The power of doing nothing


There’s a story about an agency boss who was strolling the creative corridors one day and noticed all the creatives were not actually working but staring out the window, flicking through magazines or playing scrunched-up-paper-bin-basketball.

He immediately returned to his desk and had his secretary type a memo.

It read : “Dear creatives, please don’t spend all morning looking out of the window, you’ll have nothing left to do this afternoon”

It has always been a source of frustration to non-creatives to see us sitting about with our feet on the desk not actually working. But what does creative work look like?

Personally I like to sit at a desk and think about a problem, surf the internet, flick through some magazines and sometimes an idea will pop up.  Badly formed and shapeless perhaps, but I can usually eek it out in to something workable.

But mostly I find ideas sort of simmer to the top like frozen peas in boiling water, once I have turned the gas on.

Because the subconscious is a powerful part of the process.

Everyone has ideas, the trick is recognising them as nutritious and harvesting them before they fall like sand through your fingers, like that…er…metaphor.

You know when you’re trying to remember the name of that guy who played the dad in Home Alone? Next time don’t Google it. Just forget about it and a name will soon pop in to your head without warning like a sort of brain burp.

John Heard.

Well, whadaya know.

There are many well-known examples of brilliant ideas that came to people “out of nowhere”, from Archimedes in his bath, to Newton in his Lincolnshire garden and Paul McCartney who woke one morning having composed the tune for “Yesterday” in his sleep.


Brent Coker, who studies online behavior at the University of Melbourne in Australia, found that people who engage in “workplace Internet leisure browsing” are about 9 percent more productive than those who don’t.

You see, reading this blog really is helping.

Last year, Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara published a study called Inspired by Distraction. It concluded that “engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.”

wooden spoon

Hmm, that smokers club outside the front door could be good for your creativity after all.

Schooler gave participants a series of “unusual uses tasks” (UUTs), which asked them to invent as many different uses as they could for a mundane object. The more original the responses, the more creativity they were demonstrating. After performing a baseline test, participants were divided into groups and given different 12-minute “incubation” periods. These consisted of either a demanding memory task, an undemanding memory task that allowed for mind-wandering, or total rest.

A fourth group had no ‘incubation interval’ at all.

Then all four groups were presented with more UUTs, which involved at least one object from the first round. The group that had been given a non-demanding incubation task showed the most-improved UUT scores.

Of course, in the eighties that ‘incubation interval’ was called lunch.

For all you millennials, it was a sort of ‘break in the middle of the day’ ( I know, right?) where you would venture out from your desk and even meet colleagues in local pubs or restaurants (a bit like a Starbucks with beer) to discuss topics that weren’t related to ‘ideation’ or ‘brand strategy”…and no they weren’t ‘brainstorms’.

They were almost a complete waste of time. (Ok, they were similar to brainstorms)

Personally I hope international airlines keep WiFi out of planes, a few hours being able to watch some movies and read a book without fear of disturbance is not just a highlight of the journey in entertainment terms but it has a powerful replenishing effect. I always feel rather sorry for those people who immediately get their laptops out and start tapping away.

Even though I know I probably should too, I feel like looking up from the movie and saying…hey, this is working too, hotshot!

Even if you’re not a ‘creative’ person, doing nothing can be the best option.

So, dear reader, next time you are struggling to come up with an idea for a drug that treats Ulcerative Colitis or Psoriasis or bladder issues, ignore Nike and just don’t do it.

It might be the inspiration you are looking for.



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