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Why creativity thrives when you goof off

Downtime, which triggers "divergent thinking", can help boost productivity.

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Creative downtime happens when we are relaxed and not tensed up. Divergent thinking happens when our brains are running through many combinations of ideas until a good one emerges. This isn’t something we can make our brains do by straining.

NOT everything in life can be achieved with hard work. Creative insights have the perverse tendency to come when we're not working at all. The more we hunker down and focus, the more creative thought flutters out of reach.

This seems to be the case for the various components into which scientists have broken creativity down. One of the most widely studied is a process called divergent thinking - a kind of mental exploration measured by such tasks as inventing new uses for a brick or a paper clip. In a Scientific American article that ran last week, psychologist Holly White argues that people with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are more likely than the rest of us to summon divergent thinking as well as other facets of creative thought.

Dr White identified two other creative processes where people with ADHD may have an edge. There's conceptual expansion, which is tested by, say, asking people to invent a fruit that would exist on another planet. And there's the ability to overcome prior knowledge - to see ways to do something differently from the way it's been done before.

And what about those of us who like to be creative but haven't been diagnosed with an attention problem? MIT professor Alan Lightman tackles this in his new book, In Praise of Wasting Time. 

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Prof Lightman is trained as a physicist but became a professor of the humanities. He captured my interest years ago with a poetic little book about time called Einstein's Dreams. Much of the new book on wasting time was devoted to creativity. He looked at both psychological studies and life histories of famous scientists and writers, and concluded that taking downtime, or play time, is essential to divergent thinking. This is the case for those with and without ADHD.

Divergent thinking happens, he suggests, when our brains are running through many combinations of ideas until a good one emerges. This isn't something most of us can make our brains do by straining. The only hope, for many of us mere mortals, is to give ourselves time.

Prof Lightman argued that in the US and other fast-paced modern societies, we're suffering from a time-use crisis. He quoted students who reported that they had no downtime: Every waking hour was crowded with school work, jobs and extracurricular activities that didn't feel optional. When he was in school, he wrote, he used to have time to watch tadpoles and ponder whether they knew they were going to become frogs. He had time for home chemistry experiments, done just for fun, not an attempt to win any national science fairs.

And in adulthood, people often undergo the stressful experience of being expected to work 40 hours a week, but who are also expected to spend some of that time producing ideas that can only be conjured up by not working. I experienced this when I worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I had proposed writing a weekly science column; instead I was asked to write a sex column.

To do this, I needed a lot of divergent thinking and overcoming of prior knowledge. Everyone seemed to fixate on the sex column that was the centrepiece of the show Sex and the City. But this wasn't a good model for me.

The running theme of the column was the writer's adventures having sex with celebrities, and I'm not even good at recognising celebrities when they walk by. Another problem was that my dad was a big supporter of my writing and had been reading all my stories online from the time there was an online.

I did manage to come up with something every week for three years, and it worked well enough that readers, including my parents, liked it. It even got picked up by other newspapers. I worked hard at parts of the process, but at other times the only way to move forward was to goof off until my brain produced an idea divergent enough to keep things interesting.

I began to sympathise with the Mad Men of the television series popular at the time. Apart from the sexual harassment, heavy drinking and deadly amount of smoking, they had the right idea. The fictional Sterling Cooper agency was not really a workplace but a big creative playpen for adults. Surely the real Mad Men did their share of shooting the breeze and idling.

Prof Lightman concludes that in Western culture, wasting time is considered a sin. But it's also sometimes considered a sin to waste talent. That means it's sinful to squelch the talents of people with ADHD because they can't always conform to the demands of school. And it's sinful to starve other potentially creative people of necessary playtime and downtime. It's when we look idle that our brains are most likely to perform miracles. BLOOMBERG