Why 'I'm busy' is the enemy of creativity

I am not sure when it happened, but why did it become OK to reply to the question ‘How are you?’ with ‘I’m busy’? Over the next week, listen out for it. You’ll say it yourself without even realising it. At a guess, I’d say I hear ‘I’m busy’ from more than 80% of the senior creative leaders I meet every week.

It’s as if being ‘busy’ means that you are at your creative, most productive, best.

This could not be further from the truth. ‘Busy’ does not equal productivity. And, from my experience too many people in the ad industry are mixing the two. Just review what you have achieved in the last week. And work out what it took to get there. How many wasted meetings? How much could have been delegated? How much made a lasting difference?

And, it gets far worse when it comes to creativity. ‘Busy’ destroys creativity.

Talking about a recent study in Israel, Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist, and director of the Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University, says in the New York Times: "We found that a high mental load consistently diminished the originality and creativity of the response." When Iain Tait, executive creative director at Wieden & Kennedy announced the changes to working practices at the London agency, he noted: "The enemy isn’t hard work (and long hours), so what is it? It’s pretty simple. The enemy is modern life… Specifically, modern life lived through connected devices. 'Always-on' sounds a bit nicer than 'never-off'. They’re the same thing. Creative brains need time off."

I recently saw a piece defending the industry’s long working hours saying at least we are not in banking or so many other boring jobs.

Of course I get it, but we are in the comms industry. Unlike other professions, our product is creativity. As Moshe Bar says: "When we are exploratory, we attend to things with a wide scope, curious and desiring to learn. Other times, we rely on, or 'exploit,' what we already know, leaning on our expectations, trusting the comfort of a predictable environment." Busy takes away from our exploratory state, which is essential to creativity. Curiosity is at the heart of creativity and people need time to feed that curiosity. As Dave Trott once said: "The time to look for an idea is not when you need it."

I am not saying don’t work hard. I have worked hard most of my career, but that has been invariably because I have loved what I have done. But there is no point in working hard if you are not delivering great work. If you’re ‘busy’, it’s highly likely that you are not being as creative as you can be.

So what can we do to change this? Firstly, I would suggest that every ECD or creative leader analyses their own behaviour before looking at what can they do for the team. What do you do to create space for creativity? Are you being productive? How can you change your own behaviours? We have been running global events for creative leaders for over a decade now and we love the fact that they are described afterwards as ‘my fuel for the next six months’. So what is your creative fuel? And what fuel are you giving your teams?

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that meditation is something that can have a significant impact on creativity. Mark Chalmers, the Prolific ECD and now managing director of VIRTUE, the VICE content agency, is an advocate: “In my early years a solid Sunday hangover created my meditative state and it proved my most creatively productive session, ‘growing up’ I put 15 years into yoga, now it’s road cycling. I don’t consciously go out to meditate and be creative, I‘m drawn to things that are meditative, that clear my mind, I can focus and decisions get made. I give my mind a place in which necessary re-ordering can happen. It’s enjoyable and very very productive.”

Dave Bedwood, creative partner, finds his inspiration from a very clear and well honed process: "I split my day into two: input and output. In the morning I focus on input to get through stuff like admin, email, meetings, then fill my brain with random articles, news, books, exhibitions. Then in the afternoon I focus on output. I use a pen and paper then a digital typewriter to ensure no distractions and use the Pomodoro technique. 25 mins of work time. Then a five minute break. Repeat."

Becky Power, creative director at Mindshare, on the other hand needs space from the everyday: “I’ve tried to implement organised thinking like Dave but results have been patchy. Reality is I need time without creativity to be creative. Not thinking is the best 'thinking' time for me. I am a keen cyclist and that's the easiest way for me to get head space so I sign up for stupidly ambitious events that force me to spend a lot of time training. I have also realised that I am much more creative when I live in the middle of nowhere. It helps me refocus on the important stuff.”

Ali Hanan, creative director at Blippar and founder at Creative Equals, finds exercise is the secret: "A study by cognitive psychologist, professor Lorenza Colzato of Leiden University in the Netherlands, discovered that those who exercised for four times a week were able to think more creatively than those with a sedentary lifestyle [AKA deskbound]. One of the best moments of Creative Social’s Global event in May in Copenhagen was our meandering walk through Christiana, where Victoria Buchanan, ECD of Tribal DDB and I landed Creative Equals’ Cannes Lions’ festival idea, ‘See it, Be it, Do it’ – an idea which put us on the map. So I encourage my teams to leave the office. My best ideas come when I’m on my cycle commute to London Bridge."

And, how many times have you gone as a team outside the office? Yes, I am sure that you have been to an art gallery or two, but how many other businesses have you been into? How many shops selling your client’s products do you visit? One of the sessions people enjoy most at our events are the ‘culture safaris’ where we see people work in their surroundings. It’s something I consider whenever I organise brainstorms. I’ll make sure that the environment reflects the brief we are working on.

And want to know the science behind it? Hugh Garry, director at Storythings, explains: “Going for a walk, bike ride or even taking a shower does just enough to distract the prefrontal cortex (which generally deals with decisions) from trying to come up with ideas. It flips your brain into autopilot mode, allowing your medial prefrontal cortex (which deals with association, context, events and emotional responses) to wonder freely and connect all those interesting cultural nuggets you've let into your life. By 'turning down' your prefrontal cortex activity you are allowing yourself to hear these subtle connections.”

So next time someone says to you ‘I’m busy’ when you ask how they are, it means they are busy limiting their creativity. Or perhaps it goes even deeper than that. As Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace, said at this year’s SXSW: "We are busy doing stuff in a futile attempt to have more time."

In the meantime we will continue to try and find ways for people to be less busy and more creative.

Daniele Fiandaca is co-founder of Creative Social. In its quest to create time to unleash creativity we have collaborated with Street Wisdom to deliver a unique creative focused Street Wisdom session with David Pearl, the co-founder of Street Wisdom. More details here.

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