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The Workplace

How To Be More Creative At Work

Four ways to make your office the place for original thinking

Offices have an uncanny ability to sap your creative energy. Even if you start the day full of vim and vigour – and how often do any of us really do that? – a morning of emails, internal meetings and digital distractions will likely leave you feeling lobotomised.

The good news is you’re not alone and you’re not to blame. Research has found that our average length of concentration dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2015, which may not sound a lot until you consider it’s a 33 per cent decrease and means we’ve now got a worse attention span than a goldfish (nine seconds, since you ask).

This has inevitably been blamed on the digital revolution, which brought with it a constant bombardment of emails, Slacks, WhatsAppsInstagram Stories, live feeds and an endless constellation of updates, reminders and notifications. We’ve embraced digital technology in our working lives and it’s brought great benefits, but it also seems to have come with some costs. How can you find a better balance in the digital hubbub and boost your ability to think creatively?

Go with the flow

One of The Future Laboratory’s latest consumer macro trends – summaries of global buying habits – is called the Focus Filter and looks at humans’ ability to concentrate and create in the digital economy. Although we’re consuming more media than ever before – upwards of 10 hours a day, according to Nielsen – our ability to truly absorb information is diminishing. Switching between different tasks takes up about 40 per cent of our productive day, while multi-screening has been found to have a worse impact on our IQ than smoking dope.

Against this backdrop, researchers are becoming increasingly interested in the positive psychological theory of “flow”. More commonly known as being in the zone, this cognitive state comes when you’re completely absorbed in a single task. It’s the kind of mindset that artists, musicians or sportspeople often tap into and is also the basis of many Eastern religions such as Taoism. It is less often encountered in the office. As we explored in our last workplace column, the current attention crisis may require drastic steps such as concentration booths, banning smartphones at work and spending time away from emails.

Be more mindless

Are we about to experience a backlash against mindfulness? Just as the equally trendy clean-eating movement has come under attack as a thinly veiled cover for eating disorders, mindfulness is beginning to look like a po-faced approach to mental health. By demanding total concentration at the exclusion of all distraction, it sets you up to fail (we’ve got a shorter attention span than a goldfish, in case you’ve forgotten), and sitting on the floor furiously meditating every morning when you know you’re going to be late for work isn’t going to help your inner peace.

Achieving a clear and creative state of mind may, in fact, require the exact opposite approach. You probably know the feeling of struggling to remember a vital fact only for it to pop back into your head as soon as you start doing something completely different. Famously, Mr Albert Einstein was a proponent of daydreaming as a research technique and history is littered with accidental “aha” moments, from Archimedes leaping from his bath exclaiming “Eureka!” to Sir Isaac Newton dozing under an apple tree and discovering gravity. According to recent research from the University of California, there is indeed a direct correlation between daydreaming and creative problem solving – remember that next time your boss catches you staring into space. Perhaps the time when we start blocking time out in our diaries for positive procrastination and introducing daydreaming stations in our offices isn’t that far away.

Body hacking

Your brain is an organ like any other, and thinking creatively requires your body to be working to the best of its ability. Making sure you’re fully fuelled and fired up can be as easy as snacking on nuts and keeping hydrated, but it can also mean more extreme measures such as taking nootropic supplements. These pills and potions have won favour with everyone from university students to bankers for their ability to sustain long periods of intense concentration. Medicating yourself to achieve a creative peak may be a step too far for some of us, but there are popular products and services that steer a middle course.

Mr Dave Asprey, aka The Bulletproof Exec, has built a lifestyle empire centring on Silicon Valley that espouses a range of body-hacking solutions aimed at boosting your energy. The best known of these is Bulletproof Coffee, a blend of coffee, butter and oil inspired by the yak-butter tea traditionally drunk by Tibetans living at high altitude. By combining fats with caffeine, the concoction allows a slow release of energy that avoids the traditional highs and slumps associated with other stimulants. Another option could be to splash out on some Mindset EEG headphones, which have recently closed their funding round on Kickstarter and are now available for pre-order. By using electrical waves to boost the wearer’s brain function, the company’s trials have demonstrated an ability to “rewire” your brain over time, helping you get in the zone more quickly and for longer periods of time.

Break the rules

Many of the things we are taught about workplace practices may be wrong. So how can we start to break the rules productively? One example comes from Mr Astro Teller, who describes himself as the Captain of Moonshots at X (formerly known as Google X, the tech giant’s highly secretive special projects branch). Mr Teller is known for organising regular bad-idea brainstorms for his team where they have to come up with the most outlandish solutions to a practical problem. This is partly to emphasise to his team that no idea is a bad idea once you’re thinking outside the box, but it also forces people to look beyond the sensible, practical and viable. Take a shot at the moon and you’ll probably miss, but you may hit something else.

The lesson to take away here is not necessarily to daydream your way through life. In many situations, this will only get you even more mired in stress and stuck in a creative cul-de-sac. It’s important not to see mindlessness as the enemy of productivity, however. We need a more nuanced understanding of good and bad working practices. It certainly isn’t good, for example, to be sitting at your desk late at night when you’re on deadline and feeling very stressed (as the presenteeism of office culture often tells us it is). Sometimes, it’s exactly these moments that require a different approach in order to unlock new thinking or help you get into a better flow state.

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