Unplugging is a hot trend among creatives. A US rapper Kanye West famously tweeted that he got rid of his smartphone to have “air to create”. British musician Ed Sheeran, according to some critics, wrote his “best album ever yet” after taking a full digital detox.
US actress Julia Roberts doesn’t use social media, another actress Sarah Jessica Parker has no mobile phone and comedian Aziz Ansari removed internet and social media from his phone. British artist Tracey Emin says that a phone is an enemy to creativity.
Is digital detox just en vogue, or is it a real necessity for creative people?
An overloaded mind is a conventional mind
Kanye West may not be aware of it, but when asking for an “air to create”, he quoted Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Moshe Bar, who found that innovative thinking is the most natural thing for us to do, when our minds are clear.
In an experiment, Bar asked people to keep in mind a sequence of digits, and then create associations between different words. The more digits participants needed to remember, the less original their associations became. Those who had to remember only two digits, could name less typical association pairings (such as ‘white/cloud’, as opposed to ‘white/black’).
Moshe Bar’s research shows that when our working memory is overloaded, we produce less creative ideas, and we need more time to come up even with a conventional thought. This is exactly what happens when we are constantly on our devices. By trying to keep track of many small things, like unreplied emails, pop-ups Facebook likes, and Whatsapp notifications, we overload our working memory, and become less creative.
Creativity needs space
Where do you get your best ideas – sitting at your laptop, or in random places, like shower or during a walk, or in the middle of the night? I bet, it’s the second one.
“When I do creative work, I like to get lost in the moment, says Grammy-winning singer Corinne Bailey Rae. – There’s no way I could work with my phone near me, checking whether I have a new Instagram like, so lots of time my phone is just not in the same room. I just go to it as if it were an answering machine”.
Just as your stomach digests food, your brain needs time and space to arrange facts you’ve learned, including them into mental “schemas”. Creativity happens, when your brain “connects the dots”, creating links between previously disconnected facts and putting them into context. If you keep feeding it with new information (which is abundant online), you give it no time to process what you’ve learned and properly store it.
New ideas are only born when we can process information without any stimulation, which has become a luxury in today’s “always on” world. As director Steven Spielberg once told Wired magazine tech “interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone.”
We avoid boredom like hell, and use tech to entertain ourselves even when waiting for two minutes at the bus stop, but it’s actually a healthy start for creativity. It’s avoiding stimulation that allows for new ideas to flourish.
How to boost your creativity in the digital age
Technology can be a useful tool to express our creativity, but only when we manage it, instead of allowing it to run our lives. Here are three neuroscience-backed tips to boost your creative performance.
First, schedule some time to unplug to do creative work, even if it’s for an hour a day. You will be more productive than you expect. When LPK, a US branding creative agency, unplugged its entire American office (and some international ones) for a day, locking all devices in the room, they discovered that their creative work was done much more efficiently. Meetings were shorter because everyone was paying attention, and no long slideshows were used. An average presentation lasted for four minutes. Employees also reported feeling more connected to their co-workers.
Second, structure your day so that you can focus on one creative thing without interruptions. A Harvard Business School study of 9000 people working on projects requiring creative thinking discovered that those who could focus on one activity throughout the day and minimized interactions were more creative. On the contrary, those involved in many meetings and discussions, felt more stressed and were less creative.
Third, schedule in some idle time throughout your day without any stimulation. Whether you are journaling, standing in the shower or running, your brain is still working. Combine it with physical activity. It has been proven that complex aerobic exercises like running stimulate new brain cells development in hippocampus. We need new cells to build new connections and think innovatively.
This is an extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book Homo Distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age. Get a copy by supporting her crowdfunding campaign here.