Everyday cognitive demands on the modern-day worker can be very taxing. On the one hand, maximising productivity is essential for peak professional and organisational performance. On the other hand, employees increasingly need to apply themselves creatively at work. That creates an inherent tension between two separate needs.
For one thing, while productivity is generally conceived as a left-brain activity, creativity is seen as a predominantly right-brained endeavour. When you want to get things done, you’re likelier to approach your work logically and analytically. When you need to generate ideas and find inspiration, you need to think creatively.
The key to balancing these two needs is to get good at mentally switching gears; knowing how to make it easier for yourself to alternate between left brain and right brain activities is crucial. Here are a few tips on how you can do just that.
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Our natural bodily rhythms are already set up to facilitate optimal productivity and creativity at different times of the day. Understanding this about yourself allows you to figure out how to turn it to your advantage.
According to Daniel Pink, New York Times bestselling author, the majority of us are at our most creative in the late afternoon. Likewise, mornings are generally when our capacities for focus and analytical thinking are at their highest.
Michael Breus, professionally known as “The Sleep Doctor,” echoes the same sentiment. He posits that:
The culture of “busyness” is so pervasive today that it’s become a hugely popular way of measuring your productivity. The idea is that the busier you look, the more productive you probably are. If you’re constantly checking and replying emails and shuttling from meeting to meeting, it must mean that you’re super productive.
In reality, “busyness” is a massive impediment to both productivity and creativity. Recent research shows that when you’re always preoccupied with low-cognitive-demand tasks like checking emails, it eats into your ability to switch gears between logical thinking and creative thinking.
If you spend too much time on “shallow” tasks like replying instantly to every office communicator ping, you’re also allocating less time and energy for the more intense, productive work that will get you ahead.
Besides that, creativity requires you to be able to power down and allow your brain to wander, which “busyness” obstructs by requiring you to stay mentally preoccupied at all times.
Chances are, you probably don’t need to balance productivity and creativity every single day. There will be days when it’s far more important to finish off as much work as effectively and efficient possible, like when you’ve got a report deadline looming.
Similarly, there’ll be other days when you have to come up with a good, original idea, by hook or by crook.
Planning ahead and keeping on top of your calendar and workload will allow you to prioiritise what’s more critical for you on a particular workday: being productive or being creative?
In his book, “Deep Focus: Rules for Focused Success,” Cal Newport writes about the indispensability of setting aside time for deep focus in your life. In seeking to maximise our output and the quality of that output, it’s essential to set aside blocks of distraction-free, high-focus time every day.
Ritualised “deep focus time” is often what sets apart those who eventually become one of the most prolific and accomplished people in their organisations. According to Newport, these rituals are what “minimised the friction in [the] transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer.”
Simply put, if you want to maximise productivity, make deep focus a daily habit.
The same applies to being creative, though the process is slightly different. Indeed, some people find that routine facilitates their creativity, while others report the opposite effect.
One way to navigate this divide is to look at which stage of the creative process you’re at. If you’re at the implementation stage when you’ve already been inspired, incubated your idea and crystallised it, you probably need to focus on how to get your idea into reality. This is when deep focus benefits your ability to create.
In the same vein, knowing which stage of the creative process you’re at is essential in figuring out when to allow distractions and when to shut them out.
If you’re aiming for productivity, it’s pretty straightforward; don’t get distracted, and you’ll get more done. If you’re aiming for creativity, though, you’ll benefit from being a little more flexible about distractions.
Again, if you know which stage of the creative process you’re at, you can make it work for you. In the earlier stages, when you’re still finding inspiration, making connections, and generating as many ideas as you can, distraction can help you to be more creative.
At this point, you need as much originality as you can get, so allowing yourself to be distracted increases the likelihood of stumbling upon an unconventional idea.
Research has shown that cluttered workspaces facilitate greater creativity. That’s because the disorder of an unorganised desk could encourage the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that’s vital to being creative.
However, it’s also true that an organised desk is necessary for productivity; it minimises time spent searching around for your things. It might even reduce stress levels because you don’t feel as though you’re sitting under literal piles of work.
Ultimately, though, you need to find an optimal level of desk organisation that works for you in your situation. Organise your desk in proportion to how much productivity and creativity you need at work.
Alternatively, consider keeping your desk organised for optimal productivity, then sitting in a different part of the office when you need to go into creative mode.
Never mind being able to switch gears between logical and creative thinking; if you’re always exhausted, you won’t be able to do either well enough.
Maximising your productivity and being creative both require you to keep dipping into your mental resources. Going into deep focus mode to increase your productivity, for example, can be quite mentally taxing. Doing this every day necessitates you being well-rested enough to be able to concentrate with equal intensity every time.
It’s the same thing with being creative. Even the best of us get creative mental blocks sometimes. “Unplugging” temporarily from the task at hand and coming back to it later can help to refresh your mind and allow you to approach the problem from a fresh perspective.