We believe that the opposite of focus— daydreaming, goofing off, spacing out— is to be avoided. Worse yet, having problems focusing is seen as an obstacle to overcome and even as pathological. Self- help books and productivity bloggers strive to keep us on task with advice and hacks.
When we fail to come up with the results we were hoping for, we wonder whether we just aren’t working or concentrating hard enough. We’ve come to consider focus and being on as “good,” and idleness— especially if it goes on for too long— as “bad” and unproductive. We feel guilty if we spend too much time doing nothing.
But in thinking this way, we make a fundamental mistake.
Truly successful people don’t come up with great ideas through focus alone. They are successful because they make time to not concentrate and to engage in a broad array of activities like playing golf. As a consequence, they think inventively and are profoundly creative: they develop innovative solutions to problems and connect dots in brilliant ways. Dwight Eisenhower logged more hours on the golf course than any other U.S. president yet is also regarded as one of the best presidents this country has ever had.
In a time and age when everyone is over-scheduled and over-focused, creativity is more and more prized— it’s the key to your effectiveness and success, in life and in business. It can also be a never- ending source of joy and happiness.
Here are three ways to “unfocus” for heightened creativity:
1. Diversify your activities
Experts suggest that the key to being idle or to unfocusing is to diversify our activities rather than being constantly focused on a single task. To get a new perspective on something, we actually need to disengage from it. We can diversify in two ways: through mindless tasks or through a broader set of experiences.
To disengage through unfocused tasks, break up time spent assimilating information and working on a task by inserting fifteen- minute periods of more mindless and less focused activity, like taking a shower or going for a quick walk (without concentrating on your cell phone) or doing some stretching, advises Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.
“By taking that fifteen- minute period for mindlessness or daydreaming, your attention has been broadened and your mind is now able to make more creative connections between ideas. This cannot happen when you stay overly focused on a problem,” explains Kaufman.
Walking, in particular, appears to boost creativity. In a study appropriately titled “Give Your Ideas Some Legs,” researchers found that, both during the walks and right afterward, people scored higher on several different creativity tests.
You can also unfocus by broadening your experiential and intellectual horizons. According to Kaufman, anything that violates expectations of how the world works can boost creativity. For example, a semester spent studying abroad boosts students’ creativity. Why? New experiences that disrupt our usual way of life and show us a different perspective make us more mentally flexible or creative.
This explains the fascinating dynamics behind Innocentive, a platform for crowdsourcing genius solutions to complex problems submitted by research and development companies. These include everything from creating car accessories to enhancing the driving experience (a challenge submitted by Ford) to techniques for creating “earth independence,” whereby humans are able to survive in space for longer periods (a challenge submitted by NASA). Anyone can submit a solution, with winners receive financial compensation.
A research study out of Harvard headed by Karim Lakhani established that there was a higher probability of someone solving a problem submitted to Innocentive if that person was not an expert in that particular field, but was in a field that was marginally or not at all related.
“The further the problem was from the solver’s expertise,” Lakhani shared with the New York Times, “the more likely they were to solve it.”
2.Make time for stillness and silence
Given how busy modern life is, we can think of stillness and silence as another “diversifying” experience. Rather than being in motion and rushing from one place to the next, we are still. Rather than doing something, we do nothing. Rather than focusing on things, we completely unplug. Meditation is an obvious example of cultivating stillness or silence.
Research on silence provides insight into what makes silence so powerful and how it helps us access our innate creativity. In 2006, Luciano Bernardi was studying the impact of music on physiology. To his surprise, he found that not only did the music affect participants’ physiology (slower music reduced heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing), but so did the moments of silence— which he had only included as a comparison measure.
In fact, Bernardi found that periods of silence inserted between tracks of music were much more relaxing than the soundtracks designed to induce relaxation or periods of silence administered without music in between. Physiologically, taking a “silence break” had the most profound relaxing and calming effect. Other studies have found that silence— despite being void of content— can help develop new brain cells.
Pico Iyer, author of The Art of Stillness, has found that removing himself from the bustle of society is key to thinking outside the box (and recalling what he cares for). The various demands placed on us, which rob us of the idle time we need to be creative— expectations that we will be available 24/7 and interruptions made possible by the various technologies we use every day— aren’t going to go away. For Iyer, the solution lies not in changing those demands (which most of us can’t anyway) but in altering our relationship to them— which is fundamentally an internal process.
“We can choose to step out of the permanent Times Square that is buzzing in our heads. Most people are noticing that they are drowning in it. And they are trying to find a way back to stillness: through hikes, sailing, meditation, Internet Sabbath,” explains Iyer.
He believes his best work comes when he can hear something deeper than the clatter of the world. “When you stand about two inches away from the great canvas that is our world and our lives— just as when you stand too close to a painting— you can’t catch the larger patterns in it, the meaning,” Iyer explains.
To consciously make room for stillness in his life, Iyer has gone 80 times over the past 24 years on retreat to Benedictine hermitage, even though he says he’s not “specifically religious.”
“When I go to my monastery in Big Sur, I spend a lot of time doing nothing, taking walks, lying on my bed— and I’m confident that it’s only in that space that I will come up with something fresh and more interesting than my every day ideas.”
Stillness also allows him to step out of clock time into a more spacious sense of hours, which is of huge importance to his work as a writer. “As soon as I am in stillness, I can hear my deepest voice, everything that becomes inaudible when I am in constant motion.”
Silence can, of course, be uncomfortable. When your mind wanders, thoughts and feelings can emerge that are not necessarily pleasant. Being alone or being un-busy or quiet can open the door to troublesome thoughts or even anxiety. You might even feel “stuck” on them, since the brain tends to focus on negative things. Yet if you sit through them, or walk through them (if your silent practice is a hike or a walk), you will see that they eventually pass, leaving room for free- flowing thoughts and daydreams. Just like any exercise, idle time will be more natural and enjoyable the more you engage in it.
Filling idle time with fun and games is a natural part of children’s lives. However, though engaging in playful activities for the sake of having fun exists in the animal kingdom (to which anyone with a pet can attest), it is completely neglected in human adulthood. We are the only adult mammals who do not make time for play, outside of highly structured settings like a Sunday neighborhood soccer game or playtime with a child.
Submerged in the responsibilities of life, the seriousness of world affairs, and an ever- growing to- do list, we often forget to play, feel we don’t have time for it, or somehow believe it is no longer appropriate.
At Stanford, I helped found the first psychology of happiness course and led a session on the science of play. I decided to illustrate the effects of play on our emotions by introducing a grade- school game. We stood in a circle and whoever was “it” would stand in the middle. Participants would wink at each other in order to signal to each other to switch places in the circle. The person who was “it” would try to take their spot while they dashed to switch places. Although they stared at each other a little awkwardly at first, the college students soon jumped into the game with enthusiasm and laughter.
When I asked for feedback at the end of the game, students mentioned “feeling happy,” “forgetting worries,” and “being completely in the moment.” One student, giddy with joy from the game, said, “I thought we weren’t supposed to play anymore.” She was seventeen.
Albert Einstein famously said, “To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play.” Although we adults may have lost the skill of playing with the innocence of a child, we can easily regain it. In one study, 35 undergraduate participants were divided into two groups before doing a creativity task. In one group, they were told to imagine that school was canceled and to write down a list of things they would do with their free day. In the other group, participants were given the same instruction but were asked to imagine that they were seven years old.
The latter group came up with far more creative examples. This study shows us that our creative potential is not as buried as we think it is. It can be accessed easily just by using our, well, imagination.
Play has a positive impact on creativity because— in addition to helping us both mind-wander and diversify— it stimulates positive emotion, which research shows leads to greater insight and better problem solving. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found that positive emotions increase our cognitive resources by expanding our visual attention. When we feel good, we gain the ability to pay attention to a wider range of experiences. We see the big picture rather than getting bogged down in the details. In other words, if you feel stuck in a rut or you can’t think yourself out of a problem or don’t see a way out of a situation, play may be a way of getting “unstuck” and coming up with innovative ideas.
Just as joy and fun can make you more creative, creativity in turn enhances your well- being. The more creative you become, the more joy you invite into your life. Nikola Tesla wrote, “I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success. . . . Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.”
By naturally tapping into your inner creativity, you reconnect with the joy you had as a child playing. You engage in a positive feedback loop that continues to replenish you with joy and creativity. It makes for an adult life rich with delight and inventiveness.
(*) Emma Seppälä is a psychologist and the Science Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford’s School of Medicine. This article is excerpted from her just-published book “The Happiness Track: How to apply the science of happiness to accelerate your success,” published by HarperOne, 2016.