Unfocus To Activate Your Creativity

Recent comments from Joe Cavallo and others, have inspired me to do a review about creativity and decision-making. In May 2017, Harvard Business Review, Srini Pillay MD and CEO of the NeuroBusiness Group, wrote a very interesting article summarizing new research in the area of gaining creativity. In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital to activating creativity. The brain performs best when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and as well as make better decisions.

When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the “Do Mostly Nothing” circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing. Yet, when “at rest,” this circuit still uses 20% of the body’s energy.

The DMN needs this energy because it is actually doing everything but resting. Hiding under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memories and goes back and forth between the past, present, and future. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. It also allows you to imagine creative solutions and predict future outcomes. The DMN helps you tune into other people’s mindsets and feelings, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.

There are many simple and effective ways to activate this circuit in the course of a day.

Using positive constructive daydreaming (PCD):
PCD is a type of mind-wandering different from slipping into a daydream or guiltily rehashing worries. When you build it into your day deliberately, it can boost your creativity, strengthen your leadership ability, and also-re-energize your brain. To start PCD, you choose a low-key activity such as knitting, gardening, or casual reading and then wander into the recesses of your mind. But unlike slipping into a daydream, you might first imagine something playful and wishful—like running through the woods, or laying on a yacht. Then you swivel your attention from the external world to the internal space of your mind with this image in mind, while still doing the low-key activity.

PCD activates the DMN and changes the tools your brain uses to find information. While focused attention is like a fork—picking up conscious thought,  PCD like a combination of a spoon, scooping up the delicious mélange of flavors of your identity (the scent of your grandmother, the feeling of satisfaction with the first bite of apple-pie on a crisp fall day), chopsticks for connecting ideas across your brain (to enhance innovation), and a marrow spoon for getting into the nooks and crannies of your brain to pick up long-lost memories that are a vital part of your identity. In this state, your sense of “self” is enhanced—which, according to Warren Bennis, is the essence of leadership.

Taking a nap:
In addition to building in time for PCD, leaders can also consider napping. Not all naps are the same. When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and alert. But if it’s a creative task you will likely need a full 90 minutes for more complete brain refreshing. Your brain requires this longer time to make more associations and dredge up ideas that are in the nooks and crannies of your memory network.

Pretending to be someone else:
When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality.  John Madden, when facing a difficult problem, would say  – “I think of somebody really smart, and ask myself what would they do.” In 2016, educational psychologists Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave more like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective.

For years, focus has been the venerated ability amongst all abilities. Since we spend 46.9% of our days with our minds wandering away from a task at hand, we crave the ability to keep it fixed and on task. Yet, if we built PCD and 10- or 90- minute naps into our routines, we would likely preserve focus for when we need it, and use it much more efficiently too. More importantly, unfocus will allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity, and decision-making.

Free yourself.. Lighten up your focus. Be more creative!


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