November 2, 2020
Over the last seven months, as the Covid-19 virus has continued its spread, our worlds have become smaller. Working from home has morphed from a novelty to the mundane. Travel for business or pleasure, once routine, has become nonexistent. Seeing friends, going to our favorite restaurants, visiting family — the list of things we can’t do, and won’t be able to for months to come, is endless.
The sameness and lack of novelty in our Covid existence can negatively impact our creativity — our ability to put ideas together in new, useful combinations to solve problems. Creativity is often enhanced when we’re exposed to new situations. For example, in one experiment using virtual reality, researchers divided participants into three groups. The first group was exposed to a wild simulation that defied the laws of physics: They walked around in a room where objects fell up rather than down or got smaller as they approached them. The second group was placed in a similar simulation, but the objects behaved normally. And the third group of participants watched a film clip of the first group’s simulation. Participants in the first group showed an increase in cognitive flexibility, an essential part of creativity, while the others did not.
While most of us aren’t regularly exposed to virtual reality, we routinely encountered novel situations before Covid. Even activities as mundane as taking a new route to work because of a construction detour or having a serendipitous hallway conversation with a colleague can help increase our cognitive flexibility.
We’re also under a tremendous amount of stress right now — from worries about our job security to the health of our loved ones to our children’s education. Research on decision-making shows that our brains are wired to be more reactionary under stress, and this can take a toll on creativity. In our decision-making, for example, we’re likely to limit our thinking to binary choices.
With the pandemic keeping us in our limited and stressful worlds for the foreseeable future, do we have to resign ourselves to an increasing lack of creativity in our work and lives?
Not necessarily, according to leadership and creativity experts, as long as we know what steps to take. Here are five research-backed strategies to widen your world view and enhance your creativity.
Harness your negative emotions.
A growing number of psychologists and brain scientists are amassing evidence that negative emotions can be a vital component of our emotional tool kit. Anger, in particular, can be a motivating force, focusing our minds and moods in productive ways and fueling us to achieve our goals. When people perceive they have the ability to improve things, pessimistic moods can activate the reward center in the brain.
In my executive coaching practice, I’ve seen firsthand how the anger and frustration my clients are feeling over the pandemic and other societal ills is fueling decisions to step away from large salaries into more creative endeavors.
For example, one of my clients, Dr. Susan Abookire, was a chief medical officer of a hospital earning a handsome salary. She recently left her role to create a new physician-training program with an innovative curriculum promoting the interconnectedness of nature and medicine as a strategy for improving public health — a radical departure from traditional physician training. “I believe the pandemic has supported my creativity by eliminating distractions that diverted my focus, often in a chaotic and draining way,” Susan says. “Imagination is allowed to come forth when we dedicate uninterrupted time to what we hope to create.”
Engage in an expressive outlet.
Studies have shown that expressing yourself through art can help manage stress and anxiety, and even improve health.
Before Covid hit, another one of my clients — a C-suite leader of a health-care nonprofit whom I’ll call Julia — decided to enroll in an improvisational acting class to help her manage stress. After Covid hit, Julia was thrust unexpectedly into the role of interim CEO, and in that role she has found that her improv classes, which she continues to attend remotely, have helped her come up with creative solutions to unexpected problems. For example, improv has helped her learn how to tune into nonverbal signals — not just words but subtext and intent. Another client decided to learn the ukulele with the extra time she gained by not commuting. That decision has helped her tap into a new community of learners, lessening her isolation and opening her up to new and novel experiences.
Get into a flow state.
Have you ever been so completely immersed in an activity that you lost all sense of time? You may have been experiencing a mental state known as “flow,” which the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, defines as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.”
Research done by the Harvard professor Teresa Amabile shows that people who experience flow report higher levels of creativity, productivity, and happiness. Amabile discovered that not only are people more creative in flow, they also report having more creative days — suggesting that flow doesn’t just heighten creativity in the moment, it heightens it over the long haul. In other words, being in flow trains us to be more creative.
You can cultivate a flow state without intentionally trying to be creative. Think about the moments when you’re most likely to lose track of time: What are you doing in these moments? Is it going for a run? Reading a good book? One option, recommended by Giorgia Lupi in her book OBSERVE, COLLECT, DRAW!, is to create a personal documentaryby drawing the minutiae in your everyday life.
Broaden your network.
Research shows that diverse networks enhance creativity and that knowledge diversity positively correlates with individual creativity. In the 1970s and 1980s, knowledge creation was considered an activity based on our ability to process data and information. However, current science understands it as a social process enhanced by interactions with people of different backgrounds and insights.
Even though most of us aren’t traveling or attending in-person events right now, we can still network virtually. You can host your own event. For example, I helped form and belong to a Mastermind group of women entrepreneurs that meets bi-weekly on Zoom. We come together as business owners with complementary skills who want feedback from smart, motivated individuals about how to take our businesses to the next level. In addition to talking about business, we have participated in an art and renewal session to revitalize our spirits and have shared a fun online puzzle-break experience.
Spend time in nature.
A psychological study that looked at the impact of nature on creativity found that spending quality time outside improves people’s creative potential. Fifty-six people who went on a hiking trip took an assessment that measured creative potential using word associations. Twenty-four took the test before they began the trip, and the other 32 took it on the fourth day. Those in the latter group performed much better. Researchers ultimately found that spending time in nature improved creativity test scores by 50 percent.
Susan, the chief medical officer turned physician-trainer, used her certification as a forest therapy guide to teach young doctors about systems and leadership. This project engaged her creativity at the same time. “This pandemic has given me more quiet space to focus and persist on creative endeavors,” she said.
All of the above strategies are an excellent place to start if you’re hoping to spark some new ideas “Our creativity will wane,”the creativity expert David Burkus counsels, “unless we make conscious efforts to counter the narrowing and anxiety of our current situation” That’s good advice. Your creativity shouldn’t be something you forfeit at a time when you need it most.