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Creativity, Part 2 - Play and Procrastinate
This ongoing series aims to make sense of (and harness) our imagination. The first article titled “Creativity, Part 1 – Foundations” explored creativity’s underpinnings by being made in God’s image. This second article will review some proven methods to help anyone achieve their highest quality inventiveness. John Cleese’s aptly titled book Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide will be our focus, giving two applications which have been immensely helpful to me.
MacKinnon’s Hierarchy of Needs
In Creativity, Cleese pulled from his decades as a comedian and writer, sharing funny and thought provoking applications to exercise innovation. But he also compiled a lot of research, which gives his words a valuable backbone. One of the most important things found in Cleese’s research was the work of a researcher.
Interested in architects’ ability to create functional projects, psychologist Donald MacKinnon asked the most creative and uncreative architects what they did from the moment they got up until they went to bed. He came up with only two differences. The best creative architects did both of these equally well: (1) played with ideas, and (2) delayed decision making as long as possible. To be clear, both are positive and not competing ideas. Let’s see how both can be applied to our lives.
Seriously Playing Around
MacKinnon defined “play” as the ability to get enjoyably absorbed in a puzzle: not just to solve it in order to move on to the next problem, but to become really curious about it for its own sake. Cleese describes new ideas and true creativity happening subconsciously. Because new strands of creativity don’t happen in analytical patterns, we can’t apply rational rules and expectations to them. We have to be willing to play and speak in the language of the subconscious in order to make sense of the weird stuff that will pop into our minds. More on that in a minute.
We must set aside time to play, forget everything else, and allow ourselves to work on a problem. And this isn’t just about glaringly obvious “creative” tasks. Remember my definition of creativity is “problem-solving.” Playing can be for any problem, say painting a room, properly graphing data, an important conversation with your boss, buying a gift. Personally, I play in a variety of ways.
When I have a spark of an idea I want to trap it like Peter Pan capturing his shadow. And I need to see how far it will go. That may mean working through it by recording a voice memo on my phone or writing it down by hand or typing it up or using speech to text. But it’s not about the method – it’s about exploring the idea wherever it leads. Being carefree and making your own rules.
I may know part of my creative thought is dumb and I’ll never use it but to keep the flow, to keep playing, I explore everything. No dumb ideas. Except there are dumb ideas, but they often lead to really good ones. However, whatever problem you’re solving, the worst thing is to be distracted.
Psychologists say it takes twenty minutes after a distraction to re-focus your brain back to what you were doing. Creative time must be considered of utmost importance, treated with respect by you and those around you. There is a clear distinction between “play” and “distraction.” “Play” is good, “distraction” is bad. Don’t forget: “play” is the ability to get enjoyably absorbed in a puzzle, but you’re still focused on the problem. A distraction removes your focus from the problem.
Play without distraction is clearly important but how long should we problem solve? Should we use the first thing that comes to mind? Should we attempt to play forever?
For Best Results: Procrastinate
Since creativity is essentially problem-solving; when we rush to an answer it may be a suitable solution (often it isn’t) but it will never be the most creative. Ideas get better with time. So I give you permission to dawdle. “Procrastination” here is waiting until the last possible minute to submit your project.
Cleese addresses the stigma of deferring decisions: it doesn’t mean good creatives are indecisive, they can just tolerate the vague discomfort of leaving an important decision open. First, figure out the deadline, then wait because (1) “You may get new information” and (2) “You may get new ideas.”
New information and new ideas are where the value lies in procrastination. For us punctual planners: it does not mean we ever miss a due date. It means we let that slightly uncomfortable feeling of having a project hanging over our heads go as long as possible in order to think on and use the most creative components. And these things can only happen over time.
Going back to the idea that creativity doesn’t follow logical patterns, regarding our tendency to hurry, Cleese warns,
When we are trying to be creative, there’s a real lack of clarity during most of the process. Our rational, analytical mind, of course, loves clarity – in fact, it worships it. But at the start of the creative process things cannot be clear. They are bound to be confusing. If it’s a new thought, how can you possibly understand it straight away? …It’s therefore really important that you don’t rush. Let these new notions of yours slowly become clearer, and clearer, and clearer.
It can be validating to hear someone of Cleese’s caliber acknowledge lack of clarity as well as promises of certainty over time. Procrastination has been vilified for so long it’s hard to see it not only as a gift of time but really as a necessary component to quality ingenuity.
Just One More Minute…Pleeeaase?
Creativity may be an unruly beast but working at play and procrastination will help us tame it. Understanding that creativity doesn’t follow logical patterns may take us some time to comprehend, but giving ourselves permission to play allows us the freedom to see marked growth in the quality of our creativity. And once we’ve played, we may find the solutions behave more logically. Regardless, procrastinating and giving ourselves the maximum amount of time ensures superior creativity. So start working hard at playing and hurry up and procrastinate!