Creativity can feel like an accident. Suddenly, out of nowhere a novel idea shows up in conscious thought and we’ve solved that persistent problem. Or, after days of staring at a blank page, words fly off our fingertips and we’ve written that perfect blog post or editorial. Some attribute creativity to brilliance, but we now know just being smart isn’t enough.
We are creative when conditions in our minds are just right. When we have access to our intellect, knowledge, and experience, our brains can light up with new idea. We can solve the unsolvable problem and imagine a new reality.
But what we think about consciously is not all it takes. According to scholar Arne Dietrich, how our brains function is key to understanding the process of creativity. Specifically, the neocortex and the limbic system — the seats of rational thought and emotions — affect both spontaneous and deliberate creativity. According to Dietrich, thoughts and emotions work together when we are having that “Eureka” moment, or experience artistic inspiration. And when thoughts and emotions work in tandem, we can also be more deliberately creative. For example, we can consciously tap long-term and emotional memories, resulting in the deliberate generation of ideas or insights.
Simply put, we need to be in the right emotional state in order to be creative — brain functioning affects creativity and how we feel affects brain functioning. But unfortunately, that’s easier said than done in today’s workplace.
Far too many organizations have cultures that support negativity and cynicism — and far too many managers are toxic. Most people don’t set out to be poisonous or to harm the people who depend on them, but it happens, in large part because of chronic stress. The constant pressures at work, coupled with a changing and often baffling world, leave a lot of us at the mercy of the sacrifice syndrome, where we give and give and give until there’s nothing left. The human organism doesn’t do well under such conditions. Our brains literally begin to shut down. We filter information, keeping only that which we feel we must have in order to survive. We become hyper-focused on potential threats. We don’t see reality clearly.
The negative emotions swirling inside and around us derail normal brain functioning, not to mention creativity.
If you want to regain your innate creative abilities, you need to interrupt this cycle. Start by taking better care of yourself. This means more sleep. New studies are confirming that adults really do need a significant amount of sleep a day in order to function well — 7 to 9 hours of it. Don’t believe leaders who say “I only need four or five hours a night.” They’re wrong and they’re sending the wrong message.
Good food and exercise matter too, and thankfully the wellness movement in many organizations is starting to legitimize a focus on workers’ health. These three — sleep, food, and exercise — are the basics for brain functioning (and may be obvious to some) but to tap your creative side you’ll also need to make some real changes in what you do and how you do it at work. Here are a few practical suggestions that will help to heal your brain and free your innate creativity:
- Break your most destructive, focus-killing habits, like spending a large portion of your day (or weekend) on email or giving in to persistent distractions.
- Force yourself to take time to think and reflect. Mindfulness — reflective meditative practices — is extremely helpful when it comes to managing stress and cognitive functioning. As scholar Dan Goleman has told us for years, “Mindfulness…the ability to notice what is going on as it arises and to pause before we respond is a crucial emotional skill. Mindful meditation has been discovered to foster the ability to inhibit those very quick emotional impulses.” Take a mindfulness based stress reduction course or just read up and try some breathing exercises.
- Stop fretting about your deficiencies and failures. This may be most difficult for achievement oriented business people, but how can anyone possibly be creative without failing — a lot?
- Focus on what makes you happy at work. The positive emotions generated when you feel connected to your personal and organizational purpose — what really matters about what you do — will help you to stay grounded and creative, even when things are tough.
These changes are especially critical for leaders who want to help their teams be creative. When you’ve taken care of yourself, you’ll be in a better position to help others. While you can’t fix the stress and pressure in your entire company, you can focus on creating a “microculture” around you that is marked by values like respect and commitment to one another’s goals. You can create norms that guide people to treat one another well, to rise to meet challenges with dedication, resilience, and humor. You can encourage people to grow and develop, to dream big. You can also ensure that people know that a healthy, whole life comes first — that work’s just a part of the picture.
We can’t come up with a formula for how to be more creative or how to help our teams to innovate. We can, however, deliberately craft an environment that is ripe with hope, enthusiasm, and team spirit. In teams marked by this kind of emotional tone, people are more likely to work collaboratively, persist, and bounce back from setbacks. People thrive in resonant environments. And because creativity happens in our brains, a resonant environment helps you to think more clearly — and more creatively.
This article was previously published on HBR.