Linda Gorchels blogs

Creativity Killers and Defenders

We’re faced with a slew of creativity killers every day—many of our own making. Here are some of the most common ones.

Procrastination as a Creativity Killer

How often do you have great ideas you’ll get to “someday”—the infamous “tomorrow?” But then tomorrow never comes.

The hardest part of creativity is getting started. You will never get to all those books you’ve stacked, all those articles you intend to read, all those half-started projects—yet they provide a frequent excuse for procrastination. Creative people often feel they are pulled in many directions, with little chance of finishing anything. Sometimes it’s due to perfectionism. Other times it’s simply a defense mechanism. But nothing is going to change unless you change the way you think.

That means focus. That means steadfast concentration on your creative endeavor. It’s more than time management or motivation (although both are relevant and important). It’s a mindset of creative productivity. 

Brian Tracy, in Eat That Frog, recommends starting each day by determining your priorities:

“It has been said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.

Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it. It is also the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment.

The first rule of frog eating is this: If you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first.

The key word in this excerpt from Tracy’s book is ‘important.’ If you are stressed or anxious about an important task, it limits your ability to think creatively. It becomes an obstacle, a preoccupation. Your ability to lessen the obstacle will increase your ability to focus on creativity. Decide which tasks are important, AND prioritize your creative efforts.

“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.”

Bruce Lee

Distractions as a Creativity Killer

Related to procrastination are distractions because they make it easier to procrastinate. You take just a wee bit of time to check an app, respond to a text, or use technology unproductively. But do those wee bits of time generate new, original ideas?

Cell phone distractions as creativity killers

The internet is filled with stories about the value of distractions for creativity. And frankly, some can play a positive role. According to research from Northwestern University, “real-world creative achievement was associated with leaky sensory processing—or a reduced ability to screen or inhibit stimuli from conscious awareness.” In other words, distractions increased divergent thinking, often associated with creativity.

Another study from a Harvard dissertation also suggested that distractions could benefit creativity. They can provide new information to stimulate a fresh perspective. HOWEVER, that’s only part of the story. The study continued to say, “Unexpected distractions are … disruptive once the new information, relevant or not to the creative task, prompts cognitive overload.” Too many distractions—or the wrong kinds—poison resourcefulness.

Think about it. We live in an increasingly digital world. Social media, apps, and games surround us. But they can take time away from personally engaging in the play, music, and mind-wandering necessary for creativity.

The reality is, some distractions aid creativity, but too much kills it. Embrace the chaos periodically. Then give yourself solitude. Allow your mind to let ideas brew a bit. Balance mindlessness with mindfulness.

“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” 

Winston S. Churchill

Task-switching Interruptions as a Creativity Killer

What is the impact of interruptions on creativity? Sometimes they can increase divergent thinking and allow the brain to mentally rest from a task. Other times they sidetrack your brain.

It depends on the type of interruption. Is it a simple pause, or a shift away from inspired progress?

Frequent breaks—particularly when you get up and move—provide both physical and mental benefits. They help creativity when you physically stretch and reconnect with your body and mind.

Interruptions that cause you to switch to another task, on the other hand, disrupt creative flow. The energy you could have devoted to creativity evaporates. Your thoughts are diverted and it takes time to return to the original creative endeavor.

Reduce the task-switching interruptions, while allowing self-restoring ones. Give yourself a time out. Intentional breaks throughout the day can fuel your creativity. And maybe lead to your most original thoughts.

“Stop letting other people hijack your day.”

Frank Sonnenberg

Narrow-mindedness as a Creativity Killer

The inability or unwillingness to be open to new ideas—narrow mindedness—puts the brakes on creativity. Narrow-minded people cling to old ideas. They are stuck in time or worldview. They cocoon themselves in their own comfortable bubble. Data for or against a new idea comes from their selective recall.

Open-mindedness is the solution.

Scott Barry Kaufman argues that “Openness/intellect is at the core of the creative personality…. Openness is primarily associated with artistic creativity, and intellect is primarily associated with scientific creativity.

So, how can a person become more open? Absorb newness head-on.

  • Travel to cultures (international) or subcultures (domestic) different from your own.
  • Read fiction. Experience the lives and worlds of the characters. Join a book club to expand the medley of topics.
  • Humble your ego. Separate your ego from potential creative ideas. Adopt Intellectual humility—the flexibility to think differently while being willing to change if you’re wrong. Take this humility and openness self-assessment to see where you might improve.

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Exhaustion as a Creativity Killer

You need energy for creativity, energy to get out of ruts. In fact, it’s hard to identify a cognitive skill that isn’t affected by sleep deprivation. While it’s true that insights can accelerate during periods of grogginess, a Psychology Today article points out that’s not the same as not getting enough sleep.

Does this mean going without sleep boosts creativity? No. Very much to the contrary. REM sleep in particular appears to be especially important to creative thinking and inspiration. (Remember, REM is the time when we dream most actively and vividly.) You get REM in segments throughout the night, each time you move through a complete sleep cycle. But periods of REM become longer as the night progresses, and your heaviest doses occur in the last third of a night’s sleep. If you shortchange your sleep time, you risk missing out on the creativity-boosting effects of REM.

While occasional lack of sleep might help creativity, too much results in reduced judgment and poor analytical thinking.

“Sleep deprivation is the most common brain impairment.”

William C. Dement

If you want to improve your inventiveness, stop the creativity killers. Defeat procrastination by following through on priorities. Limit distractions to avoid cognitive overload. Curtail task-switching interruptions, while allowing self-restoring ones.  Crush your narrow-minded tendencies by being open to new experiences, new people, and a gentler ego. Finally, subdue exhaustion by pacing yourself and getting enough sleep.