The Creativity-Productivity Paradox: Play and Time

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Finally we come back to time, the number one reason why people feel they cannot be productive. People mislead themselves in thinking they need extra time to be creative. On the contrary, the ideal time to think up your best ideas isn’t when you’re in the office; it’s when you’re off doing something completely unrelated. The subconscious needs time to saturate in thought, to sort through ideas, and play with concepts. It can’t do this at crunch time in a hectic environment where you’re expected to perform at peak capacity. It can however do this when you’re off enjoying a leisurely walk, taking a shower, or are ‘unplugged’ in some other way. Managing your creative time begins by training your brain to step out of the 9-5 trap.

The 9-5 trap is what I call the ‘zombification’ of the modern worker, when at 5pm hordes of bright motivated people switch off their cerebral cortex to sit in hour long traffic so they can go home eat, watch meaningless TV, and go to bed – when really this is the time your brain is ready to escape in a whole different way.

When you’ve clocked out, you shouldn’t be checking out. You should be using this time as a creative play, intermingling necessary tasks like driving home and making dinner with exploratory play that entertains meandering thoughts and connected dots. Here you’re not trying to arrive at a moment of inspired genius. Rather, you’re just toying with ideas without any expectation.

The practice mirrors a player’s interaction with a Rubik’s cube, where each turn is often little more than an experimental move until you get closer to the final form – at which point each move forward is increasingly strategic, yet still made without fear of error even though often times we’ve just made a mess of it. In fact, this is how children learn and it’s a method we can learn from.

Play is important theme in how children learn. The idea of embracing the ‘messy’ (or error-filled, as often encountered with a Rubik’s cube) develops a conceptual frame of mind that entertains non-linear thought. A Developmental Science study featured in a NY Times blog post by Dr. Perri Klass furthers the dialogue by adding that this concept of “messy” isn’t really about making a mess; it’s about digging into problem and exploring your environment with a sleeves-rolled-up attitude. In a business setting we can use this thinking to help steer away from “right answers” and “explore real world challenges that include ambiguity and doubt.”

We’re already seeing this sort of attitude more widely adopted in start-ups and new media-based companies where traditional business culture has become a relic. These groups think playfully, create playful environments, and as a result have experienced record-breaking success. What used to take 20 years to achieve is now being secured in just handful of years simply through exploratory business models that require playful thought.

The ability to play is something both small and large-scale businesses have difficulty adopting. The reason isn’t money or rigid organizational structures. The reason involves lacking a willingness to play. Yet being creatively productive is within reach for both groups. Entrepreneurs can encourage creative play in the workplace through strategic exposure to a field of ideas, people, and experiences that can act as a bridge from banal to creative.

Take yourself, or your employees, for example. You may not have the time to indulge in creative thought (what I earlier referred to as Einstein’s theory of combinatory play) outside of the workplace, but you can carve out a time at the office. Take for instance something as simple as lunch. Instead of treating lunch as a mandatory task that has to be checked off, why not treat lunch as an experience? So tomorrow, ditch the usual lunch-time hot spot in favor of a new bistro or coffee shop. The idea is to look forward to the experience, to enjoy that change in environment that forces your neuron’s to “wake up”, and start giving your brain a little more material to work with later when it’s “unplugged.” Meanwhile, productivity has lapsed or been compromised through our subtle way to infuse creativity. Productivity 1: Creativity 1.

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