We’re living in a constant state of distraction. Notified about everything from a colleague’s latest Tweet to a classmate from primary school’s birthday, the internet interrupts us incessantly. Anxiety about smartphone addiction has been running high for some time, with articles claiming that it’s damaging relationships and attention spans. But our always-on culture could also be costing us creatively. In his new book Too Fast To Think, Chris Lewis, CEO of global agency Lewis, explains how modern life is suffocating the part of our brain where ideas come from. To find out more about how we can create conditions that serve the mind’s creative process rather than subdue it, we decided to speak to Chris and a collection of creatives about their own experiences.
From artists to a military officer and clergyman, while researching Too Fast To Think Chris asked a range of people the same question: where are you and what are you doing when you get your best ideas? “The response was striking,” he says. “They all said that they were not at work, always alone and not trying.”
This makes sense when we look at how creativity works in the brain. Chris explains that our subconscious processes information and problems without us realising it. When it comes up with a solution, it will bubble up into our conscious brain, causing that flash of inspiration or eureka moment that many artists talk about.
“If the creative cycle is Induction, Incubation, Inspiration and Ignition in the ratio of 40/30/20/10, then 70% of the creative process actually occurs before people even think that they’re having an idea,” says Chris. “So if people want to be creative and you liken it to a weekly cycle, they should read on Monday and Tuesday about the problem, go off and do something that they really enjoy for Wednesday and Thursday and then by Friday, they’d be hit with the epiphany.”
Our brains are only open to subconscious thoughts when they are relaxed. “Often [the subconscious] won’t be able to interpose with the conscious mind until it is still and uninterrupted,” says Chris. In fact, Albert Einstein once said that “creativity is the residue of time wasted”.
However, in today’s society our conscious minds are never allowed to be still. On average, people check their email more than 100 times a day. Around 75% of Americans use their phone in the bathroom, according to marketing company 11Mark, while one in four Brits let their device interrupt sex, as discovered in a poll by O2. Everyone walks down the street with their headphones on and waits at the bus stop boring into Buzzfeed or Bumble. Even as I write this article, I keep glancing at gifs from a friend sitting in the next room. As Chris says: “nobody is allowed to be bored, stare into space or waste time.”
Our brains are responding to this information overload by becoming extremely adept at filtering things in or out. Circadian neuroscience professor Russell Foster explains that the more you overload the brain, the more it starts to filter. We can see this illustrated by the way we use dating apps, where potential partners are rejected with a swipe in just a millisecond.
We are well rehearsed for this mental sorting process by our school systems, which prize rational thinking and academic ‘drill down’ above all else. “Kids are learning how to be super analytical and very profound in their ability to take things apart,” Chris says. “But they can be quite weak at lateral thinking, or looking across.” That’s because when our conscious mind is working like crazy, it can’t let go and our subconscious is blocked out.
“The question needs to be asked: is the iPhone there to serve us or are we there to serve it?”
With down time disappearing from daily routines, we are limiting the opportunity to have ideas to the tiny moments of the day when we are truly relaxed. This is why so many artists describe having epiphanies when they are in shower, for example. Chris implores, “the question needs to be asked, is the iPhone there to serve us or are we there to serve it?”
But realising a negative habit is the first step towards positive change and the fastest, simplest way to reclaim your creativity is simply to switch off your phone. “Don’t get into the habit of doing your emails while you’re waiting for somebody in a bar. Stop staring at your phone and stare into space. You might be hit with something far more valuable,” says Chris.
“Digital products are not necessarily designed with the users’ best interests at heart,” says Leah Palmer, resident psychology researcher at London-based wearables startup Vinaya. “They’re designed to keep us engaged so that we spend, and waste, a great amount of time using them, making them valuable for advertising.”
Vinaya’s wearable jewellery is designed to minimise the number of interruptions people receive from technology. The wristbands connect to your phone and vibrate to alert you only when an urgent notification or call comes through. “This gives people the ability to put their phone away and focus on whatever is in front of them, whether that’s a dinner date or a creative pursuit,” says Leah.
Creating the perfect conditions for creativity is all about reduction. Chris interviewed St Andrew’s University chaplain reverend Alasdair Coles, who finds himself dealing with an increasing number of students each year who are suffering from some kind of psychological disorder. The “iPhone generation” as Alasdair describes them, are excellent at communication but terrible at conversation. The clergyman has found the best way to get students to express themselves and open up is to create what he calls “a powerful space”. This is where all distractions, noise and objects are stripped away.
Alasdair believes that a lack of quiet space like this is causing creativity to suffer. This approach couldn’t be more at odds with many creative agency offices, cluttered with toys, beanbags or gaudy props in an attempt to inspire ideas. According to Chris, shaping a creative space is about taking things away, not adding them, “because creativity is all within”.
That’s not to say the perfect environment for idea generating is stagnant and sombre. “This process of creativity is supposed to be fun,” says Chris. Creative work becomes infinitely more enjoyable – and therefore more productive – if it takes place in an atmosphere free of judgement. “A friendly happy atmosphere is so important,” agrees Tony Brook from London-based Spin. “If you’re feeling happy and relaxed it’s much easier to access your thoughts.”
Having fun and cultivating a positive, creatively energised mind is also about spending time doing activities that you love. “We’ve got to allocate time to tasks that we really enjoy,” urges Chris. “It’s essential for our own sustainability and for reaching our potential, which doesn’t come by cramming more in, it comes from switching more off.”
One man who lives by this kind of thinking is Stefan Sagmeister of renowned New York design studio Sagmeister & Walsh. Every seven years, Stefan and the rest of his team close for business and take a year off to enjoy themselves and pursue personal projects. “These sabbaticals have had a giant influence on our regular work, not only were projects like Things I’ve Learned in my life or The Happy Show coming directly out of thoughts from the sabbatical, but they also largely influenced our client work,” says Stefan. “If you look at the commercial we did for Standard Chartered or some Aizone work, you’ll see it rather clearly."
Going beyond inspiring individual projects, the breaks have resulted in broader developments for the entire company. “I think of the studio as the first seven years, the second seven years and the third seven years,” explains Stefan. "They are quite distinct from each other because we always implemented big changes right after the sabbatical.”
“You can have good ideas in a creative brainstorm at work, but they’re different ideas to what you get at the deeper level,”
Of course, the same technology that interrupts also offers people more freedom as to where they can work. For example, following a period of down time spent in Australia, architect Piers Taylor left the Mitchell Taylor Workshop practice that he had co-founded in order to set up a very different kind of company. Invisible Studio rejects corporate architecture in favour of projects that Piers is passionate about and is not physically ‘based’ anywhere. Piers explains, “one of the reasons that we’re called Invisible Studio is that geographic locations are often meaningless – in my practice, we’re all citizens of the world.”
“I love my work, and technology is a tool that allows me to work on projects from wherever I am, whether that’s on the beach, at home, or in our studio in the middle of an ancient woodland,” says Piers. “We can invent our own routines, our own rhythms of work and life. Used wisely, technology can help us do this. It requires us to be disciplined about creating our own separation and barriers from the demands of clients and colleagues.” So our devices and the internet can be beneficial to creativity, so long as we are careful about how we use them.
Working cultures should place less emphasis on idea generation methods, as artistic genius needs stillness and space. “You can have good ideas in a creative brainstorm at work, but they’re different ideas to what you get at the deeper level,” says Chris. It’s not that the conscious brain can’t be creative, but that the ideas it comes up with will be more superficial. “You end with something that’s ephemeral and works today, but is not going to endure,” he explains. “We have to recognise that the profound epiphany, the ability to change the world in an idea, comes from people being switched off.” So turn off your phone, bin the bean bag, head for the hills and make history.
Too Fast To Think by Chris Lewis is published by Kogan Page.