Creativity in a Structured World
Do you feel like every minute of everyday is obligated to a responsibility, obligation or deadline? That can drain your ability to feel creative, but mindfulness can help you revive it.
I’m normally a pretty creative person, but for the past few months, I’ve felt somewhat stuck. I’m sure you’ve been here – the daily grind to meet deadlines, manage constant pressure and juggle multiple tasks with a constant feeling that there’s just not enough time for something like creativity. When we reach that point, it’s hard to find excitement in our work and our brains slip into automatic mode, shutting down creative ideas in order to meet the demands of each day.
But that severely limits our growth in addition to killing our motivation, so it’s important to pay attention to our state of mind so that we can take corrective action when needed to get us back on track. Without creativity, work and life are frankly not much fun.
One of the reasons I decided we should attend the Podcast Movement conference in Dallas last week was to specifically address my recent lack of creativity. Although four days of non-stop sessions on every aspect of the podcast industry was admittedly overwhelming, it did give me that spark back. My mind, away from the normal daily grind, began to gain traction and generate new ideas.
Melissa and I spent the entire week in Dallas, visiting family for a couple of days and then attending presentations from 8am to 4 or 5 pm for the rest of the week. It is estimated that there are over 4 million podcasts available, but the vast majority are no longer producing new shows. That’s because podcasting isn’t easy and I confess to feeling a certain amount of validation in hearing how many people give up once they realize how hard it is to come up with constant content, perform the tedious functions of sound and video editing, and manage relationships ranging from interviewees to advertisers to network executives. It clarified for me why my creativity might have slipped recently.
The biggest news of the week was that podcasting is moving to video. My creativity neurons screeched to a halt. In my mind, podcasts are audio, that’s the whole point! But YouTube has already moved into the number one slot where audiences are accessing podcasts, so guess it’s a good thing I decided to focus on my creativity level. Now, how to get those juices really flowing again.
There is solid evidence to show that practicing mindfulness can support creativity, but many factors affect this and there are a range of considerations for practice. Mindfulness, defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as a state of “nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness,” has been studied across a variety of disciplines like psychology, physiology, healthcare, neuroscience, and others. Most mindfulness research has examined its potential to regulate stress and improve cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal functioning, but scholars have suggested that the effects of mindfulness also relate to other skills and abilities, such as creativity.
Creativity is frequently defined as the ability to develop novel and effective ideas or solutions. It can mean something different to everybody. It may be about tapping into an inner creative well for artistic inspiration or it may be about coming up with solutions to solve a problem. Regardless of how we define it for ourselves, we’ve all experienced those aha moments when an idea pops out of nowhere into the mind and that feeling of drawing a blank when someone tells us to get creative.
In a world overflowing with distractions and stress, all of which can affect creativity and health, mindfulness can be a valuable tool for supporting us in not only self-regulation, but moving us toward flourishing, which relies on creativity. Research reveals that mindfulness improves a person’s ability to concentrate, while decreasing fear of being judged. It also enhances open-minded thinking while reducing uncompassionate self-conscious thinking. These factors correlate to key characteristics of creative habits of working, thinking, and being in the world, including relaxation or flow states, risk-taking and curiosity or openness to experience.
Mindfulness is associated with the ability to change perspectives by expanding empathy and open-mindedness and increases our capacity to respond to situations in a non-habitual fashion, which is at the heart of creativity. Experienced meditators are shown to be better problem solvers and have better verbal creativity and studies show that meditation of any length strengthens creativity, including short meditation breaks.
Mindfulness mediation works to enhance creativity and innovation. Many leaders now meditate because they find it helps them switch gears when over-stressed and research shows that mindfulness meditation can have many positive effects on workplace outcomes. Regularly meditating boosts our resilience, enabling us to mitigate stress, regulate emotions, and have a more positive outlook so that we’re able to bounce back from setbacks. It helps us develop the ability to switch off reactive fight-or-flight responses and engage in a more thoughtful mode that’s crucial for making good, balanced decisions.
Interestingly, different types of meditation have different relationships to creativity. For example, open-monitoring meditations use observing and attending to any sensation or thought without focusing on any specific task or concept and has been shown to increase creative thinking. Conversely, focused-attention meditation focuses attention and awareness to a particular task, item or thought and has been shown to be unrelated to creativity. So we need open-monitoring meditation if we’re trying to kick-start creative thoughts and ideas.
In this type of meditation, we focus our awareness on the present moment rather than on mental distractions. As stray thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations occur, we just notice and accept them without judgment. It takes practice, but eventually, this type of meditation leads to metacognition, where we experience total awareness of our thoughts instead of getting lost in them. If you’re new to meditation or this type specifically, you can use a guided meditation or an app like headspace or calm. Or give it a go on your own, keeping in mind that studies indicate it takes a daily 12-minute practice to be effective.
You can just sit comfortably and relax, taking in a few deep breaths, and then rest your awareness on the present moment. Try to hold that moment of awareness for as long as you can, then tune into your sensory experiences for a few minutes, noticing what you can see or hear, the temperature of the room, the sense of your body weight on whatever you’re sitting on. Don’t change anything and try not to analyze. Focusing on sensory experiences is simply an anchor to help you stay in the present. The key is to keep paying attention to right now. Trust me, your mind will try to go anywhere else, from what you’re going to make for dinner to what you didn’t finish at work to what a waste of time this is.
Remember the golden rule of mindfulness – no judgment. As your mind pulls you away from the present, don’t judge it, don’t condemn yourself, don’t force. Simply acknowledge the distracting thoughts and allow them to pass on by. Let them go and return your attention to the present moment. At first it may feel like you spend much more time acknowledging distractions than focusing on the present, but just like working on your biceps, you’re strengthening your mental muscle, the ability to stay in the moment. If you get frustrated, again, try an app or a guided meditation for support, at least at first.
According to Danny Penman in his book, Mindfulness for Creativity, there are three essential skills required for creative problem-solving. Mindfulness switches on divergent thinking or opening our mind to new ideas. Mindfulness practices improve attention, making it easier to notice the newness and usefulness of ideas. And mindfulness nurtures courage and resilience in the face of skepticism and setbacks, which is critical because failure and setbacks are pretty much baked-in to any innovative process. So mindfulness and meditation can really encourage us to be more creative, whether artistically, in problem-solving or in living a richer life.
When we’re stressed or overly anxious due to pressure at work, crazy-busy schedules, or even the demands of home life, our mind can feel restricted or tense. That’s how I was feeling, and the hints were in how impatient and frustrated I was getting, with no room to think. There’s not much hope for creativity to surface in that state. But creativity is an innate aspect of the mind. It’s always available to us but we have to be self-aware enough to recognize when we’re not allowing space for it to emerge. We make space for it by letting go of our thoughts and emotions, by recognizing that we don’t have to match the craziness of the outside world within our own minds, nor do we have to repeat the rigidness and structure most of us work in every day.
Despite a 9 to 5 job, mundane tasks, rules and requirements and expectations, a grinding commute, constant deadlines, or whatever other structured framework you’re operating in, there is an escape into creativity to improve your situation. We just have to calm down enough to make space for it to surface. It’s through the creative process that we can not only thrive in life, but we can solve many of the very problems that make us feel restricted and tense. I did a reset when I returned from Texas, making time to meditate more in order to allow my creativity to return. I have enough experience to know that even though my schedule is tight, speeding up or forcing through isn’t the answer. Tapping into my creativity will ultimately save me time, not to mention allow me to feel freer and more content, which ultimately increases my productivity, so it’s really an investment now that will pay off soon.
I’m going to need that creativity as we make adjustments to this podcast to meet the ever-changing environment in the podcast industry and I hope to tap into yours, too. We’ll be changing up our podcast and/or social media format soon so that we can hear from you, and we really want to hear from you about challenges your facing, what you want to learn more about and well, just to better connect with you. And while we may expand to YouTube, we’ll keep an audio-only version of this show so that those of you who want to step away from screens can continue to learn and grow in mindfulness.
Mirabai Bush, advisor for Google’s corporate mindfulness program, says, “Mindfulness will make your life work better and your work life better. It’s a win-win!” Are you ready to start winning at both?