How can mindfulness help us tap into our creativity?
It feels great when ideas shift and evolve, and something new emerges. Creative moments, whether they happen as an individual or working with a team, are some of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of our work. It’s in these moments, in fact, that we often add the highest value to our team, our company, and to our clients.
Yet, it can be hard to be consistently creative, especially if we feel we are always running to deadlines and juggling a thousand things. So how can mindfulness help us bring more creativity into our work?
Learning from history
We can learn a lot from stories of creativity in history. Think of Archimedes in his bath. He was given the task of figuring out if a crown was made of pure gold or had been diluted with less precious metals. After a long time trying to figure this out, the moment of inspiration came while he was in the bath, where he discovered the law of buoyancy.
Similarly, Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravity while he was walking after dinner, in the shade of some apple trees. And Einstein got his inspiration for relativity from dreams and daydreams.
What can we learn from this? That true creativity comes from an interesting balance of focus and relaxation. This is where mindfulness comes in. It’s well documented that mindfulness techniques aid better concentration and lead to more calm and less stress. So, let’s explore how to apply these techniques effectively to support your creativity.
Create some space
One thing is for sure, we won’t be truly creative if we’re running and distracted. At best, we’ll come up with short-term fixes. Consider Newton in the apple orchard, for example. If he’d been busy checking his smartphone messages, he probably wouldn’t have discovered gravity!
- My first tip then is for when you’re working individually on a project. Block out some time explicitly in your calendar. For example, allocate two hours to work fully on a particular project. If you explain to your manager why you are doing this, it’s likely he or she will be supportive.
It is also very worthwhile to pay attention to your environment. If you’re in an open office with many interruptions, can you book a small room to work in for those two hours? Or perhaps work from home one morning.
2) If you are working with a team, similarly try to set aside some quality time where everyone can be focused on the work without distractions. Can you find a room that is quiet and has good light and air, so that people feel comfortable working there for many hours?
It really helps creativity to set up the right supporting conditions to be focused, present, and mindful. Clear Sky’s Five Principles speak to this, and I wrote more about it in a previous blog about mindfulness at work.
A number of studies show that the brain shuts down the centres for creativity and deeper thinking if we feel stressed and we are busy churning over the million things we need to do. Essentially, too much busyness and stress makes our brains feel that we’re in a “survival” situation.
Calming ourselves down, then, and letting ourselves become more present, is a signal to our brain that it can relax, focus more deeply, and turn the dials for creativity and empathy back up.
A simple mindful minute can really help:
- Take a moment for yourself – or with your whole team – to simply sit quietly, connect with your breath, allow yourself to settle down.
- If you don’t feel the rest of the team are open to do a mindful minute, informally you can still help people become present. Suggest everyone put away their devices so that you can all focus on the creative work together. Take some time for introductions and letting people settle and become present with the team and the project.
For many of us, a large part of our work may be linear. We’re working in a fast-paced role, where efficiency and quick responses are needed. Since creativity is less linear, we need to loosen up our brains to switch modes and access our creative talents.
Mindfulness practices can help with this, by balancing our hemispheres and getting the focused, analytical left brain working together with the free-roaming creativity of our right brain.
A simple mindfulness practice to help with this is called the “game of five”. On your way to work in the morning, as an example, can you spot five new things you’ve never noticed before? Or, walking across your office floor play with becoming aware of your different senses – can you notice five sounds you wouldn’t usually notice?
Certain creative activities, such as brainstorming with stickies where everyone is adding written notes to a board, introduce this aspect of play, too. This approach offers the added benefit of getting our bodies involved, which naturally helps us be more engaged and present than when we are just stuck in our heads.
You’ll see this link between play and creativity in cartoon images of Archimedes in his bath, playing with a rubber duck. Though of course, we don’t know how historically accurate this is.
Take breaks and keep fresh
Lastly, remember that inspiration often comes during a break. Einstein’s daydreams, Archimedes’ bath, and Newton’s stroll in the apple orchard are all great examples of how things can sometimes click into place when we stop focusing on the problem directly.
There are two reasons it’s essential to apply mindfulness to taking breaks. Firstly, the perspective mindfulness gives us helps us be aware of the right balance. When is it time to buckle down and push further? When is it time to relax, get some fresh air or good night’s sleep?
Secondly, doing a short mindfulness practice is a great way to refresh ourselves and open up that space for inspiration.
- Take a few minutes for a mindful stroll outside. Pay attention to the sensations in the body – how your feet are connecting with the ground, the feel of the air on your skin, the sounds and smells around you. The idea is to get into your body and out of your head for a while.
- Or take a quick stretch by a window with natural light, and enjoy a few moments relaxing your eyes, looking out the window and just breathing.
What works for you?
The founder of Google’s mindfulness program, Search Inside Yourself, tells a funny story about how he got a breakthrough on a code problem when he took a mindful walk to the washroom. Whenever he was stuck with an issue after that, he’d go to the washroom more often!
Above, I’ve shared some things I’ve found helpful to support my creativity. I’d love to hear what you try out and what works for you! Please share below.
This blog by Duncan Cryle was originally written for IBM’s staff blog. Edited by Andrew Rogers.
Duncan is also one of the teachers on our online course, Ignite Your Spiritual Life.