For better creativity, protect your alone time

In my experience, the office has never been a particularly conducive place for creativity. Instead, it likes to pop out at times when I used to least expect it, such as during runs, or washing dishes (as mentioned in this article by HBR). I am a big proponent of time away from the office but would add that time away from family and friends is important as well. That solitude needs to be in place (as well as that phone shut off) for a complete sense of quiet, solitude and security in knowing that your ideas are yours alone to fuss over.

 ANDREW NGUYEN/HBR STAFF

ANDREW NGUYEN/HBR STAFF

In our contemporary offices and always-busy lives, alone time can be difficult to come by. But successful creative thinkers share a need for solitude. They make a practice of turning away from the distractions of daily life to give their minds space to reflect, make new connections, and find meaning.

Great thinkers and leaders throughout history — from Virginia Woolf to Marcel Proust to Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak — have lauded the importance of having a metaphorical room of one’s own. But today’s culture overemphasizes the importance of constant social interaction, due in part to social media. We tend to view time spent alone as time wasted or as an indication of an antisocial or melancholy personality. Instead, we should see it as a sign of emotional maturity and healthy psychological development.

Of course, positive social interactions and collaboration are a critical part of a healthy workplace. But while some people may be inspired by experience and interacting with others, it is often in solitary reflection that ideas are crystallized and insights formed. As author and biochemist Isaac Asimov wrote in his famous essay on the nature of creativity, “Creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.”

Now science has reinforced what countless artists and innovators have known: solitary reflection feeds the creative mind. In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered that we tend to get our best ideas when our attention is not fully engaged in our immediate environment or the task at hand. When we’re not focusing on anything in particular — instead letting the mind wander or dip into our deep storehouse of memories, ideas, and emotions — the brain’s default mode network is activated. Many of our most original insights arise from the activity of this network, or as we like to call it, the “imagination network.”

Its three main components — personal meaning making, mental simulation, and perspective taking — often work together when we’re reflecting. Using many regions across the brain, the imagination network enables us to remember the past, think about the future, see other perspectives and scenarios, comprehend stories, understand ourselves, and create meaning from our experiences.

As mentioned above, activating this network requires deep internal reflection — the state that many artists and philosophers refer to when describing how they arrive at their most original ideas. This type of reflection is facilitated by solitude, which is why we often get creative insights when we’re relaxing or doing mundane, habitual tasks like showering or washing the dishes.

Unfortunately, most people rarely give themselves time for purposeful contemplation. While the modern workplace is often not conducive to this type of alone time, there are things managers and their teams can do to reclaim solitude and improve their ability to think creatively — without diminishing collaboration.

One solution is to give employees the flexibility to work remotely, particularly when they’re focused on creative assignments that require them to generate new and original ideas. Another is to designate an office or conference room for quiet work. But most of all, managers should let employees know that they’ll respect their individual work styles, and that slipping away from their desks to think in solitude is OK. In fact, managers should actively encourage this, as well as urge employees to take all of their vacation days. Having time for periodic rest and reflection will give your team the space to replenish their creative energy.

It’s time to allow creative workers (and who doesn’t have to solve problems creatively these days?), as Zadie Smith advised, to “protect the time and space” in which they work. Doing so helps lay the foundation for true innovation.

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