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You must switch off to be creative, says Chris Lewis

So where are you and what are you doing when you get your best ideas? If you're anything like Sir Martin Sorrell from WPP or Admiral Sir George Zambellas, former head of the Royal Navy, you're probably not even trying to have an idea. It just comes to when you are uninterrupted, often away from work and on your own.

Compare this to the standard agency method of the brainstorm. It’s almost a photo-negative. This is one of the findings from my interviews with leaders from many different walks of life asking about their creative process for my book Too Fast to Think.

The fact that so many report that ideas come when they are doing something else, suggests that at least some part of the creative process is unconscious. The brain is processing information that it has inducted previously when it actually appears to be switched off.

It can only do this if it is allowed to switch off. The problem is that it is constantly interrupted and overloaded with data. The scale of this overload is enormous. If we just take email for instance, the average business user in the United States sent and received on average 121 emails a day in 2014, and this is expected to grow to 140 emails a day by 2018. If we assume a 10-hour day at work, even at today’s levels, that’s 12 an hour, or one every six minutes. Another survey said the number of worldwide email accounts is expected to grow from over 4.1 billion in 2014 to over 5.2 billion by the end of 2018. The total number of worldwide email users, including both business and consumer users, will increase from over 2.5 billion in 2014 to over 2.8 billion in 2018.

On top of that you can add social media and other apps all vying for our attention.

It’s not just the volume of information. It’s how it arrives. Normally with an alert, sometimes fast, then slow, but always happening. The net result is that iPhone users frequently check for updates up to 100 times a day.

The brain only has a finite amount of time for processing. So, if we’re using it to check emails, then it can’t be used to incubate great ideas.

The creative process can be broken down into the Four ‘I’s: Induction, Incubation, Inspiration and Ignition. Most people focus on the final two stages, but experienced minds say the first two are more important. The overall conclusion is that the ratio is more like 40/30/20/10. This suggests that if the majority of the creative effort is invested into the first two stages, the dividends are paid with higher quality ideas.

The Incubation stage is by far the most mysterious. Many of those interviewed in the book report that this is a ‘walk-away’ moment. This is where after researching a subject, people give it either a 24- or 48-hour break before the ideas start to spontaneously emerge. If we know this, then we’ve got to allow the space for this to occur. A ship cannot dock if one is already there.

Put simply, we need better education about the creative process because the current industry method of the brainstorm appears to run counter to all the evidence from many of the highest achievers.

Subconsciously or not, if we want to have better ideas, we really do have to stop and allow ourselves time to think.

 Chris Lewis is founder of PR agency LEWIS and author of Too Fast to Think

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