“Peggy, just think about it. Deeply. Then forget it. And an idea will jump up in your face.”
Don Draper’s advice on creativity may have sounded good in the 1970s, but it seems a little out of place in today’s world of productivity hacking.
At the heart of the modern productivity movement is the idea of routine: planning and optimising every moment of the day, and in doing so becoming better versions of ourselves.
For many, disruption is a dirty word, and a change in routine is the equivalent of putting sand in the gears of a well constructed human machine.
But I’m with Don. When it comes to unlocking great creative thinking, the secret is, so often, to change things up.
I’m not suggesting eight hour oyster and champagne dinners, or walking out of your next boring meeting to go on a month-long tour of California, or mid-working-day cinema trips (actually I probably am), but when it comes to doing creative, strategic thinking, disruption is the way to go.
A first myth to slay is that people are either creative, or they’re not. That’s bullshit. The genius of Walter Isaccson’s biography of Steve Jobs was that it showed creativity isn’t about the type of job you do (and so the preserve of artists, writers etc), but about the way you do that job. To channel my inner Rick Rubin - creativity is a state of mind.
One of my favourite studies about creativity is called Having a Creative Day. It tracked the day-to-day lives of 62 entrepreneurs to see how big the differences were between the most and least creative.
The finding? The differences in day-to-day creativity for a single entrepreneur was three times greater than the difference between entrepreneurs. It didn’t matter which of the 62 you were, if you were in the right state of mind, you could, and would, be creative.
OK, so what can you do to reach that stage? Well, I’m firmly on team disruption. When I’m stuck, or feel like I’m not quite getting into gear, changing something always seems to help.
It might just be going for a walk, or working out of a coffee shop nearby, but a change of location just makes things tick a bit better.
Depending on how rigorous you want to be, there’s a pretty long history to the idea that a change in routine boosts creativity.
Many point to a study Western Electric conducted in a factory in 1920s Illinois. In the study they varied the levels of lighting (amongst other things) in the factory to see what conditions made the workers most productive.
Whenever they made a change the workers became more productive. But the boost was short-lived, gradually falling as the employees became used to the changed conditions. Alter the conditions again, see the same result.
The conclusion soon became clear: it wasn’t the level of the lighting, or the length of day, that altered productivity, it was the fact of the change itself that was causing the new behaviours.
These kinds of studies have been repeated much more rigorously over the last decade or so.
My personal favourite involves a production plant in (I think) the Netherlands. The plant suffered from supply chain problems, meaning disrupted days for some of the employees. Those workers produced 58% more ideas than their uninterrupted counterparts in the three weeks after the interruption.
It’s the three weeks bit there that sticks out to me. Disruption also doesn’t just mean a short creativity sugar-high sharply followed by a crash. There’s an afterburn that can last weeks.
That doesn’t mean that all disruptions are created equal.
First, as much as we’d all like to boost our teams’ productivity by setting off the fire alarm every now and then, generally the breaks we choose to take are better for our creativity than breaks forced onto us by others (we can thank 109 Dutch undergraduates tackling three cryptic crossword puzzles for that information).
Second, where we break to helps as well. Unsurprisingly, natural surroundings beat your average halogen lit-cubicle when it comes to doing creative and productive work. As someone from the UK, a country obsessed with the idea of going on walks, this is particularly pleasing.
What does this mean in practice? Well, when it comes to creative and strategic thinking, habits matter. Having the confidence to break away from your routine, and dedicate time and effort to creative and strategic thinking, instead of avoiding it, is going to help too. And a change of location can force a great reset (especially if the place you’re going to is a good one).
There are many ways you could operationalise this for you and the teams you’re a part of. Encouraging working out of weird places, or subsidising coworking memberships are two options. Encouraging deep work during stays booked during WFA weeks is another.
For me, doing great creative work is so hard, that when an important decision has to be made, or you’re at an inflection point personally or professionally, you need to stack the odds in your favour.
So if you’re a decider or a builder needing to take that step, we’ve built Ashore - a selection of places to get away from the routine, focus on the big things, and make the right calls.
Places to think about things. Deeply. Then forget. And wait for the ideas to come.