Have you ever felt the struggle to squeeze in some creative or strategic work time in your busy schedule? How did it work out?
I had a long-time assumption that creativity and stress are not compatible. Whenever I block two hours in the middle of a busy day for “creative work,” nothing comes out except the frustration of not being creative. I didn’t know if this assumption was right and why, but reading When Brains Dream brought an unexpected answer.
Creativity is the ability to generate new and unusual ideas. It is based on the power to make unique and unexpected connections that produce novel results. Dreaming during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep is an example of these unusual connections taken to an extreme. And even after being woken during the REM stage, people stay in a “creative” mode for a while, leaning toward weak associations instead of obvious, strong ones, according to Robert Stickgold’s research.
This preference for weak, unusual associations is not the default state of consciousness during normal wake time. The brain favors strong and obvious associations as it needs to prioritize the most likely/logical thinking that allows for a higher chance of survival. The bigger the perceived threat (stress), the more the brain focuses on the next most practical thing. If you are chased by a bear, taking a moment to contemplate “how might we” is not a viable survival strategy.
Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter and a hormone influencing the focus/exploration balance. Released in stressful situations, it is responsible for the fight-or-flight response and focused, closed-minded thinking. And it is this hormone that stops being produced during REM sleep, enabling wild and unexpected associations.
The over-simplified but critical implication is that more stress leads to less creativity and the other way around. And attempting to get creative on demand will cause more stress.
So how do you win the battle for creativity?
- Don’t focus on being creative; focus first on being calm and relaxed. There’s plenty of advice available on how to do this: from box breathing to a tree pose to a short walk to juggling. The underlying principle that worked well for me is getting out of my head and focusing on something physical. If you’re curious about why this approach works, I recommend reading The body keeps the score.
- To win the battle for creativity, stop battling. Allow more time, and remove the pressure. Let go of the expectation to come up with a brilliant solution. “I’ll spend this time thinking about the problem” creates way less stress than “It’s now or never. If I don’t come up with something now, I won’t have time later.”