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In a creative company, if digital technologies are not ultimately enhancing our creativity, then what are they doing?

A new book, Working on my Novel, by Cory Arcangel, tells us something about how we view social media these days. It is made up entirely of tweets from would-be novelists sharing  the “progress” they are making on their novel.

Where did all this distraction come from?

First, Bill Gates decided to put a computer on every desk. Then the internet came along and put most of human culture on your computer. Then iPhones came along and put all that in your pocket. Then Twitter came along to get you interacting with the whole thing in “real-time”.

This has brought unimaginable breadth of information to our fingertips… and problems for anyone whose work is creative.

We might all know that these days being at you computer certainly doesn’t mean you’re working. But we mostly behave as if being productively creative happens in front of your laptop.

If we want to change this, the first step is to think more about the big question of where creativity comes from. This is, needless to say, an area where there’s still a lot more to know. But a few points recur.

The interaction of a couple of types of attention helps creativity. One type is narrow, effortful and focused on a specific challenge. A second is broad, shallow and wandering. In parallel to this, there’s a role for both stimulating physical environments, and low-stimulus, boredom-inducing ones. Socially, there’s evidence that the most creative groups are made up of both people who already know each other well, and less well-known newcomers. Finally while we usually think of creativity as a mental process, researchers have found that physical movement can have a role in enhancing creativity.

Where does this leave our digital devices and how we use them?

There’s an emerging set of apps to help us focus. Pomodoro gets us working in 25-minute chunks. iA Writer removes the distractions which can come between our thoughts and the words we type. The Moment app helps people track how much they use their iPhone. And for those who really want an A grade in focus, there’s the MUSE headband, which trains you to maintain a meditative mindstate.

All these can help us get more from our focus phases. But they don’t address the need for distracted, mind-wandering phases as well. And if a focused phase has been at a computer, if you really want your mind to wander you might need a different environment. This could be where smart watches come in. Perhaps they can keep us off our phones and away from our desks while still reassuringly in touch.

If stepping away from our desks helps our minds wander, maybe micro-location services like iBeacon could encourage us to talk to a broader range of our colleagues. More speculatively, how about a browser that synched with a location tracking app like Moves? Rather than just tell you step away from your laptop for a bit, this combination could help you make a physical behavior of it.

And if you really want to get more from your mind-wandering phases, then how about the REMEE eyemask, which teaches users to dream lucidly?

The secret, according to David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity, is to know “where in your creative process digital tools fit, and how to keep them out of the stages where they won’t help.”

So if services like Headspace and buddhify don’t clear your head, there’s always the Eric Schmidt approach, and he should know something about digital services: just turn it off.

Sam Ashken
Planning Director, The Barbarian Group

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