas and then read onward.
Let me guess. You produced a detailed list for tomorrow but identified broad concepts for five years out. Tomorrow’s plans comprise a to-do list of specifics like waking at 6:00 AM, walking the dog, dropping the munchkin at daycare, and finishing a report. They are very specific and probably ordered chronologically or by urgency. Conversely, the five-year responses are vague and abstract. You focused on starting a family, buying a house, moving to a new city, going back to school, or switching careers. The difference is caused by temporal distance, the unconscious tendency to process ideas differently depending upon the time frame. Our brains view distant ideas abstractly and near-term ones in detail. Creativity requires abstract thinking but you only exhibited it when the deadline was set to five years from now.
When the boss is breathing down your neck or a customer is anxiously awaiting a reply, do you search for a unique solution or a quick one? When you are in a rush to get somewhere important like a flight, do you search for a new route or select the tried-and-true? Creativity requires the exploration of unfamiliar options and that requires time. However, when time is limited we automatically default to the familiar.
Consider the story of Archimedes of ancient Greece who needed to determine if the king’s wreath was pure gold. The goldsmith who made it was accused of stealing some of the gold and substituting silver. The only way to determine the wreath’s purity was to melt it down and Archimedes needed a solution that didn’t destroy the wreath. Weighing it wouldn’t identify its contents. While bathing he noticed that water spilled out of the tub as he entered. Since metals have different densities — a gram of gold is bigger than a gram of silver — Archimedes realized that the wreath and an identically weighted gold block should displace the same amount of water. If they did, the wreath contained the expected contents and the goldsmith was innocent. Problem solved.
Archimedes was not the only thinker to stumble upon creative solutions. Einstein allocated time to daydream in what he called mind experiments. Newton identified the basic laws of motion after an apple fell on his head. These great thinkers didn’t solve creative problems because of deadlines. They solved them because they had the freedom to explore. That’s why ideas pop into your head while taking a shower, wandering on a walk, or listening to music. Even when you’re not actively solving a problem, your subconscious continues to churn through possible options. When it discovers one worth reviewing, you experience an epiphany as the idea is forced into your awareness.
Attack creative projects early
For procrastinators impending deadlines are fuel; they focus busy and distracted brains. That focus is a sign of near-term tomorrow thinking not the abstract creative kind. Starting a project at the last minute may have worked for high school algebra but won’t for something innovative. Begin immediately even if you only have a few minutes. Review the task at hand and take time to evaluate what is involved. Consider this step as planting a seed that may germinate during your next shower or your next drive.
Brilliant thinkers from Newton to Einstein emphasized how daydreaming prompted their creativity. One study from Brian Baird of the University of California Santa Barbara states “engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem-solving.” In the study, daydreamers imagined 41% more uses for everyday items than their non-daydreaming counterparts. For people who daydream, a dime makes an impromptu screwdriver. Keys double as bottle openers and scotch tape makes a temporary bandage.
Prepare in case ideas materialize unexpectedly
Don’t be surprised if that great idea pops into your head when out at lunch or while people-watching. It may occur during that boring, wasteful, time-sink of a fingers-across-the-chalkboard weekly meeting. Keep a note app or a voice recorder on your phone’s shortcuts to capture those unexpected ideas. Email ideas to yourself or text them to someone else just to record them. Send ideas to a reminder tool that will return them at a designated time. One trick I use is to edit an all-day meeting. My schedule is extremely tight so I’m always checking my calendar. I leave one all-day meeting open as a scratchpad. Placing ideas in the notes field of a calendar reminds me when I came up with the idea and its context. If these ideas don’t work, go old school and keep a small notepad and pen handy. There are options. Find the ones that work best.
Seek external inspiration
Talk with any artist and she’ll recount that art exists in beautiful places. It’s in expansive vistas and city skylines. It’s heard in laughing children. It’s felt in charitable acts. Inspiration can be found anywhere that clears the mundane tasks from your mental desktop. Grab a seat at the nearest park and just people-watch. Eat lunch at a lake. Sit in the window at the coffee shop. The goal is twofold: clear the busywork from your awareness and find an unrelated distraction.
Turn off the noise
Silence the phone. Email and social media can wait. There is no inspiration in a friend’s selfie, the newest restaurant review, or the latest political rant. A coworker’s fire-drill-of-the-day will not burn the company to the ground in the next few minutes. Wedge 30 minutes into your busy day and just decompress.
Creativity is not a diamond hardened by outside pressure. It is better likened to an unborn child that arrives on its own timetable. Consciously care for it but realize that there is no way to force an early delivery. Prenatal care hopes to produce a healthy child, not one that arrives 5 months early. Creativity too can be fostered but not rushed.