The prevailing theory in today’s world is that creativity is a collaborative effort. We value extroversion, spit-balling, and 24/7 connectivity. We’re expected to be good at Slack and to speak up at meetings. What’s more is, there’s also the expectation that our best and brightest thinkers broadcast a never-ending wellspring of fresh ideas.
But when it comes to creativity, the best ideas don’t always come from brainstorming aloud. We need some time to let our thoughts grow back, after all.
Research suggests that slowing the old brain down can lead to more original ideas than trying to find the fastest path from point A to point B.
And with that in mind, it might be worth circling back to this idea of slow thinking.
Here’s a little more about the term, as well as its potential effects on creativity
What is slow thinking?
Behavioral scientist Daniel Kahneman popularized this idea of slow thinking a few years back.
In his book, “Thinking, Fast & Slow,” he describes fast thinking as the quick judgments we make. While slow thinking, by contrast, takes more time and effort.
Slow thinking isn’t what it sounds like. The term doesn’t refer to someone who isn’t cognitively, well, fast. Instead, slow thinking is a deliberate act of processing information.
It kicks in when you need to focus on a solution to a complex problem or when you’re given some time to think away from smartphones, notifications, and the rest.
In short, slow thinking comes with this pressure-free, unhurried approach to solving problems or exploring our own thoughts. Without building some “thinking time” into the day, we may miss out on our best ideas.
So, it’s wise to take some time to doodle, free write, or even daydream at least a few minutes each hour to come up with some new ideas.
We need time to idle
LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner is a proponent of this idea. Weiner schedules periods of “nothing” into his workday, time purposely spent outside of meetings, alone, for processing ideas.
The idea is that building in some quiet time to think allows you to take off some of the pressure, and let your ideas just flow freely. Research has found that time pressure can squash creative thinking, as you don’t allow for the best ideas to develop naturally.
It’s also worth pointing out that workers stop developing new skills when they’re in “go mode” all the time. According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning report, ongoing learning leads to more success on the individual and organization level.
But expecting a constant wave of tasks and communications means that employees don’t have the bandwidth to take on all of these challenges at once.
People who continually learn are more productive, engaged, and creative than those who don’t. The thing is, learning new skills must also come with the time to synthesize new information.
Where does creativity come from?
There are a lot of myths about creativity. Some people believe they are more creative when they’re placed under time-pressure. However, studies have found that constant pressure can create this creative hangover of sorts.
Meaning, you might bang out some great ideas under pressure one day, but you’re exhausted the next day or two afterward.
Others think of creativity is innate, or a marker of intelligence.
Science suggests that the parts of the brain associated with creative thinking are made up of these tiny, winding paths. Creative thought stems from using those parts of the brain that sometimes get neglected.
A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at distinct patterns of brain activity in the most and least creative people. The more creative people in the group showed a strong connectivity from networks in the brain.
One is called the default network — an area known for spontaneous thinking and mind wandering. The second is the control network, where people focus in on a thought.
These two systems are often at odds with one another — much like the slow vs. fast dichotomy that Kahneman refers to. System one works to “feed” new information to system two, which processes unwieldy thoughts into a viable idea.
In a study cited by Scientific American, participants were asked to perform a simple task, that would allow the mind to wander as they worked through the mind-numbing activity. Think “busy work” like stuffing envelopes or basic data entry.
Researchers measured the results against those engaged in a period of quiet rest and participants engaged in a cognitively demanding task. Individuals who were given the easy, mind-wandering task showed a 40% improvement in creative performance, compared to their initial baseline.
The study found that the “inability to suppress” unnecessary cognitive activity might actually allow participants to come up with new ideas.
So it seems that system one was given the space to explore the various pathways in the brain, while system two kept that participants grounded in a reality of sorts.
Getting used to slowing down
The benefits of taking time to think are clear. You’ll make fewer mistakes when thinking through each logical step and likely will generate some more novel ideas sure to impress your colleagues.
Still, there may be an adjustment period for people used to thinking in the fast lane. For one, it’s tempting to check your phone or email, or to knock out multiple tasks with your spare time.
If it’s hard for you to “idle,” we recommend setting a timer, try spending just 10 minutes doing nothing or journaling. From there, you can work up to 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour.
Another issue is feeling like you haven’t accomplished anything. Because we’ve grown used to multi-tasking, focusing on one task or none at all feels like a waste of time. For that, we recommend creating a “done list.”
Unlike a to-do list, a done list focuses on things accomplished both big and small. This list serves as a counterbalance to your fast-thinking inclinations by proving that, yes, you really are making progress.
Think about it like a set of personal, analog analytics that you can use to inform future decisions.
And while you’re at it, maybe write down some of those new ideas, too. It always pays to keep some concepts in the pipeline.