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How You Can Turn Yourself Into a Creative Force, No Matter Your Job Description

Sometimes, hitting peak performance means surrendering to distractions, diversions and the possibilities of idle time.

If you had the power to control every aspect of your work environment so you could be as focused and productive as possible, what would you change?

Maybe you’d grant yourself the ability to tune out distractions (in the form of chatty co-workers, buzzing phones and an ever-replenishing inbox), or never again be invited to an unnecessary meeting. Maybe you’d arrange things so you’d have more time — every minute used to the fullest, every hour optimized.

It’s true that these changes might lead to improvements in your work. At the same time, becoming a focus and productivity machine could actually prevent you from tapping into another essential quality: your creativity.

We know creativity is important, and we revere creative minds. We celebrate the accomplishments of artists, authors, scientists, problem solvers and groundbreaking thinkers. But while the most innovative creators surely rely on focus and discipline, they also knew the power of other, different methods, from daydreaming and diversions to unfocused time and letting their minds wander.

If you’re not in a traditionally creative profession, you might not be so sure how creativity fits into your own work and life. Maybe you’ve been told (by others or yourself) that creative thinking has no place in the kind of work you do, or that you’re not the “creative type.”

Now, an incredible body of science shows that no matter what kind of work you do, you are the creative type. And there’s more information than ever before showing how you can take small steps to be more creative — in ways that will take the way you think and work to new levels and also leave you more fulfilled.

Welcome to the Thrive Guide to Creativity

Thrive Global is a behavior change platform focused on lowering stress and increasing well-being and productivity. The company, founded by Arianna Huffington, creates lasting change in people’s lives by giving them sustainable, science-backed solutions to enhance their performance and overall well-being.

This Thrive Guide will show you how to tap into your creativity in order to take your work to the next level and get into a more innovative mindset.

If being creative isn’t part of your job description, or if you want to think outside the box but aren’t sure how to get your mind in the right place, here’s some good news: Creativity can be applied to pretty much any task and profession, and there are steps you can take to be more creative. That’s where the Thrive Global Microsteps come in — small, science-backed changes you can immediately incorporate into your daily life that will have a big impact.

Since our culture’s most creative people loom large in the public imagination, there’s no shortage of innovators to learn from. But the cast of people who have mastered their creative energies and visions is larger and more varied than you probably realize. Thrive Guides feature New Role Models, introducing you to people in a range of industries whose lives and work are testaments to the power of creativity. For example, TK TK TK

Along with all the new science and research around creativity, new apps and products have arrived to help you think and see the world in new ways. In our Tech to Thrive section, we’ve curated the best technology out there to boost your creativity in ways that enhances your performance and sense of purpose.

If you’re a manager, you have an immediate opportunity to engage and inspire your direct reports by encouraging them to tap into their creativity. The Managerial Take-aways section offers advice to managers on how this can not only boost individual performance but improve company culture and even help the bottom line.

In the guide that follows, we’ll share research, data and practical advice to help awaken you to the power of your own creativity, and then unleash it in ways that can do wonders for the quality of your work — and for the pride and satisfaction you take in doing it.

Expanding Our Understanding of Creativity

According to one view, creativity is simply a means to an end, a process that leads to a result — a beautiful book or building, an original idea or an innovative solution to a vexing problem.

But human beings are not factories churning out products. And while we have an inexhaustible list of monuments to creativity — Picasso paintings, Emily Dickinson poems, Scott Joplin rags, Einstein theories, Ai Weiwei installations, Michael Jackson dance moves — our understanding of creativity is severely limited when we consider only the end result. Similarly, when we restrict the conversation to the arts and culture, we miss the broader meaning of creativity.

We now have the science to show that the creative process itself is much more complicated and interesting than that — and it applies to nearly every aspect of human experience and industry. And that creativity is every bit as relevant and beneficial to businesspeople and tradespeople as it is to poets, painters and composers.

Furthermore, there’s a global hunger for creativity. According to an Adobe survey of adults in the US, UK, Germany, France and Japan, 8 in 10 people believe creativity fuels economic growth, but only 1 in 4 feel they’re living up to their own creative potential.

The Science of Creativity

The science tells us that creativity is an art form anyone can master. And in order to do this, you may need to stretch and open yourself to ways of thinking, working and even dreaming that aren’t traditionally championed in workplace settings. When you accept this challenge, you can train yourself to find pockets of time and opportunity almost anywhere — at work, on your commute, while walking, even while taking a shower.

Study after study shows that downtime is an essential catalyst for creativity. While we may value structure, focus and technology that can help us work faster, our creativity often depends on our ability to break free of them.

Mark Fenske, an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Guelph in Canada, put it this way: “I sit in front of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and spend an embarrassing amount of time staring at the screen, then I get my best idea in the shower.’’

If you’ve ever been scolded for daydreaming or for being easily distracted, you’ll be especially interested in the abundant research showing that doing these supposed weaknesses make you more, not less, likely to be creative. According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants with a weaker ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli were more likely to go on to creative achievement.

This may explain the many examples of creative minds who either struggled in school or dropped out altogether, from John Lennon and Oprah Winfrey to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And why, for example, the revered inventor Nikola Tesla came up with one of his most revolutionary ideas while out for a leisurely walk, or why the idea for Harry Potter came to J.K. Rowling on a crowded train.

In his 2017 book Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind, Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry Srini Pillay writes, “A big part of developing creativity and creative surrender is practicing the art of letting go. You detach from the external world as a guide for a time and turn to your internal stream of attention.”

Note Pillay’s word choices: letting go, surrender, detach. These might seem passive or weak in a certain context, but what matters is what you are detaching yourself from: the structure, logic and demands of a certain kind of productivity that is actually in conflict with creativity.

Instead, the most fertile creative ground is defined by uncertainty, doubt, ambiguity, tension. It’s in this place where creative minds thrive — and where they consciously go to push themselves toward new ideas. In her book Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born, Denise Shekerjian writes that creative minds are adept at “staying loose” — relishing the uncertainty, frustration and inefficiency that comes with doing creative work.

Beyond the obvious external rewards of creativity, there are benefits to your well-being. According to a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, regular creative activity is associated with a sense of “flourishing.”

And creativity is only going to become more important, as it differentiates us from machines in a world saturated with technology and, increasingly, artificial intelligence. As entrepreneur Tom Hulme wrote in Wired UK, “Creativity will be increasingly be the defining human talent. Our education system should emphasise the use of human imagination to spark original ideas and create new meaning. It’s the one thing machines won’t be able to do.”

Changes You Can Make Today

Now that we’ve explored the science behind creativity, you’re ready to turn your newfound awareness into action with Thrive’s microsteps — small, science-backed changes you can incorporate into your life today.

1. Take short pauses throughout the day.

After a period of intense focus, or when you’re feeling stuck, taking just a few minutes away from your desk and screens can help free you from the demands of your inbox and your to-do list. Whether you’re indoors or in a beautiful natural setting, give yourself permission to do nothing, breathe, and surrender to your thoughts.

2. Take a planned detour.

Travel is a great way to take you out of your comfort zone, but you don’t need to go around the world or even leave town to stimulate your mind in creative ways. Find an everyday opportunity, like turning down an unfamiliar sidestreet, to expose yourself to new people, sights, and sensations. 

3. Read a work of fiction.

Add a short story or novel to your reading list. So much of our work requires us to seek cognitive closure — conclusions, takeaways, absolutes — but reading fiction boosts creativity by taking you down more open-ended paths.

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