How Too Much Work Shuts Off Your Creative Brain

Published: 28 April 2017

Why working better means working less and resting more

To deny ourselves rest is to limit our creativity. At a time when many are worrying about the insidious impact of automation, we are failing in this unique human ability.

The UK has a productivity problem. Germany beats us, as does France. Even siesta-loving Italians get more done than we do. And yet we continue to work longer hours than most of our European counterparts.

Alex Soojung, in his mind-altering book Rest, turns this contradiction on its head. Rest, he tells us, is not in conflict with work; it is one of its most vital ingredients. Working better means working less and resting more. He describes in compelling detail the daily routines of Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens who both worked a maximum of five hours a day to allow ample time for rest.

Music to universal ears, I’m sure. But before we get too carried away, TV watching and internet browsing do not count as rest. Rest comes via sleeping and napping but also – counterintuitively perhaps – through walking, thinking and ‘deep play’. It isn’t defined purely by the absence of work but must be a deliberate and active choice.

This might sound all too convenient. But rest assured, Soojung has neuroscience on his side too. Rest allows the mind to wander, which functional magnetic resonance imaging (Fmri) shows is not the passive, low-level brain activity we might assume it to be. “Even where you’re staring into space”, he explains, our brain consumes only “slightly less energy than it does when you’re solving equations”. Furthermore, through rest entirely new parts of the brain are switched on which are responsible for breaking down mental blocks and thinking creatively. (We’ve all experienced that moment, in leaving the office or drifting off to sleep, when a solution to an old problem somehow clicks into place.)

In other words, to deny ourselves rest is to limit our creativity. At a time when many are worrying about the insidious impact of automation, we are failing in this unique human ability.

Thought leadership cannot do without creativity. Ideas need time to enter our brains and be developed. Clearly working a five-hour day or taking an hour-long nap in the afternoon are unrealistic for most. But perhaps there are more practical solutions that can help us rest and be more creative:

  • Focus on creative tasks early in the morning: It may sound like an unnatural formula, but our creative energy is likely to be at its peak first thing in the morning. We are at our most uninhibited, meaning we are more responsive to our imagination, and are less prone to self-distraction. Furthermore, establishing a productive morning routine creates space in the day for rest.
  • Take an early afternoon walk: About six hours after we wake up, our body’s circadian rhythm starts to dip and we’re likely to feel drowsy, especially after a busy morning. Take advantage of this tiredness and go for a walk. It will help to relax and divert the mind, allowing under-currents of thought to bubble to the surface.
  • Engage in something that requires complete concentration but is unrelated to work: If you find yourself stuck for inspiration, take the kind of break that will allow your unconscious mind to keep plugging away. What Soojung describes as ‘deep play’ is mentally absorbing, and offers a new context in which to use similar skills to those you use in your work, along with much clearer rewards. This might mean playing pool, writing, drawing or doing a Sudoku.
  • Reacquaint your team with good old-fashioned patience: Author Simon Sinek is worried by the impatience of millennials, who have grown up in a world of instant gratification and been taught to expect and produce results fast. Things of worth often take time, but we all need reassurance that this is okay and to trust in our conscious and unconscious abilities.

Past leaders respected the role of rest in their creative lives, whereas today we treat a 24/7 work culture as the norm. A growing body of evidence shows that all work and no play is damaging productivity. How can you build deliberate downtime into your working day?

Jessie Nicholls
Senior Consultant
@jessie_nicholls

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