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How to be More Creative at Work

By John Kounios, PhD

man at a desk wearing a helmet holding a paper airplane


February 4, 2019

Research by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists reveals that a vacation could do the trick

Vacations help reduce stress and its negative effects on cognition.

Anxiety narrows our scope of attention to the most prominent features of a situation, limiting us to the most obvious strategies or ideas. This kind of mental tunnel vision can be effective for familiar, circumscribed problems — if you’re a surgeon performing an appendectomy, it’s better for all concerned if you do it by the book rather than by an untested procedure. However, if the surgery should happen to derail, this heightened focus will inhibit the flexible, creative thought needed to improvise an innovative strategy.

Vacations put you in a good mood.

When you’re upbeat, there is more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which monitors other brain areas for alternate possibilities — particularly, the nonobvious, long-shot ideas that are the basis for creative thought. When this part of the brain detects a potential insight, attention switches to it, and the idea pops into awareness as an “aha” moment. Thus, a positive mood opens the mind to a multiverse of possibilities that are ordinarily beyond the reach of the anxious mind.

Vacations distract us from bad ideas.

The doorway to the multiverse can be blocked by a bad idea. As economist John Maynard Keynes wrote, “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones…” One reliable way to purge a bad idea is by diversion. This allows the bad idea to dissipate in a process cognitive psychologists call “fixation forgetting.” The diversion of a vacation allows bad ideas to wither on the vine and good ones to ripen.

Vacations expose us to new experiences and environments.

When you tackle a problem, but fail to solve it, you become sensitized to things in your environment that are related to the problem. Changing your routine and your surroundings exposes you to a variety of new stimuli. Any seemingly irrelevant thing — a pet, a street lamp, a hat in a store window — can spark sudden insight by pinging an unconscious idea into consciousness. Cognitive psychologists call this “opportunistic assimilation.”

Vacations often involve spending time outside.

Expanses of sky and ocean, even the open spaces of a golf course, encourage your attention to spread out to take in the scenery. This broadening of perceptual attention is closely linked to the broadening of conceptual attention: When your visual perception expands, your scope of thought expands as well to encompass nonobvious, remote associations — the stuff of creativity. As many nature-loving creatives have attested, when you see far and wide, you think that way, too.

Vacations allow us to catch up on sleep.

Many people have received ideas or solutions to problems in a dream or upon waking in the morning. Sleep helps creativity in several ways, from reducing stress to improving our mood. By restructuring our accumulated memories, knowledge and experiences, it also highlights obscure details and nonobvious associations, which can lead to creative insights.

Vacations have staying power.

Worried that you’ll lose your new-found mojo when you go back to the grind? Fear not — creative insights are typically born of an unconscious incubation process that can extend over months, even years. Even if you don’t have breakthrough ideas during your vacation, the experience still serves as fertilizer for previously planted seeds of thought that can sprout long after the trip is over.

Need a vacation now but can’t take one?

Do the next best thing: Incorporate micro-vacations into your daily routine to encounter new stimuli. Go to new places and do enjoyable things, especially outdoors. And of course, sleep more.

John Kounios, PhD, is coauthor of “The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain,” published by Random House. He is a professor of psychology and director of the doctoral program in Applied Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Drexel University.