How do you think?

thinking, creativity, innovation
Concentration? (Flickr/Ninithedreamer)

I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking lately.  What conditions do I need to foster concentration?  Is concentration the key to insight?  Or, is it about letting the mind wander and waiting for inspiration to strike?

For me it starts with, well, really it ends with distractions.  But what interrupts a thought process and what doesn’t?  If I’m deep into something and I get a momentary distraction, I can probably get right back in without too much trouble.  String a couple of those interruptions together, or take me away for more than a moment, and it’s typically back to square one.

Why is that and what can we do about it?

Do we need time to think?

HBS professor Teresa Amabile thinks we get caught on the ever accelerating treadmill of “busy-ness” (My awful word, not hers.)  which hampers our ability to be creative.  I’m inclined to agree.

The single most important thing managers can do to enhance workplace creativity is “protecting at least 30 to 60 minutes each day for yourself and your people that’s devoted to quiet reflection

-Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School Professor

I have a minimum of 30 minutes a day built in with my bicycle commute which allows me to completely unplug, if only for a little while.  I’m convinced that the hour or so after my rides are when I’m most productive.

(The quote above comes from an interview with Professor Amabile, “Slowing the work treadmill,” that’s well worth checking out.)

Or do we lack the will to focus?

Daniel Goleman, progenitor of the idea of “emotional intelligence,” has a new book on the way entitled “Focus.”  I’m a big fan of his work on EI, but I’m not sure if I’m going to buy in on the new stuff.  He’s released a few quotes in infographic format in promoting the book.  I’m unsure from the quote what the outcome of improved focus is meant to be.  If it’s about improving productivity, then I guess I would need to know if that desire to focus was internally or externally motivated.  If the desire came from within, then I think I could go along with this, but if the locus was external, I’d have concerns.  Would you want others telling you that your lack of will power was keeping you from being more productive?
That said, I may be completely off the mark with my assumptions here.  I’ll have to read the book when it comes out and report back.  To be sure, the author deserves the benefit of the doubt as his extant work is above reproach.

Goleman on Focus - Willpower

Where were we?

Ah, yes.  Back to thinking about thinking.  I think this talk by John Cleese (Yes, that John Cleese.) can really help here.  After all, Mr. Cleese knows a thing or two about being creative.  The talk is just ten minutes long and I truly believe it’s worth the investment of time.  (I’ve watched it at least three times. — 11.13.2014 Update: Make that at least a dozen times.)

I hope you enjoyed the talk (You did watch it, didn’t you?)  and that you’ll give the idea of “boundaries of time and boundaries of space” a chance.  In our increasingly busy lives, we have to choose to make time to unplug and think. Otherwise, I think we run the risk of merely spinning our wheels.

How do you think?

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I typically need a bit of downtime to think, at least in the case of analyzing disparate ideas and synthesizing something new from them.

I’m interested in hearing how others pick apart the big problems.  So I’m asking, what about you?  How do you think?