The Cure for Creative Blocks? Leave Your Desk.

Everyday between 8:00 and 8:30am writer Stephen King arrives at his desk with a cup of tea. He turns on some music, takes his daily vitamin, and begins to work – exactly as he began the day before. Using this routine, King has produced well over 50 books, averaging 1-2 novels a year since 1974 when he published Carrie. Clearly, daily routines can be incredibly valuable. That is, until they’re not.While familiarity, organization, and discipline can be powerful agents of productive creativity, there is a “tipping point” – when these same once-fruitful qualities transform into creativity killers. In his great TED talk on time off, graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister recounts the feeling of stuckness that prompted a massive change for him:

“I originally had opened the studio in New York to combine my two loves, music and design. And we created videos and packaging for many musicians that you know… [But] I realized, just like with many things in my life that I actually love, I adapt to it. And I get, over time, bored by them. And, in our case, our work started to look the same.”
 
But how to battle this stagnation that ultimately sets in with most any creative endeavor? Sagmeister decided to take a yearlong sabbatical every seven years – for the first he stayed in New York, for the second he went to Bali. Of course, there are smaller, more accessible ways to spark new creativity. But they all have one thing in common with Sagmeister’s sabbatical: It’s all about putting some distance between you and your desk.How to battle the stagnation that ultimately sets in with most any creative endeavor? As Jonah Lehrer writes in a recent Guardian piece, “Several new science papers suggest that getting away – and it doesn’t even matter where you’re going – is an essential habit of effective thinking.” Certainly, we’ve all experienced the feeling that work concerns are just less important the farther away we get from the office. Now there’s proof to back up the classic “out of sight, out of mind” expression.
 
Lehrer goes on, “The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel ‘close’ – and the closeness can be physical, temporal or even emotional – get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful – it allows us to focus on the facts at hand – it also inhibits our imagination.”
 
Going even further, another study sparked by the productivity of expats like Nabokov, Hemingway, Yeats, Picasso, Gaugin, and Handel showed that not just traveling but living abroad for an extended period of time can improve our capacities for problem solving and creative thinking. It turns out that being exposed to cultures that function differently from our own – from language to social customs to public transport – awakens the brain, alerting it to a much broader range of possibilities for being, living, and making. For a fine example, look no further than German photographer Thomas Kalak’s photographs of “found technology” in Thailand – old CDs used as bike reflectors, discarded socks as mops, water bottles as brake lights.

After observing the impact of living abroad, scientists concluded, “It may be that those critical months or years of turning cultural bewilderment into concrete understanding may instill not only the ability to ‘think outside the box’ but also the capacity to realize that the box is more than a simple square, more than its simple form, but also a repository of many creative possibilities.”

Being exposed to cultures that function differently from our own – from language to social customs to public transport – awakens the brain. Another useful byproduct of travel is solitude. At our desks, we are never alone. Even if you work from home in complete isolation, an ever-growing stream of communications are constantly chattering away. Email, Facebook, Twitter, etc compete for our attention and focus, scattering our minds and fragmenting our productivity. And even if we have the willpower to turn these channels off, their “closeness” can still impede our thinking.
 
Zen Habits’ Leo Babauta argues that solitude is the single most predominant habit of productive creatives, and research on particularly creative teenagers has showed that an enthusiasm for spending time alone is a common trait of the most talented adolescents.

Though we are more likely than ever to be tethered to others by our iPhones and Blackberries, it’s more important than ever to carve out periods of uninterrupted contemplation. To take our brains out of their scattershot Internet patterns and navigate a new city, take in nature on a long walk, sit quietly and read a book, or have a serendipitous conversation with a stranger.
 
Does this mean we should all move abroad and live in isolation? Of course not. You don’t have to cross the world to find a change of scenery or to place yourself in an unfamiliar environment. Particularly if you live in a large metropolis, world travel can be as close as hopping on the subway to a new neighborhood. The point is to explore, to try something new, to drag yourself away from your computer and get moving. As psychiatrist Milton Erickson put it, “Change will lead to insight far more often than insight will lead to change.”

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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