The brilliant idea: How “focus” can destroy creativity

by Pop on February 22, 2011

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Daydreamers, distractions, and new ideas

I once worked at a company that had a computer policy from the dark ages. Dozens of websites—from Gmail to Amazon and even some news sites like Huffington Post—were banned. If you tried to access one of them, you’d get a warning message that continuing would automatically send a note to your supervisor. The idea was to eliminate distractions so we’d focus on work.

Not only did it make employees feel they were treated like toddlers, the “no distractions” policy might have helped stunt our creativity, according to a few recent studies.

It turns out, the most distracted among us might also be the most creative. And letting our focus go, from time to time, can lead to better ideas and higher quality work.

Holly White of Eckerd College and Priti Shah of the University of Michigan have done a lot of work measuring the creativity of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD starts when you’re young and makes it extremely difficult to focus and ignore distractions.

Recently, they took 60 undergraduates, half of whom had the disorder, and asked them to fill out a questionnaire, listing their achievements in creative areas, such as humor, writing, and invention.

Surprisingly, the students with ADHD ended up scoring higher across the creative categories.

The results mirrored one of their earlier studies. But lest you think those two were flukes, a separate study from Harvard and University of Toronto researchers found that those of us who are prone to distraction are also prone to come up with great ideas.

In that one, 86 Harvard undergrads were measured on their ability to ignore distractions, like the humming of an air conditioner or a nearby conversation. The kids who didn’t filter out all of those bothersome stimuli were seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers” based on their past accomplishments.

A wandering mind recharges itself

My previous employer’s policy might have hurt its employees in another way: By sapping our abilities to focus.

Next time you walk into a coffee shop, pay attention to the smell. Nice, right? Now, sit down and read through this blog post again. By the end of the post, you might not even be able to pick up the smell anymore.

Why? Your mind had gotten used to the stimulus and is now discarding it as irrelevant information. That happens with other senses, too. If you focus your eyes on an object, objects in your peripheral vision will gradually “disappear” from your field of vision until you blink again.

The same blindness can hurt your performance on tasks if you apply relentless focus to them, according to Alejandro Lleras of the University of Illinois. He found that brief diversions, like checking e-mail, let your mind “reset” and give the previous task newfound energy.

Taking a break wipes the slate clean of all those details that you were taking for granted, kind of in the same way that it’s always a good idea to take a break from a draft before proofreading it. You’re always going to gloss over the same errors if you just focus relentlessly on the paper.

Lleras tested the idea by having a couple sets of students stare at a screen that flashed numbers and measuring when their attention span died. One set of students was told to memorize numbers and note when their number appeared on the screen. The other set was just supposed to focus on everything.

The second set’s attention span died after about 20 minutes, while the set with memorized numbers could pay attention for longer. Seeing the memorized numbers apparently broke up the monotony just enough to keep their attention going.

Reconciling the need for creativity with the need for productivity

There’s no doubt that some of this research butts up against earlier research on how distractions can destroy productivity. A UC-Irvine study, for example, found that after being distracted from a task, it took workers an average of 25 minutes to return to it.

It’s not that they’re contradictory…it just suggests that “being productive” and “being creative” can be mutually exclusive goals. Productivity can be task-oriented, whereas creativity lends itself well to deconstructed space.

How can you make sure you leave room for both? I’m thinking about trying these tactics.

1. Limit distractions. Sure, let your mind wander from time to time. But don’t let distractions force your mind to wander.

The classic distraction I can eliminate: The pop-up notification that I’ve received new e-mail. Nine times out of ten, new e-mails aren’t something I need to address immediately. Some don’t need to be addressed for hours. The catch: There are some e-mails I’d want to know immediately about. I just need to find a way in my inbox to ensure those senders still get prompt attention.

2. Instead, break focus on a schedule. One of my current problems is that I’m prone to mindlessly search for distractions. I click through my blog feed reader, CNN, Facebook, and Gmail, and less than 5 minutes later do the exact same thing even though the likelihood of anything having changed is extremely low.

There are services that can limit access to websites you select to certain times of day. Might not be a bad idea to give this a shot.

3. Have “creative” time and “productive” time. Let’s face it. There are times when you don’t need to be creative—you just need to get things done. If you are putting off painting your bedroom walls, it’s unlikely that a few minutes on Facebook will lead you to a creative way to get it done faster.

Similarly, I’m not sure how creative I want my accountants, airline pilots, and bus drivers to be when they’re supposed to be focused on their core functions.

On the other hand, most of us have jobs that require at least a modicum of creativity. I’ve come up with some of my best ideas while taking a walks around the block, daydreaming at lunch, and, yes, checking Facebook. It’s important to leave a couple hours in the day for that kind of stuff.

Finding the right balance of productivity and creativity is probably what separates geniuses from World of Warcraft addicts. And it’s amazing how little we know about what that balance is.


{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel Reeves February 22, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Great advice! I guess the real trick is finding that happy medium. Most people, I think, gravitate towards an unhealthy extreme. You’ve talked about commitment devices (self-binding) before and I think that’s the key. Step back and decide what a reasonable amount of work time vs screwing around time is and then force yourself not to deviate too far from it. How to force yourself? Read this:

Rob Bennett February 22, 2011 at 5:01 pm

One thing to do is to ask yourself what the screwing around time might produce if it turned out to be creative.

Screwing around by playing a computer game is unlikely to get you anywhere special. Screwing around by writing code for your own computer game might.

Screwing around by watching television is unlikely to get you anywhere special. Screwing around by learning how to play the piano might.


krantcents February 22, 2011 at 8:22 pm

3M has a policy of employees doing creative work some percent of the time. Post it notes came out of that creative time. Many high tech companies have play areas. They realize that a certain amount of time doing creative or non work re-energizes the workers.

Glen March 19, 2011 at 9:14 am

I heard the company Patagonia has a policy where if you feel like you want to go surfing then you should grab your board and go!

But a policy like that doesn’t exactly work in every office.

The hard thing is figuring out the balance. At what point are you re-charging your brain or just wasting time?

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