For knowledge workers, entrepreneurs and creatives, generating new ideas isn’t just nice; it’s an economic necessity. Ironically, though, making more content, posting new materials, reading and processing more information isn’t always the answer to achieving deeper creativity. Anyone who has struggled to fall asleep at night as the train of too many ideas chugged through the brain, or who has had the experience of sitting down to write only to feel pulled in a million different directions knows this intuitively.
And the science bears this out. As researchers Shira Baror and Moshe Bar from Bar-Ilan University’s Brain Research Center have found, individuals with a lot on their minds tend to be less creative. To arrive at this finding, the experimenters ran a word association test, while also giving some participants a list of very long numbers to remember at the beginning of the experiment and others very short numerical lists. What they found was that overwhelmingly the people given lots to keep track of before undertaking the creative word association task came up with the most common responses. Whereas the people given little to keep track of tended to have the most innovative and diverse word associations. Put simply, less cognitive load meant more creativity.
So, what can we do about cognitive load? We all live in the world, don’t we? The good news is that with practice, we may be able to reduce the creativity-sucking load on our working memories. As recent neurological research demonstrates, with practice, we can intentionally clear out our minds, thereby freeing up our creative juices. Specifically, meditation allows practitioners to engage what University of Florida’s Dr. Deshmukh calls a “cognitive pause and unload” (CPU) technique that frees attentional space for greater creativity.
Put in simpler, non-neuroscience terms, CPU is meditation. This is not necessarily clear-your-mind-of-all-thought meditation—though if you can achieve that, great!—but more so focusing so intensely on the present and consistently redirecting your attention to the present that you start retraining your brain to release all the built-up ruminations on the past while you focus on the moment at hand.
If you’re a meditation and mindfulness skeptic, it may be worth reviewing the growing number of high profile meditators in fields ranging from hip-hop to stand-up comedy, acting to newscasting. One of the film industry’s most famous meditators, the wildly creative David Lynch offers a useful metaphor of liquid flowing to help explain the effects clearing the mind can have on creativity. He says, “Ideas flow through a conduit. Stress squeezes that conduit. Tension, depression, hate, anger squeezes it.” Similarly, the patron saint of entrepreneurship and self-reinvention Oprah Winfrey has written about the importance of unplugging and letting go to her work: “Now when I begin to feel exhausted, I pull back. If I’m at work and people are lined up at my desk with one request after another, I literally go sit in my closet and refuel.” Neither of these figures could be described as a slouch, and a look at Lynch’s filmography or Oprah’s many business ventures offers a suggestive hint of the kind of openness to possibility that may be accessible when we let go a bit. Perhaps counterintuitively, trying to process less allows us to be more. And who wouldn’t want that?
If you think you are meditation averse or resistant, the good news is that there are many choices about the present-moment experience you can focus on: For many meditators, focusing intently on the breath moving in and out may be useful; others focus on a candle flame. But if you’re just starting, you might do something as simple as focusing intently for a few minutes on massaging scented lotion into your skin, redirecting your attention to the smell and sensation whenever your mind starts to wander.
As important as the ability to focus may be, a big part of what makes meditation a useful way to refresh the brain for creative work comes from its emphasis on disengaging attention from what’s not helpful (in this case, all the built-up material in your working memory).
Now, what if you’re not in a position to sit and meditate on a flame? Facing co-workers’ funny looks may not be conducive to meditation as a technique for clutter-clearing your mind. A number of other workplace-friendly possibilities are still available:
First, if at all possible, do your most creative work first thing in the day before other information creeps in, cluttering your attention.
Second, you might write down a brain dump in a notebook, letting all that’s on your mind flow freely onto the page. At the end of your dump, write a note to yourself about the main focus for your day. Take a big breath in and out and say, this is my creative task for the day.
Third, a similar technique involves capturing rogue thoughts on a sticky note or scrap paper in your workplace, thus assuring yourself that you aren’t losing track of the thoughts that pop up, but without full directing your attention to them.
Finally, once you do clear your head, don’t rush to fill it back up with junk. Try to stay off social media and news sites while doing your creative work. Remind yourself that sometimes having more ideas means taking in less information.
Related: How to Be Constantly Creative
Katherine Fusco is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches film, theory, and American literature. She is the author of Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative and Modernity (Routledge) and Kelly Reichardt (University of Illinois). Currently, Katherine is working on a book about stardom and questions of identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Katherine has appeared in The Atlantic, Dilettante Army, Harpers Bazaar, Headspace, OZY and Salmagundi; you can find her blog on motherhood and creativity at CreateLikeAMother.blog.