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Here are four well-known ways to boost creativity:

1.       Work near crowd noise, such as in a coffee shop.

2.       Take a walk (alone)

3.       Drive a car to a familiar destination (alone)

4.       Take a shower (yeah, alone)

I've experimented extensively with all four methods and I can report that doing any one of those activities has a huge and immediate impact on my quality and volume of ideas. This is purely anecdotal, but the impact on idea flow is so immediate and dramatic that something good is clearly happening.

Interestingly, the element that all four methods have in common is distraction. But the distractions are the type you can easily compartmentalize and move to an automatic processing part of your brain. They are distractions that don't distract.

My armchair guess about what is going on with the brain distractions is that we evolved to keep some important part of the brain on high alert for danger, food, and mating opportunities. If you distract that part of the brain with driving, walking, showering, and background noise it loosens its hold on the creative processing part of your brain.

This supports my hypothesis that creativity is something that happens naturally so long as your brain is not actively suppressing it for some sort of survival advantage. That makes sense because creative thinking usually isn't helpful in immediately dangerous situations.  If we were cave dwellers I would be the one that didn't see the mastodon stampede heading my way because I was daydreaming and inventing new stone tools in my head. Sometimes you don't need creative ideas so much as you just need to run.

Putting it in simpler terms, creativity is a mental luxury that your brain will not allow until it feels safe or until the watchdog part of your brain gets busy handling some routine task such as driving the car.

I would be interested in seeing a study that compares each of the distraction methods to find which one works best. And from there I would like to see A-B testing on new distraction methods until the best of the bunch emerges.

That might sound like a trivial study that would only interest cartoonists and academics. But imagine if the top 1% of creative folks in the world knew exactly which kinds of distractions helped generate the best ideas. These are the cats that invent the future and solve the biggest problems in the world. Removing even a tiny bit of friction from the effectiveness of that group could pay huge dividends.

-------------------------

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Author of this book

 


 

 
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Aug 21, 2014
Every morning, I get up, shower (alone), drive to my dead-end job (alone), walk across the parking lot to the office, and get a coffee, while listening to the quiet murmur of my cow-orkers. I must be the most creative person in the world.
 
 
Aug 21, 2014
@dlowbeer

Kewl site. I love working to those sounds. Now how do I get my dog to stop barking at them? ;)
 
 
Aug 20, 2014
For those who can't get to a coffee shop: http://coffitivity.com/
 
 
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Aug 19, 2014
Gaa! Previous comment was H a r d c o r e History.
 
 
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Aug 19, 2014
Have to agree with the shower one. Tons of ideas there.

Another good one is running. My wife listens to music so I am left in silence to think.

I listen to podcasts !$%*!$%*! History nod) while walking so most of my ideas there are related to Genghis Khan.
 
 
Aug 19, 2014
I've found that being creative while driving can be dangerous. Last year I was driving and contemplating various color options for my living room walls. I was picturing the colors in my mind, when I suddenly found myself driving through a red light! Luckily the cross-traffic hadn't started moving and no one was hurt, but I realized that the fact that I was concentrating on colors in my mind made me color blind to the light.
On the other hand, I grew up doing homework in front of a tv, so I find that tv background noise works well for me. As long as it's not some show I'm intensely interested in, it provides both distraction and a variety of random input that triggers ideas.
 
 
Aug 19, 2014
I get the most creative ideas when I am mowing the lawn. Every time I come in from yard work my wife will ask me what sort of crazy scheme I thought up, and I usually have one! :)
 
 
Aug 19, 2014
@PhantomII

[whtllnew, you seriously need a humor transplant. I was being facetious. ]

Are you sure Im the one who needs the humor transplant? Based on the 'traffic' Ive seen on the votes some people agree with you, but marginally more agree with me. And this isn't the first time you've accused me of needing a humor transplant only to be downvoted.
 
 
Aug 19, 2014
@delius1967 beat me to it - cycling home from work allows me to solve more problems than anything else. I guess that is slightly different to the creativity thing, but solving programming problems does seem to me to be a creative enterprise. If that doesn't move me forward a good night's sleep usually does the trick.

Second choice for me is Willie's manual labour option. Something strenuous enough to produce a very light sweat maybe.
 
 
Aug 19, 2014
About the crowd noise thing: That works only if there are no recognizable voices in the crowd.
 
 
Aug 19, 2014
[But imagine if the top 1% of creative folks in the world knew exactly which kinds of distractions helped generate the best ideas.]

They already do. That is why they are the top 1% and not the dross, ie 99%, that the rest of us end up achieving.
 
 
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Aug 19, 2014
I think the idea of something distracting you while doing something creative is to take the logic side of your brain out of the equation. But I think it goes both ways. If you need to concentrate on a heavy logic type problem, a different kind of distraction is needed.

Working both sides of your brain at the same time prevents them from conflicting with each other.

For instance, I find when I'm doing programming or math, I cannot listen to a book. However, when I'm painting, I can listen to books.

Many people like to have a background noise to fill their head. Be it an office, music, coffee shop or whatever, it works.

It also works for going to sleep. Many people have some kind of white noise or soothing soundtrack or even the TV to help them sleep. Same principle, it keeps the brain from conflicting with itself or over thinking something.

As for driving or going for a walk or similar, it seems to me that you're not really distracted as you are finding the time to get back to some thinking that's been on your mind. Clearing your mind so you can get back to daily life.

As for the study, why not go to a university, there's about 400 in the Bay area and see if you can get a grad student to do the psychology experiment. Tenured professors have entirely waaaaay too little motivation to address this experiment.
 
 
Aug 18, 2014
Mr. Von Wizzlepig makes an excellent point about the creative process. Rather than being the bastard child of Intelligence, Creativity comes from deliberate effort, self-awareness of what works, and a determination to reach that place where ideas can be born. I, too, am comfortable in chaos (coffee shop chaos), and like to be among noisy patterns in order to turn within, and think an evening away.
 
 
Aug 18, 2014
I wonder if these sources of creativity work for artistic people? I'm an engineer and can work best creatively in quiet surroundings with no distractions. Crowd noise irritates me (just shut up you inconsiderate morons), driving annoys me (get out of the way jerk), walking alone, I tend to dwell on people that have annoyed me (I know that sounds bad) and showering has to be got out of the way as soon as possible because I have work to do. I used to like music when I was trying to create but as I got older, that too became a distraction. On the other hand, engineers are sociopaths anyway.
 
 
Aug 18, 2014
whtllnew, you seriously need a humor transplant. I was being facetious.
 
 
Aug 18, 2014
Mr. Von Wizzlepig makes an excellent point about the creative process. Rather than being the bastard child of Intelligence, Creativity comes from deliberate effort, self-awareness of what works, and a determination to reach that place where ideas can be born. I, too, am comfortable in chaos (coffee shop chaos), and like to be among noisy patterns in order to turn within, and think an evening away.
 
 
Aug 18, 2014
For me, it's being distracted by something mildly monotonous, predictable, and lengthy- but furthermore, these things typically cannot be interrupted by some other task. For example, you cannot accidentally get lost reading wikipedia articles while you are in the shower, or driving, or going for a walk. You also cannot re-arrange your closet, simply do the laundry, or prep dinner during those, either. You have a thing you are mildly focused on and you know that you will be there, barely paying attention, for at least another X minutes. At this point, your mind decides to wander, and voila.

Essentially- you allow yourself to be distracted BY yourself- the contents of your head- instead of other stuff outside of your head.

I like to go to coffee shops to draw. They already have the noise, and they are conveniently nowhere near home-related tasks. Good people watching, and the possibility for conversation or what I went there for- making art.
 
 
Aug 18, 2014
I have never posted a comment on a blog…ever. But I am moved to comment on this one. I cannot boast to be any smarter than anyone here. Natural selection would have ended my line long ago. In Mr. Adams example above, I would be the cave dweller who says "Let's put on a play about the ongoing threat of the mastodon herd and dialogue it." Then during the Q & A I would be trampled to death by the herd, along with my tribe who had come to watch. Education can be dangerous.

But certain dangers are worth their risk. "Creativity Hack" is a perfect confection of a phrase to describe today's desire to mix worthy ideas with scientific application. Multiple intelligences, brain games, and alternative teaching methods are part of the landscape of education now - and exciting changes arrive daily. It is the educator's lot to use all tools available to inspire creativity, create dialogue, excite minds, and solve problems. Risk, reason, creativity, and science only better that chance of success. Cartoonists and academics are not so wholly different. Assessment is an active and hotly-debated area in the field of arts education, and I wish Mr. Adams luck in his desire to inspire others to find a scientific method that will contribute to useful answers.
 
 
Aug 18, 2014
I have never posted a comment on a blog…ever. But I am moved to comment on this one. I cannot boast to be any smarter than anyone here. Natural selection would have ended my line long ago. In Mr. Adams example above, I would be the cave dweller who says “Let’s put on a play about the ongoing threat of the mastodon herd and dialogue it.”. Then during the Q & A I would be trampled to death by the herd, along with my tribe who had come to watch. Education can be dangerous.

But certain dangers are worth their risk. “Creativity Hack” is a perfect confection of a phrase to describe today’s desire to mix worthy ideas with scientific application. Multiple intelligences, brain games, and alternative teaching methods are part of the landscape of education now – and exciting changes arrive daily. It is the educator’s lot to use all tools available to inspire creativity, create dialogue, excite minds, and solve problems. Risk, reason, creativity, and science only better that chance of success. Cartoonists and academics are not so wholly different. Assessment is an active and ongoing area in the field of arts education, and I wish Mr. Adams luck in his desire to inspire others to find a scientific method that will contribute to useful answers.
 
 
Aug 18, 2014
[ ...and just how would multiple choice questions test for creativity? ]

Many sociology studies involve some amount of misdirection, for the simple reason that people react differently when they feel they are under a microscope than when just living their lives. Subjects are often told they are participating in a study about one thing, when the real objective of the study is something else entirely, so that the subjects won't focus on the actual point of the study and introduce "thinking" biases into the results. The most infamous example (which would never be done today for ethical reasons) would be the Milgram Experiment, where subjects were told they were participating in a study to see how receiving electrical shocks affected people's ability to learn, but the true point was to measure the subjects' willingness to disobey an authority figure when they were given directions that conflicted with their conscience.

If you presented the subjects with multiple choice answers, one way you could measure creativity is to sometimes have a choice which is just a blank line and invite the subjects to come up with their own answers. (The measurement would be how many times a subject actually took advantage of the blank option, not what their actual responses were.) You would have to be careful to only include this on some, not all, of the questions, to avoid tipping off your subjects as to your true purpose. The standard answers would have to be carefully designed to be adequate but lacking in some way that would be frustrating to someone looking for a better answer.

Another method would be to give standard multiple choice questions, but then have a post-study survey (which would be the REAL study) where you give the subjects an opportunity to suggest feedback, and measure creativity on how much feedback you get. Again, the "real" answers would have to be nominally correct but unsatisfying, to provoke the feedback response.
 
 
 
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