3 Proven Ways to Boost Your Creativity & Productivity

Have you ever been washing the dishes and you were instantly hit with a flash of inspiration?

Or maybe you were taking a shower, or going for a run, or commuting to work, or just about to fall asleep, and you suddenly came up with a great new idea?

I’ve asked hundreds of leaders the same question:

“Where and when do you do your best thinking?”

Consistently, their answers are all variations on the above themes.   They come up with their best thoughts when they’re not actively trying to do their best thinking.  The insights have a way of sneaking up on them.

Ironically, what very very few leaders ever answer the question “Where and when do you your best thinking?” with:

  • At work
  • In a meeting
  • While I’m reading or writing emails.

If you feel stuck in doing a lot of poor thinking, you’re in good company.  A 2010 survey of 1,700 white collar workers showed that average employees spend the majority of their time just managing the deluge of data they get on a daily basis, rather than doing their work.  More than half of those surveyed also said they were getting close to a breaking point with the sheer volume of information.

We know work can be a tough place to think. Yet, isn’t work precisely where we’d actually want to do some of our best thinking?

As professionals, we want to add value, create solutions to customer needs, improve our products and processes, and find better ways of doing things.   As such, doing great thinking lies at the heart of innovation and productivity.

It turns out there’s a common denominator to get your creativity and productivity online:

Find ways to activate your brain’s default mode network.

The default mode network (DMN) describes the neurological pattern that occurs when the brain is at rest.  When the brain is ‘resting’ it enters the DMN. In this state, it uses less energy.  The brain will remain in the DMN until it begins to focus on a specific task that takes a higher level of cognitive capacity.

When you are doing mundane, repetitive tasks (such as showering, doing the dishes, running, etc.), your brain switches to the DMN. Any previous ideas that you’d focused on previously now get to incubate in interconnected neural networks of the DMN.  Without even trying….Eureka!  A flash of insight arrives.  Research has found a positive correlation  between creative performance and gray matter volume of the default mode network.

On the flip side, when you sit down to focus on solving a problem, you force your brain to bypass the DMN, thus preventing it brain from meander through all of those interconnected neural networks.  You’re more likely to find  yourself “stuck” on the problem.  After all your hard work, all you’ve discovered is a nasty headache.

Creative people have known about the phenomenon of this creative state even before the formal field of neuroscience ever existed.  The famous artist Salvador Dali used to take naps, using his “sleep with a key” technique.  Dali would sit in a chair, and hold a metal key in his hand over a metal plate, and as he would doze off, the key fall out of his hand and bang on the plate, waking him up.  He’d awake in a highly creative state. (A state we know now from sleep research as “theta”).

Here are three proven ways to activate your Default Mode Network:

  1. Take A Nap

Dali isn’t the only famous creative to sleep during the day.  Edison, Einstein, Thatcher, Eleanor Roosevelt, da Vinci all were notable nappers.

Researchers have shown that short naps (10-30 minutes) can boost our brains abilities with:

  • Creative problem solving
  • Verbal memory
  • Perceptual learning
  • Object learning
  • Math
  • Logic

If that wasn’t reasons enough, napping can also help your health: heart, blood pressure, stress levels, and weight management.   Even short 10 minute naps allow us to switch into our brain’s DMN.

2. Take A Vacation

A survey found that four out of 10 Americans don’t take all their vacation time.

Vacations allow you to hit the reset button in your brain.  It turns out that all that goofing off and doing nothing may turn out to be the best thing you do.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s been shown that when you take a vacation, you become more productive.

An internal study at the accounting firm Ernst & Young found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their year-end performance ratings from supervisors (on a scale of one to five) improved by 8 percent. Frequent vacationers were also had higher levels of retention.

3. Take A Break

University of Chicago Professor Nathaniel Kleitman was a sleep researcher.  He found what we now know as BRAC–the Basic Rest Activity Cycle of the five stages of sleep.

Later in his career, Kleitman also discovered a daytime analogue to the BRAC– a 90 minute daytime cycle during which we move from higher states of alertness and arousal to lower alertness and back again.  This daytime cycle has been called the Ultradian Rhythm.

If we try to override this natural cycle and push on through past the 90 minute threshold (3 hour conference call, anyone?!) our bodies will rebel.  We’ll get distracted, fidgety, irritable, and/or sleepy.  Our physiology craves a break–every ninety minutes.

In order to not get stuck in a cognitive rut, give yourself a break. At least every 90 minutes or so.

What other techniques do you have to boost creativity and productivity? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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