Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Sahar Yousef explains how inhibition is the biggest creative blocker, and how we might shape our day to allow ideas to flow.
Is there such a thing as the most creative time of day? And if there is, how should people best leverage that time? Dr Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist and lecturer at UC Berkeley and the founder of Stoa Partners, uses scientific research to help companies and their staff get more done, in less time, with less mental energy. Here, she responds to a study that suggested 10:16 AM was the most creative time of day for designers, by explaining why that could be true, how to find your peak creative hours, and the blockers that are standing in the way of your finest ideas.
How the brain works.
First off, yes, there is a time of day when you are most creative, but it’s different for different people. To validate the conclusion of that survey, you would have to get people to log exactly at what times throughout the day across many months they had moments of creativity, which would be very difficult to do! We need to step back and look at what creativity really is, in the brain. From an electrical perspective, it’s when you have different neural networks that engage with one another in unique ways that did not engage before. When two different ideas collide together in the brain, it gives birth to a third idea. That collision happening in the brain can be encouraged by exposing yourself to different environments or stimuli or data. By inputting new types of electrical stimulation, you can jostle with the typical neural networks to see if you can spark a unique creative moment or idea.
When production dips, creativity soars.
It’s absolutely true that there is a general link between inhibition, or a lack of it, and creative insights of any sort. So if you’re wondering when you might be most creative, you need to think about when you might be the least inhibited. That would be the time of day that you might want to schedule, or at least experiment with scheduling, some creative time. For many people, that time is usually when they’re not at their most energetic, or most productive. You don’t want to schedule creative time during your most productive time; you want to schedule it when you’re slightly less goal-oriented and sharp, when you’re on the downward slope and you’ve started to fatigue, so that you’re open to different ways of thinking and creating.
For most, that is the afternoon. The genetic majority of the human population are ‘morning people,’ who feel more alert, awake, and focused during the morning. Those people will be better suited to schedule creative time and brainstorming in the late morning (if you’re a super early bird) or afternoon, when most people physiologically have an afternoon dip. Once they’ve replenished their stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and they’re having that second wind, that would be the time they’re not stressed out about getting things done, feeling a little bit less sharp and goal-oriented. If you’re a night owl, you might have lots of creative ideas first thing in the morning, when you’re feeling a bit groggy. That’s when you are most likely to have those creative sparks. It’s about analysing what type of person you are
“[Most] people will be better suited to schedule creative time in the late morning or afternoon, when most people physiologically have an afternoon dip.”
What chronotype are you?
To figure this out, nothing will ever trump self-awareness and self-experimentation. Everyone is different, so you should feel comfortable experimenting and gathering data on yourself. Five different days in the next month, protect some hours in the early morning, late morning, early afternoon, late afternoon and evening, and try to do some creative work then. Keep a diary, and ask yourself: ‘How creative did I feel in the morning hours today? What were the measurable outcomes of my creative hours’. Do this a few times, and you’ll know for yourself by the end of it when your peak creative time really is.
Navigating creative block.
When you’re trying to solve a problem, or trying to come up with a creative solution or a design, and you’re stuck, in the brain that looks almost like an electrical gridlock. You’re sitting there and thinking about the problem, about the blankness, and trying to come up with something different, but in that moment your brain is jammed in a certain configuration – call it the problem configuration.
When you’re in that gridlock, it’s nearly impossible to immediately come up with a solution, so you need to introduce new data or stimuli. It’s like expecting different results from the same inputs – you need to change the inputs. That’s why people often say they have their best ideas in the shower, or when they go for a walk. They’re doing something else but that problem is still in the back of their mind, on the back burner, so they’re aware of the problem and all of the data that goes into the problem. When they finally introduce new information, they’re allowing their neural networks to shift. They’re allowing different electrical circuits to be turned on. It’s in those moments where you get the a-ha spark, when a neural network that was inactive during the problematic phase gets turned on, crosses paths with an active network and sparks a new train of thought.
My recommendation for creatives is always, when you’re feeling stuck, there’s really no reason to sit there and bang your head against the wall. Get up and do something else, change your environment, expose yourself to something different. Have some food, get a glass of water, listen to different music, walk away, change it up. You’re giving yourself an opportunity to come up with a different sort of creative solution.
Sleep is fundamental.
Sleep is by far the most foundational component of having a happy, healthy, productive, and creative brain. If you are not sleeping well and consistently, for the number of hours that you need, it’s like the whole brain is on fire, and it’s not going to be functioning in any capacity the way that anyone would physically want or require, in a creative role or otherwise. One tricky thing that can happen for creatives specifically when they’re lacking sleep is that emotional regulation, positive outlook, and well-being go out the window. When we are sleep deprived, we have a tendency to be very, very pessimistic. We are more down on others and ourselves, and on ideas. We’re definitely less likely to encourage ourselves to have our most creative thoughts and stretch ourselves. We’ll start shooting down our own ideas, and the ideas of our teammates. It feels like nothing is going to work out, but it’s because the brain is exhausted when we do not allow it to sleep. Anyone who has young kids will know this.
Having said that, anecdotally, when we are sleep deprived we also have less inhibition, so we might be better suited to creative work. There’s no one size fits all. I’ve met many creatives who will notice that they have a lot of creative energy and insight on the days when they did not sleep well the night before, which might be due to lowered inhibition, or because their emotions, positive or negative, fuel them in some way. Our biology impacts all the work we do. Therefore, a huge part of this depends on figuring out how our biology impacts the work in our creative hours, by experimenting and analysing our own output. Perhaps you are that person who, with only five hours of sleep, has the most wacky creative ideas.
“When you’re in [creative] gridlock you need to introduce new data or stimuli. It’s like expecting different results from the same inputs – you need to change the inputs.”
Protect your environment.
So you know now that your most creative time is 10-11am. Now, you need to protect it. Close your email, turn off notifications, put your phone away, so you can actually sit down and get into a creative flow. Lose yourself in your work for a couple of hours to really take advantage of that creative peak. This also relates to your environment. If you’re working in an open office and it’s distracting, then remove yourself from that environment. Grab a room, turn away from foot traffic, put headphones in, so that you’re not distracted by your surroundings. It’s not fair for the creative to be expected to respond at all times, to not be protected from interruptions during that time because it will continue to pull you out of that creative headspace.
Music is polarising. I’ve read so many different studies that say music is helpful to creativity, but then I’ve met a lot of creative people who say that music distracts them and they prefer silence. Try out different techniques, and be honest with yourself about whether it works for you. If walking around is helpful while you’re thinking of creative ideas then walk around and don’t feel limited by what everyone else in the office does.
Across the board, everyone benefits from exposure to nature. This can be anything, looking out the window and seeing some greenery, or going for a walk. It definitely can’t hurt and, in my line of work, I’ve never heard of anyone saying it doesn’t help, or “this plant is really killing my creative energy!”
Ideas, ideas, ideas, and more ideas.
There’s also ways we can limit inhibition at a team level. Set up a culture that encourages ideation for the sake of ideation, even if it’s not actionable, so there is no grading of ideas upfront. Ideas are not good or bad. They’re just ideas. And the more ideas you generate, the more good ideas you’ll end up having. Get as many ideas out as possible, so people feel comfortable suggesting all kinds of ideas both good and bad. It’s about volume; just bring them on and encourage them, the good, the bad, the ugly, because the more you do, statistically, the more good ideas will be amongst them. If someone is feeling like “I’m not having any ‘good ideas’ then they’ll end up saying nothing. Creativity is a muscle like anything else, and exercising it is a form of forcing yourself and encouraging yourself to keep coming up with things, thinking of things in a different way. And it’ll get stronger over time.
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