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Productive in Your Pajamas!



Economics professor Nick Bloom had heard the negative connotations connected to working from home for years: unfocused people dressed in their pajamas and watching television. He set out to learn if there was, indeed, a difference in productivity between working at home and in the office. His study of workers at a Chinese online travel agency showed that employees working from home were 13.5 percent more productive than their colleagues who remained in the office, equaling roughly an extra day’s worth of work per week.

Bloom, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, attributed the productivity boost to the quieter environment a home setting brings. Employees working from home also tend to work full shifts and are not impeded by time-consuming commutes.  Marily Oppezzo, who is pursuing her post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford’s Prevention Research Center, encouraged members of the audience to include a simple activity – walking – to generate their next big idea.  “Creativity,” said Oppezzo, “is a choice.”  Her research examines creativity in people performing the same mental task while sitting or walking on a treadmill. Those walking outperformed their sedentary counterparts by a 2 to 1 margin. Oppezzo then provided a simple, five-step procedure people should follow to come up with that new idea.

From Psychology Today: Spark Your Creativity in Six Steps, Peg Streep

  1. Consider your workspace. If you’re thinking that your failure to channel your inner Martha Stewart is the cause of your stall—that if only everything was elegantly in its place, you’d be more creative— think again. Kathleen D. Vohs and her colleagues decided to tackle how environments—specifically orderly and disorderly ones—influence responses and actions. They set up experiments with one very orderly room and one much more cluttered space with papers and other items scattered about. The room were identical in terms of size, light, and view, In a series of experiments, they found that while order encouraged participants to choose a healthier snack and make more generous contributions to charity, a cluttered room sparked people to come up with more creative uses for a ping pong ball and new combinations for a fruit smoothies. The researchers surmised that “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition which can produce fresh insight. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.” Again, while to those who know me this research may seem like the perfect rationalization for the welter of paper that surrounds me, you need to remember which environment is more beneficial depends on the nature of the creative challenge.
  2. Creativity.pngPrime and inspire. A body of research conducted by John A. Bargh and others has shown that humans are unconsciously influenced by primes in their environment, demonstrating, for example, that objects associated with business and capitalism (a briefcase, fancy fountain pen, a conference table and the like) made participants more competitive. Anecdotally at least, lots of self-help books advocate using certain colors to inspire, calm, and the like. (Confession: I have written about this myself.) One group of researchers specifically explored the link between the color green and creativity.  What’s particularly interesting about this research is the universality of the symbolism associated with green which is growth, life, and fertility, for reasons that are clear. (Wedding dresses, by the way, were traditionally green to convey fecundity.) This particular color begs certain broader questions, such as whether humans are hardwired to respond to green in particular ways. For example, from an evolutionary perspective, a green hillock would be a more propitious place to settle than a rocky outcropping or a desert. The symbolism runs so deep that it’s ingrained in our expressions—“greener pastures” or having a “green thumb”—so it may well be that our responses to the color green are culturally determined.  The researchers first tested the effects of green against white, by having participants look at a green or white rectangle and then perform a creativity task involving uses of a tin can. Those who glimpsed green triumphed. Then they tested green against gray, and this time the rectangle in each color had the word “Ideas” superimposed, and the creative task was to draw objects from a geometric figure. Once again, the “greens” had the creative edge. The third experiment pitted green against red (which other experiments have shown to be aversive to creativity) and gray; again, there was no contest, although red turned out not to inhibit creativity any more than gray. Finally, green was set against gray and blue. (A 2009 experiment by Ravi Mehta and Rui Zhu had shown blue to enhance creative performance when pitted against red.) This experiment found, however, that blue neither facilitated nor undermined creativity any more than gray.  So, should you paint your walls green or surround yourself with greenery? Maybe, but the evidence is clearer for the colors you should avoid if it’s creativity you’re after. One of these is certainly red, as the work of Andrew J. Elliot and others has demonstrated in studies pertaining to achievement. Their hypothesis was that red is associated with danger and failure (as in “a red mark against you” or the red pencil used for grading). It has an evolutionary context too since red is a physical warning signal; someone who is red in the face is angry, for example, and poses a potential threat. A series of experiments confirmed that seeing something red beforehand undermined performance. So while red may work in your favor if you’re courting or in other relational contexts (love, lust, and sexual readiness), it’s not your friend when it comes to creativity.
  3. Shake up your thinking. Using counterfactual thinking—envisioning the desired end you might have obtained but didn’t—and re-routing your steps this time to solve the problem or achieve the task at hand, studies show, works. Call it the “what might have been” technique. But—and it’s a big “but”—it’s not a cure-all for all creative problems as the work of Laura J. Kray and others suggests. Counterfactual thinking has you reconsidering the choices you’ve made before and that may work for creative endeavors that require analytical thinking. But, as the researchers note, it has you thinking “inside the box,” using relational thinking. That may stop you from considering other, “out of the box” alternatives which would generate a truly novel approach, as some creative projects require. Think about it.
  4. Get up and go. Yes, I mean that literally as in get out of that chair or move away from that easel or stove and take a walk. Yes, this gives credence to all those who pace and walk while they think, and those like philosopher Fredrich Nietzche who wrote. “All truly great ideas are conceived by walking.” You can walk outside under blue skies, on a treadmill in an empty room facing a blank wall, or around the mall because it’s the act of walking, not where you walk or the surrounding environment, that matters. Yes, that sounds very counterintuitive but that’s exactly what a Stanford study found—that locomotion cranks up the creative process and, to quote the authors, “improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas.” What researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz found in a series of experiments was that walking increased associative memories, which yielded more new ideas and tapped into each person’s unique network of memories; their ideas were fresher and more novel than those who sat during the experiments. The influence of walking, by the way, lasted even when the participants performed tasks sitting down after they walked.  But before you Google walking shoes, keep in mind that walking may not be a panacea for every creative challenge, as Daniel Kahneman reminds us in Thinking, Fast and Slow, even as he allows that his best “slow” thinking and ideas emerged on the long, leisurely walks he took with his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky. Not all kinds of slow thinking thrive when you’re walking, as Dr. Kahneman admits: “My experience is that I can think while strolling but cannot engage in mental work that imposes a heavy load on short-term memory.” The example he gives is that of needing to come up with an “intricate argument under time pressure.” So, in the same way that a messy space won’t always be inspirational. scratch walking when you need to really focus and concentrate and work on mental tasks that require heavy lifting.  That said, move your booty, unless you’re working on a tight argument you’ll be arguing before the Supreme Court or aiming to win the Nobel Prize as Daniel Kahneman did.
  5. 58de9e6834905.jpegStretch your imagination. Many years ago a professional cook gave me this piece of advice: “If you want to be an accomplished cook, set yourself the task of creating a meal out of the ingredients in your fridge.” What she meant was to try to see potential ingredients differently in relationship to each other. That’s exactly what a famous 1945 experiment by Karl Duncker looked at—the ability to see objects in relation as opposed to seeing them as fixed and separate. (It measured what’s called “functional fixedness.”) Participants were given a candle, a book of matches and a box of tacks. The task was to affix the candle to the wall so that wax wouldn’t drip on to the table below. People tried partly melting the candle to use the wax to stick it to the wall; others used the tacks to put the candle up. Neither worked. No, you had to be able to see the box holding the tacks as a potential candleholder, and then you had the solution in hand: tack box to wall, place candle in box, and light. That’s creativity and it’s probably how the stuffed pepper and the deviled egg came to be. Do keep in mind that this kind of re-visioning may require you to scrap whatever you’ve done and start over. That, too, is part of the creative process.
  6. Get feedback. We all love the myth of the solitary creative—the genius inventor in the basement or garage, the writer hunched over the pages, the artist in the garret— but there’s a reason books have acknowledgment pages, award winners in every field thank spouses, friends, and colleagues, and the like. It’s true that enforced collaboration, whether that’s in the 5th grade or in the workplace, has gotten a bad rep but critique is key to many creative endeavors. One study, by Gabrielle Oettingen and others, showed that positive feedback given before a creative challenge enhanced not just the person’s efforts but their creative performance as well. All of us are creative in different ways, and there’s something about the act of creation—whether that’s baking a pie, working with wood, knitting, writing a poem or painting a room in your house a new color—that feeds the mind, the heart, and soul.


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