Which one helps us to be creative and productive? Too busy, too distracted or deeply concentrated? It is generally taken for granted that distraction does not yield fruits. Scientific research shows that creativity suffers when we are constantly busy, according to Derek Beres, the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, in Big Think.
Being able to switch between focus and daydreaming is an important skill that’s reduced by being too busy. Science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research Emma Seppälä writes: “The idea is to balance linear thinking —which requires intense focus — with creative thinking, which is borne out of idleness. Switching between the two modes seems to be the optimal way to do good, inventive work.”
In his 2014 book, The Organized Mind, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin thinks that information overload keeps us mired in noise. He says that in 2011 Americans consumed five times as much information as 25 years prior; outside of work they process roughly 100,000 words every day.
This saps us of not only our limited willpower but creativity as well. He holds that linear thinking is part of the central executive network, our brain’s ability to focus, while creative thinking is part of our brain’s default mode network. Levitin, himself a former music professional writes: “Artists recontextualise reality and offer visions that were previously invisible. Creativity engages the brain’s daydreaming mode directly and stimulates the free flow and association of ideas, forging links between concepts and neural modes that might not otherwise be made.”
Engaging creatively requires hitting the reset button, which means carving space in our day for lying around, meditating, or staring off into nothing. It is almost impossible “when every free moment — at work, in line, at a red light — you’re reaching for your phone. Your brain’s attentional system becomes accustomed to constant stimulation; you grow antsy and irritable when you don’t have that input. You’re addicted to busyness,” writes Beres.
And that’s dangerous for quality of life. As Seppälä points out many of the world’s greatest minds made important discoveries while not doing much at all. Nikola Tesla had an insight about rotating magnetic fields on a leisurely walk in Budapest; Albert Einstein liked to chill out and listen to Mozart on breaks from intense thinking sessions.
Paying homage to boredom, journalist Michael Harris writes in The End of Absence that we start “to value unimportant and fleeting sensations instead of what matters most.” He prescribes less in the course of a normal day. “Perhaps we now need to engineer scarcity in our communications, in our interactions, and in the things we consume. Otherwise our lives become like a Morse code transmission that’s lacking breaks — a swarm of noise blanketing the valuable data beneath.”
Seppälä makes four suggestions to achieve this: Make a long walk — without your phone — a part of your daily routine. Get out of your comfort zone. Make more time for fun and games. And alternate between doing focused work and activities that are less intellectually demanding.
That last one is also recommended by author of Deep Work, Cal Newport, who is not on social media and checks email once a day. What seems to be lost in being “connected” is really irreplaceable time gained to focus. Without that time we are in danger of rewiring your neural patterns for distraction.
So these authors warns us from spending “enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.” Thus the secret of creative and productive life to focus, concentrate and spend in silence or being with oneself alone.
(The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)