Stuck on a straight road

Last month was a tough one. It started out so well. I had three whole weeks of creative work planned – a new initiative to pour myself into, something that I'm SO excited about working on and really want to get started on! But my schedule got hijacked, as it sometimes can, and the desk time I was craving looked very different than my plan.

That kind of disruption in itself is challenging for a planner like me, any day of the week.

Photo © brewbooks, Flickr CC

Photo © brewbooks, Flickr CC

But it wasn't the diary hijack that tripped me up this time. Not truly. It was my brain – my pre-frontal cortex (PFC) to be precise.

Derailment in action

With limited time at my desk to do the creative work I had planned, the time I did have was high stakes. Lots to achieve, deadlines to hit, people waiting on my output. A great backdrop for creativity? Not so much.

The more I tried to focus, the harder it became to be creative. Insights stopped flowing. Ah-ha moments dried up.

If I had needed decisions, goals, direction, I would have sailed through. Logic, drive, I had it in spades. But creativity escaped me, and the more I strived, the more I found myself at a loss to find any really new ways of doing things.

The neurology of creativity

Although the pre-frontal cortex is great at overcoming the fear-response that the limbic system creates – and the right part of the brain to know how to manage when we need to focus and make decisions that aren't driven by fear – when the PFC is in charge we are all about control, not newness or creative ideas. Other (less explored) areas of the brain provide creativity and new ideas. They produce insights.

So while I focused on my new initiative with every ounce of energy I had, those insights didn't flow. And that's a really normal state for any of us when we have a hard focus on something. Instead, they happen when we're in an 'alpha state' – semi-resting; the kind of half-awake, half-asleep state you might experience in the shower. Caffeine definitely doesn't help!

If you're focused and intent on coming up with ideas, you're actually cutting off the apparently unrelated concepts and tangents than can provide some of our most fruitful and innovative ideas. You're keeping yourself on a metaphorical straight road. No deviations. No points of interest. Blocking insights and ah-ha moments that are 'off the beaten track'. You're missing out on new possibilities.

The fix

In case I sound like I'm some kind of wannabe neuroscience expert, I'm not; I'm an enthusiastic novice at best, and I'll happily admit that a lot of what I've read and watched baffles me. I'm still fascinated, though, by the exploration, particularly where neuroscience and coaching is concerned. And my eager investigation has led me to discover a super-simple self-management tool that I've started using to rest my tired pre-frontal cortex, when creativity feels blocked.

To switch off my logic, and tap into the other parts of the brain that provide creativity and new ideas, I simply close my eyes. Just for a few seconds.

It's a tried-and-tested tool for coaches the world over, to help clients get out of their head and operate from their 'heart space' instead. But finding the science behind it is thrilling to me, and has somehow turned a 'woo-woo' approach into a logical must-use tool.

Just a few moments with your eyes closed, setting other thoughts aside, are enough to let the PFC rest and allow you to access other thoughts from less conscious areas of the brain. By closing your eyes you block out the visual processing part of the brain, and allow yourself to 'stand back' from the thing you're focusing on. Other parts of the brain kick in, even in 10 seconds.

There's a massive amount more to it, obviously. But this baby step in self-management is a great beginning. If you're as fascinated by neuroscience as I am, and want the real science, take a look at some of the brain-blowing TED talks I've watched here.

Over to you

How often do you let your mind rest in an alpha state? Do you find you get blocked from being creative? Or maybe you have the opposite problem, and struggle with decision making and focus?  Come over to twitter, let us know.

Time to take stock?

If you need some support with your creativity, or in standing back from the things you're focusing on in order to tap into new insights, a Take Stock call could be the tool you need to help you find clarity and objective insight. You'll be paired up with one of our team of talented coaches, who have bags of experience helping senior executives turn indecision into clarity and calm action. We'd love to schedule you in!

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