I am writing this article sitting on a bench in a lovely park in Marrakech, Morocco, away from the busyness of the Medina, the inner city. Though I am socially secluded (headphones and sunglasses on ;), I am constantly interrupted by movement around me. And I like it. I watch the dad arguing with his little kid to come along, I see the birds fly by and young couple in front of me is having some kind of drama (she’s crying and he’s comforting her). I’m sitting in the shade of what looks like an olive tree and am surrounded by palms, cacti and bushes. A little breeze cools the air. Progress on this little piece of writing is slow at best ;).
The wandering mind
We all know focus is good. Focus helps you finish stuff. Focus helps you get into flow. It’s a message you hear everywhere. Struggling to deliver something?: lack of focus. Switching back and forth between tasks?: lack of focus. So we should always focus on only one particular task at any given moment, right? Wrong!
Being focused on one thing blocks vision of other things. You probably have seen the famous ball-counting video (if not, go watch). When your mind is put to a single thing, it unconsciously filters out all unrelated information. Good if you want to execute, not if you’re goal is to be creative. Creativity is the ability to connect unrelated thoughts. Or in the words of Steve Jobs: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”. Thinking creatively is much helped by diverging, by a wandering mind that is not constrained. Think of it as being an explorer: you don’t travel by train (it is constrained by its tracks), but on foot, or by bike. Creativity is imagining that making a hole in a Dutch Rusk makes it easier to remove it from the package, or that putting a pair of scissors together with a spatula makes it ideal for cutting pizza. Those solutions do not come from focusing purely on the obvious.
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.
Though I realize there seems to be a paradox here. Research has shown that creativity is helped by constraints. How does this relate to the above? In my opinion there are two types of constraints here: respectively constraints regarding the mind and constraints of the solution. The first restricts the mind in coming up with viable solutions, while the latter might give you a starting point and direction.
Processes that foster creativity
This is the reason that a design process like Design Thinking starts with a phase of diverging before converging to a solution. In a good retrospective there is first generation of insights and possible ideas, without coming to a solution to soon. The same goes for backlog refinement and well written User Stories: they don’t focus on the solution, but on the need or goal they intend to fulfill. Refining these further starts with creatively looking for maybe multiple solutions.
Focus is definitely useful. Once you have come to an idea, a design of a solution, focusing on implementing the solution very much helps finishing it faster. Not switching between tasks helps you get into flow and really be productive. But if you’re still in the ideation phase, looking for new solutions, don’t restrict your mind. Try to keep an open mind.
I see a kid biking off the path, through the bushes. He reminds me to think outside conventions.