Increase Your Creativity Through Rest and Play
Creativity is not just for artists. As a lawyer, creativity can be one of your greatest allies. Too often the lawyers on each side get stuck in a mental rut. They just repeat the same arguments over and over again, getting louder and more insistent each time, without moving the process of resolution forward. Then the light goes on. One of them gets a creative idea that enables him to see the situation and re-present it in a whole new way that opens up the mind of the other like a window. The case gets resolved. If we could be more creative, more of the time, our work would be more inspired, effective and enjoyable.
Over-thinking dulls the brain and reduces creativity. Our brains were not designed to work without periods of rest. When you do little else but read, write, problem solve, multi-task and yak on the phone, you’re depriving your brain of the rest it needs to function best. Over-thinking occurs when we keep wrestling with how to solve a problem and we become progressively more agitated and confused. Lawyers who over-think are demonstrating a lack of trust in the power of their subconscious mind to help them come to good decisions.
Rest and play are the two ways to access your subconscious mind. By rest, I don’t necessarily mean taking a nap. Rest is broader than that and includes engaging in an activity that has nothing to do with the one that has stymied you. It’s a way of taking your conscious mind off the problem. In play you allow your imagination to take over and fiddle around with ideas, images and impressions.
In Spontaneous Evolution: Our Positive Future, Dr. Bruce Lipton distinguishes between the conscious mind (which operates by observation of and attention to an object) and the subconscious mind (which developed long before the conscious mind in evolution and can operate automatically). Our brain mass and our brain functions are heavily weighted in favor of the subconscious mind. Dr. Lipton calls the subconscious mind an astonishingly powerful information processor. While our prefrontal cortex (where consciousness is housed) can process 40 nerve impulses per second, the subconscious mind processes 40 million nerve impulses per second.
The conscious mind is primarily concerned with analyzing the past (for what went right or wrong) and seeking to anticipate, predict and control the future. The subconscious mind operates beneath our awareness in the present moment to take in real time data, rapidly process it and convert it into real time emotions, decisions, actions and behaviors. While our conscious minds are moving back and forth from past to future, we are living our lives in the present. According to Dr. Lipton, the conscious mind contributes only 5% of our total cognitive activity, while the subconscious mind contributes the other 95%. If you want to be more creative you need to start using your subconscious powerhouse.
A good example of the power of the subconscious comes from studies on consumer choice. We now live at a time when choice can be overwhelming because we have too many options when purchasing things, from meals to house paint colors to cars. We all know people who occupy different points on the spectrum of thinking through their choice before making a purchase. Some read every article ever written in magazines like Consumer Report, while others go from the gut and pick the first one they like. Whose decision is more accurate?
Ap Dijksterhuis, Ph.D. has tested the accuracy of consumer decision making with regard to considerations like product usefulness, quality, reliability, cost, and so on. He found that for simple purchases like oven mitts thinking it through helps, but for more complex purchases like cars or apartments too much thinking lowers accuracy, and it’s better to use your subconscious mind.
In February 2006 Dr. Dijksterhuis and his colleagues published a paper about buying an apartment entitled On making the right choice: The deliberation-without-attention effect Science, 311 (5763) 1005-1007. Three groups of people were fed tons of information about apartments and asked to find the optimal one.
One group was given time to think before responding. A second group was asked to respond immediately with no time for conscious processing of data. A third group was immediately shifted to a different cognitive task, and then asked to respond. The group given some time to think did better than the group asked to answer right away. The group distracted from analyzing the data about apartments chose better than the other two groups. The conclusion was that we are more accurate in making complex choices when we are given time to process the data, but we do not dwell directly on it, and allow our subconscious mind to go to work.
Based on anecdote, we know that highly creative people deliberately cultivate periods of mental quiet in which the steady chatter of the conscious, thinking mind gets switched off. Great leaders and teachers who practice daily meditation, such as the Dalai Lama, are able to use periods of mental quiet to dispel confusion, create mental clarity and balance their mental energy. This enables them to develop the kind of piercing wisdom that reduces thorny, complicated issues about how to live into easily understandable, inherently compelling bits of sage advice.
Great scientists, mathematicians and inventors have used periods of mental tranquility to allow their subconscious minds to solve problems that exceeded the powers of their conscious minds. There are many examples from the history of thought. Pythagoras is said to have discovered his famous theorem about right triangles while bathing. Newton identified the force of gravity while sitting under an apple tree when a falling apple conked him.
The German biochemist August Kekule labored unsuccessfully at this desk to figure out the chemical structure of the benzene molecule. He turned his chair towards the warming fireplace, dozed off and had a dream about a snaking biting its own tail. He awoke to realize the structure of benzene was ring. In September 1928 Alexander Fleming returned to his lab after a two week vacation, feeling rested and alert. He noticed a culture dish overrun by staphylococci bacteria except for one small spot. Because he had time to ponder the implications and was not feeling rushed, he ended up discovering penicillin and saved millions of lives.
Overloading one’s mind with data or simultaneous tasks is harmful to creativity. In The Overflowing Brain Torkel Klingberg, Ph.D. says the basic design of the human brain hasn’t changed in 40,000 years, and it wasn’t designed to handle the massive amounts of data or the multi-tasking we ask our brains to handle today. Dr. Klingberg says evolution designed our brains to work well with a small group of people in a simpler environment with fewer tasks and fewer distractions, where less data went a longer way.
Our two principal memory systems are working memory and long term memory. Working memory (housed mainly in the frontal lobes) briefly holds bits of information in consciousness so that we can use that information to do cognitive work. Much of the data in working memory gets tossed out, because it’s not important or not relevant to our cognitive goals. Some of the data in our working memory gets put into long term storage in many different parts of the brain which can be retrieved later when needed. The hippocampus in the inner temporal lobe is the brain organ that converts working memories to long term memories. It malfunctions when stressed, and can be damaged by chronic stress which elevates the blood level of the stress hormone cortisol.
Dr. Klingberg says there are several factors that contribute to people under-performing cognitively at work. First, human working memory can only hold seven bits of data at one time, so you are overloading it when you try to cram too much information into your brain. Second, asking your brain to perform two separate tasks simultaneously impairs your performance on each task, because the tasks are competing for the use of the same brain processing areas. Third, the ability to multi-task begins a long, slow decline at age 25. By age 55 many people multi-task at the level of a 12 year old.
Dr. Klingberg is a professor of cognitive neuroscience. Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. is a physician who spent 20 years teaching at Harvard Medical School. He has written a book called Crazy Busy. Dr. Hallowell says we are choking on data. We have way too much, yet we believe we always need more to make informed decisions. To solve human problems constructively we need less busy thinking, the kind crammed with data, and bolder, creative thinking that draws upon our inner resources.
Klingberg and Hallowell agree that our modern addiction to speed in the realm of thinking and doing is harming our creativity. Dr. Klingberg says exceeding the limits our brain won’t bring success, yet we love to be stimulated and we insist on more information, more impressions and more complexity delivered to us as fast as possible. Dr. Hallowell says we at a point where people equate slow with boring and stupid and fast with exciting and brilliant. We love entertainers and other people who generate thoughts with lightening speed even if their thoughts are glib, shallow and unwise. We hate hesitation, pauses and uncertainty, yet the pause represents the space where old impressions can re-form through creativity into a new insight.
Dr. Hallowell reminds us that it was Albert Einstein who said, “Please explain the problem to me slowly, as I do not understand things quickly.” Dr. Hallowell says it’s the slow processor who looks at things carefully from many different angles, who comes up with profound and original views. You can’t birth your best ideas when you’re overwhelmed by data, demands and deadlines. They clog the mind, which has to be at its most flexible to be most creative. People need to stop, fiddle around and play with objects (including ideas) to get creative. They need respite to allow their subconscious, the great incubator of our creative ideas, to work.
Dr. Hallowell asks where do you do your best thinking, and suggests it’s more probably in the shower than at work. Why? At work you’re goal directed, expected to think fast on your feet and consumed with “worry, blather and clutter.” Showers promote good thinking because they induce a state of comfort, calm and relaxation. Showers activate all five senses. Unless you have a truly weird shower, there is no one telling you what to do, what to work on or what to think about.
When you step into the shower the mind stops gathering data and goes into a state of play. Dr. Hallowell says that play lies at the heart of creativity. Play lifts you out of the mundane. It activates and engages the imagination. Play goes off on tangents, knows no timetable, subverts the existing order and transforms it through imagination.
In his book play, Stuart Brown, M.D. says play enhances creativity because it erases self-imposed censorship of how we think, feel, move and behave. Play, not necessity, is the mother of invention. Dr. Brown says creative people know the rules of the game, but are open to improvisation and serendipity. They don’t automatically reject new ideas that more straight-laced people would scoff at. Play promotes the mixing of fantasy and reality. It activates brain areas with different functions, and integrates them in a synergistic way. To play you have to be able to tolerate mistakes and take risks. You have to see the game element in the activities of life and not be dead serious all the time.
Dr. Brown notes in his book that play has benefits beyond innovation or creativity. Play can improve depression. Play can lift the lid off our true selves and put us back in touch with wonderful traits of character and ideas about what we really want to do in life that we suppressed for years. Dr. Brown uses Al Gore as an example. It was only after he lost the Presidential election that Gore decompressed, cut loose and began to play. It was only then that he shed his stiff, clamped down way of living, felt fire in his belly and stopped holding back. Dr. Brown says you can’t help but see and be affected by the passion, emotion and joy he brings to his work on global warming.
Brown advocates the use of play at work to reduce the constant sense of urgency and anxiety people feel, as well as to increase social cohesion. A very interesting study published in September 2009 showed that Oxford University rowers who trained together could tolerate twice as much pain as they could while training on their own. The authors concluded that synchronized activity as a group increases endorphin production, bonhomie and positive affect.
To support creativity it’s a good idea to be well rested like Alexander Fleming. Sleep physicians say we need at least 8 hours of sleep per night and giving up just one hour per night (to watch dumb TV or do extra legal work at home) causes significant, measurable decline on cognitive tasks.
Lawyers often complain their jobs make them feel tense and don’t afford them opportunities for creativity. The two conditions go together. If you found a way to be less tense you would be more creative, and if you were more creative you would be more playful and less tense. Tension and lack of creativity come from non-stop data gathering, goal directed activities, multi-tasking and rushing to beat deadlines. The billable hours system is being reformed and this opens up time for rest and play at work.
Each firm and each solo practitioner can decide what works for them. No one size fits all. Rest could include a nap, extended time for lunch, time for a walk, time to go to a museum, time for yoga or meditation, or time to read a book having nothing to do with the law. Play could include group activities like doing sports, attending a sports event, laughter yoga, comedy improvisation or making art. The options are as unlimited as the characters, cultures and preferences of the lawyers who make them. The important thing is to recognize the great value of rest and play in generating creativity at work.