Easy methods to Keep Inventive When Life Feels Monotonous
Studies have shown that creativity increases when we are exposed to new and novel experiences. However, in our current era of social distancing, many of our routines have become mundane and predictable. The pandemic may keep us in our limited worlds for the foreseeable future, but there are research-based strategies we can use to maintain our creativity: 1) harnessing negative emotions; 2) participate in an expressive point of sale; 3) get into a flow state; 4) expand your network; and 5) spending time in nature.
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In the past seven months, as the Covid-19 virus has spread, our worlds have gotten smaller. Working from home has gone from being something new to being everyday. Travel for business or pleasure no longer exists. Seeing friends, going to our favorite restaurants, visiting family – the list of things we can’t do that we can’t do in the months ahead is endless.
The equality and lack of novelty in our Covid existence can negatively affect our creativity – our ability to put ideas together in new, useful combinations to solve problems. Creativity is often increased when we are exposed to new situations. In an experiment with virtual reality, for example, the researchers divided the participants into three groups. The first group was exposed to a wild simulation that contradicted the laws of physics: They were walking around a room where objects were more likely to stand out than to fall or shrink as they approached them. The second group was placed in a similar simulation, but the objects behaved normally. And the third group of participants watched a film clip of the simulation of the first group. Participants in the first group showed an increase in cognitive flexibility, an essential part of creativity, while the others did not.
While most of us are not regularly exposed to virtual reality, we routinely encountered new situations prior to Covid. Even activities that are as mundane as a new way to work due to a detour or a chance conversation in the hallway with a colleague can help increase our cognitive flexibility.
We are also currently under enormous stress – from worries about our job security to the health of our loved ones to the education of our children. Decision-making research shows that our brains are more reactionary under stress, which can affect creativity. For example, we are likely to limit our decisions to binary decisions.
Given the pandemic that will keep us in our limited and stressful worlds for the foreseeable future, do we have to come to terms with an increasing lack of creativity in our work and life?
Not necessarily, according to experts in leadership and creativity, as long as we know what steps to take. Here are five research-based strategies to expand your worldview and fuel your creativity.
Use your negative emotions.
A growing body of psychologists and brain researchers are collecting evidence that negative emotions can be an integral part of our emotional toolkit. Anger, in particular, can be a motivational force that will focus our minds and moods in a productive way and stimulate us to achieve our goals. When people realize that they are able to do things better, pessimistic moods can activate the reward center in the brain.
In my executive coaching practice, I’ve seen firsthand how the anger and frustration my clients feel about the pandemic and other societal grievances stimulate the decision to move from high salaries to more creative endeavors.
For example, one of my clients, Dr. Susan Abookire, a hospital chief physician who made a handsome salary. She recently gave up her role to create a new physician education program with an innovative curriculum that encourages the networking of nature and medicine as a strategy to improve public health – a radical departure from traditional physician education. “I think the pandemic helped my creativity by removing distractions that distracted my focus, often in chaotic and exhausting ways,” says Susan. “Imagination can arise if we continuously devote time to what we want to create.”
Take part in an expressive point of sale.
Studies have shown that expressing through art can help manage stress and anxiety, and even improve health.
Before Covid met, another of my clients – a C-suite head of a healthcare nonprofit I’ll call Julia – decided to enroll in an impromptu acting class to help her deal with stress. After the Covid hit, Julia was unexpectedly transferred to the role of Interim CEO, and in that role she found that her improvisation courses, which she continues to attend remotely, have helped her find creative solutions to unexpected problems. For example, improvisation has helped her learn how to set up nonverbal cues – not just words, but subtext and intentions as well. Another client decided to learn the ukulele with the extra time she gained from not commuting. This decision has helped her develop a new learning community, reduce her isolation and open her up to new and novel experiences.
Get yourself into a flow state.
Have you ever been so absorbed in an activity that you lost track of time? You may have experienced a mental state known as “flow” which psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defines as “fully engaged in an activity for its own sake”.
Research by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile shows that people who experience flow show higher levels of creativity, productivity and happiness. Amabile discovered that people are not only more creative in the flow, but also have more creative days – which suggests that the flow not only increases creativity in the moment, but increases it in the long run. In other words, being in the flow trains us to be more creative.
You can cultivate a flow state without being creative on purpose. Think about the moments when you are most likely to lose track of time: what are you doing in those moments? Will it work Read a good book? One by Giorgia Lupi in her book OBSERVE, COLLECT, DRAW! Recommended option is to create a personal documentation by drawing the details in your everyday life.
Expand your network.
Studies show that different networks promote creativity and that diversity of knowledge correlates positively with individual creativity. In the 1970s and 1980s, knowledge creation was viewed as an activity based on our ability to process data and information. However, current science understands it as a social process promoted by interactions with people from different backgrounds and different insights.
Even if most of us are not currently traveling or attending personal events, we can still network virtually. You can host your own event. For example, I’ve helped start and belong to a mastermind group of women entrepreneurs that meet every two weeks at Zoom. We come together as business owners with complementary skills who want feedback from smart, motivated people on how they can take our business to the next level. In addition to talking about the business, we attended an art and refresh session to revive our mood and shared a fun online experience with puzzles.
Spend time in nature.
A psychological study examining the effects of nature on creativity found that spending time outdoors improves people’s creative potential. Fifty-six people who went on a hike took a rating that measured creative potential using word associations. Twenty-four took the test before starting the trip, and the other 32 took it on the fourth day. Those in the latter group did much better. The researchers eventually found that lingering in nature improved test scores for creativity by 50 percent.
Susan, the chief physician who became a physician trainer, used her certification as a guide to forest therapy to teach young physicians information about systems and leadership. This project also occupied her creativity. “This pandemic has given me more peace of mind to focus on creative endeavors,” she said.
All of the above strategies are an excellent place to start when looking to generate new ideas. “Our creativity will fade,” advises creativity expert David Burkus, “unless we make conscious efforts to counter the constriction and fear of our current situation” This is good advice. Your creativity shouldn’t be something that you lose at a time when you need it most.