It’s 11pm, the client presentation is at 10am tomorrow, and your team is still stuck on which target to lead with. There are clear pros and cons to both strategies, and the stakes for missing the mark are high as you close out the quarter. What is the best course of action for you to advise at this point? A)Play a quick game of chess to see what percolates B)Call a loved one and check in with how they are doing C) Watch the nightly news and reconvene in an hour or D)complete a tangles puzzle and get together in the morning?
If you answered D because you think creativity requires stimulation you are wrong, but you selected the best answer anyway! Turns out that having a break from problem solving actually increases performance, but what you spend the break doing matters. How so? Recent research supports the use of “mind wandering” tasks to promote creative problem solving. While A-C represent mental breaks, none of them could be described as mind wandering. The game of chess requires mental engagement and focus to be done well, the family call opens doors to emotional conflict and this can interfere with creativity, while the nightly news combines these scenarios in that there may be emotional and personally relevant information to process from the news report while at the same time those things that are not particularly personal may require a greater degree of cognitive engagement to understand. It is only answer option D that provides a target for mental effort in the form of a low stakes puzzle without the risk of emotional engagement. The combination appears to be powerful in leaving our minds open for problem solving below our conscious awareness. Baird and his colleagues at UC Santa Barbara investigated this in a college sample provided the “unusual use” task. If you have ever attended a creative kids program you have probably completed this familiar task: name as many uses as possible for the following item… Participant’s in their research were provided this task and then given one of four experimental conditions. One group engaged in a series of arithmetic calculations, one group went from this task immediately into the task again, one group was allowed to rest, and one group engaged in an undemanding task. It was the final group, those that engaged in an undemanding task, that had the most responses in the second round of the UUT procedure.
What does this mean for you? If you can’t set up a home laboratory for yourself to perform undemanding tasks how can you improve your own problem solving abilities? Turns out Baird and his colleagues identified an important component of the undemanding task that might be more easily replicated at home: the degree to which your mind wanders during the task is the key to increasing creative performance following the task.
So, whether its tangles, word find, Sudoku, or mandalas you can increase your creative output by taking a break and performing an activity that is low in cognitive effort but more engaging then simply resting. Find your mind wandering and that’s an indication that you are on your way to creative solutions.
Baird, Smallwood, Mrazek, Kam, Franklin & Schooler (2012) Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative IncubationPsychological Science 0956797612446024, first published on August 31, 2012 doi:10.1177/0956797612446024
Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Professor, Entrepreneur, and Diversity Columnist.
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Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP, 2011-2014