The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

Woman in hammockI read an article in the New York Times today about “niksen” which is a Dutch word meaning doing nothing. The article talks about how doing nothing can be good for you.

Ironically the article touts the idea of doing nothing so that you can be more productive. Which to me would mean you are doing nothing so that you can be better at doing something else. This does fit with the science of how the brain works, and how creativity works. (I’ve made an entire online video course on the topic). When you give your Executive Attention Network a break by not thinking or focusing on anything in particular, that frees up your Imagination Network (I know, I know, but this is actually the name given to this brain network by scientists) to work on solving problems and coming up with new ideas based on what you were concentrating on before. So it is true that if you take a break and stare into space for a while that will help you come up with ideas and problem solutions.

But doing nothing so you can then be better at doing something seems to run counter to the idea of niksen. What about doing nothing so that you just do nothing?

I’ve been teaching an 8-week Mindfulness Meditation course once or twice a year at my local yoga studio (a wonderful place called 5 Koshas in Wausau Wisconsin). The 8 week class includes homework, such as practicing the meditation we learned in class that week every day at home and so on. It’s a pretty intensive class. 

The last time I taught it I added to the homework. I asked students to practice 5 minutes a day of niksen. I asked them to sit in nature or stare out their window, or sit in their comfy chair at home and look at the fire in the fireplace, or just stare into space. This was the one thing I got push back on.  They were willing to practice meditation for 20 minutes every day, but to sit and do nothing for 5 minutes? “I don’t have time to do that” was the typical answer. “I have responsibilities, children, work…”.

I’m not disputing that they are busy people. I get it. I remember when I had two young children at home. But the vehemence with which they fought this idea seemed out of proportion with what I was asking them to do. 

I think the real reason for the resistence is that many of us have created a “busy habit”. We’re addicted to doing stuff. We have to prove something to ourselves and the world. I’m not sure what that something is, but it involves striving, being productive, being busy, working hard, playing hard. Everything has to have a purpose and be connected with a goal. Even our leisure time has to be busy, busy, busy.  Even our “down” time has to be filled with all the ways we are making ourselves better. We need to be learning to play piano, getting more exercise, learning how to make wine and so on.

I’m glad that the New York Times wrote about niksen. I hope this idea becomes more mainstream. I’ve always loved doing nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as ambitious as the next person. I write books and run a business. I compose music and grow an extensive garden. I teach meditation classes and organize my photos. But I also love to sit in one place and just look around me and do nothing at all. Maybe now my seeming “laziness” will become smart and trendy. 

If you haven’t tried out niksen lately I highly recommend you do so. It’s easy. Sit down somewhere and don’t do anything. Don’t bring your phone, or a book, or someone to talk to, or a podcast to listen to. Don’t try and take a nap. Just sit and stare or look around you lazily. You might like it.



The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #116 — Everyone Can Be Creative


picture of man with artist paints all over his handsCreativity isn’t a trait that some people have and others don’t. Before I explain why that’s true, let me first define what I mean by creativity. If one hundred people looked at the same abstract painting by Jackson Pollock, many of them might say, “Oh, that artist is really creative,” but not everyone. If one hundred people watched the TV series So You Think You Can Dance, many of them might say, “The dancers are creative,” or “The choreographers are creative.” If one hundred people listened to music by Philip Glass, some might say, “That composer is creative.”

What if one hundred people went to a fashion show? Would everyone say that the clothing designers are creative? Or what if they saw a graffiti artist’s work on a wall—would they say that the artist is creative? What about people who design technology? Are they creative?

There are many possible definitions of creativity. We probably won’t agree entirely on the definition or on the results. However, here’s a definition I’ve put together that I find descriptive and useful:

Creativity is the process of generating new ideas, possibilities, or alternatives that result in outcomes that are original and of value.

Here’s why I like this definition:

  • Process—The word “process” is in the definition. So, creativity isn’t a trait that some people have and other people don’t. There’s actually a creative process that you can follow.
  • Outcomes—Just doing the process isn’t necessarily being creative. If you follow a creative process, and by doing so you end up with something, that’s an outcome. Being creative means that you have something when you’re done.
  • Original—The definition includes the word “original.” Being creative isn’t just copying what somebody else did. When you’re creative, you end up with something unique.
  • Value—When you’re creative, the outcome is of value to someone. It doesn’t have to be of value to everyone, but it has to be of value to someone.

Even with this definition, we may not necessarily agree on who’s creative and who’s not. But the definition gives us a place to start talking about creativity, and a way to evaluate whether or not a particular activity is creative.

Myths about creativity

Let’s clear up some myths about creativity:

  1. Some people are “naturally” creative and other people aren’t. It’s true that some people spend more time in creative activity than others. But brain science is clear about the fact that there are creative brain states that can be turned on by some fairly simple actions. This means that everyone can learn how to be more creative.
  1. Creativity means creating “works of art.” Being creativity doesn’t equate only with creating fine art, such as painting a landscape or writing a symphony. There are many ways to be creative, and creating works of art is just one way. Creativity includes many things, for example, cooking, programming, interface design, and problem solving.
  1. Some people are left-brained (analytical) and others are right-brained (creative). My PhD research was on the right and left halves of the brain, so I can get pretty involved in a conversation about the subject. The human brain has two hemispheres: the left and the right. It’s a common misconception that the left side of the brain is all about being logical and analytical and rational, and the right side of the brain is all about being intuitive and creative. That description is not accurate.

There definitely are two sides to the brain—the left and the right—and it’s true that there are some brain structures on one side that aren’t on the other. For instance, the ability to speak and to understand language is on the left, and some spatial awareness is on the right. However, it’s simplistic to say that when you listen to music, you’re listening to it only with the right side of your brain. Even people who don’t play an instrument show activity on both sides of the brain when listening to music. (Although those who play an instrument show more activity in more areas of the brain than those who don’t.) It’s simplistic to say that the right side is the creative side.

The corpus callosum is a bundle of nerve fibers that connects the left and right halves of the brain. Information (nerve impulses) passes through the corpus callosum very quickly. So even if something started on one side of the brain, it doesn’t stay there very long.

When people say “I’m a left-brained person” or “I’m a right-brained person,” they’re actually not referring to sides of the brain. They’re referring to styles of thinking, learning, or processing information. There are different ways to process information, but they don’t correspond to specific halves of the brain.

Hopefully this debunks some of the myths about creativity.

If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.

The Brain Science Of Why Stepping Away Increases Creativity

Drawing of the brain

We’ve all had the experience: You’re trying to solve a problem or come up with a new idea. You’ve been sitting at your desk, or discussing it in meetings, but you haven’t come up with a solution or the right idea. Then you step away — go for a walk, go to lunch, weed the garden, wash the dishes, or go to sleep. And then, suddenly you get an “a ha” moment and the answer or new idea comes to you in a flash. Why does that happen?

It has to do with how your brain works. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is in the front of your head (think forehead). The role of the PFC (among many things)  is to concentrate on the task at hand, as well as to go searching for existing information you have stored in memory, and combine it with other existing information you have stored. It is this searching and combining of the PFC that allows you to solve problems and come up with new and novel ideas. Here’s the rub — If you keep your PFC too focused on the “task at hand” then it can’t go searching for interesting combinations of information you have stored in memory. When you take a break (the walk, the garden, the shower, the dishes) then your PFC is freed up to go searching and combining. So if you need to solve a problem or want a new idea, let your PFC know what you want to solve and then take a step away and take a break!

What do you think? Have you experienced the power of stepping away?

Want more information like this? Then check out our two Creativity courses. One is an online video course and the other is an in-person workshop on April 9 in Chicago IL.

The Art & Science Of Creativity

The Art & Science Of Creativity SlideI’m really excited to announce that my newest online video course, The Art And Science Of Creativity is now live on Udemy.

How many times have you heard that certain people are just “born creative,” and certain people “aren’t.” It’s not true. Creativity is a process with clearly defined steps that you can learn and apply towards ANY project. Using techniques taken from brain science to rocket science, you’ll learn that everyone, including you, is born creative. If you think of yourself as creative already, this course will make you more efficient and productive with your creativity. If you think of yourself as one of the “not creative” people, this class will show you that you ARE creative, and how to bring that creativity to fruition.

The course teaches a creative process: from coming up with an initial idea, unpacking and expanding upon it, to shaping and refining it, the seven key principles of creativity – principles that apply whether you are working by yourself or as part of a team, the common roadblocks to creativity, and the remedies to get you through these roadblocks if and when they occur, so you can move forward on your project.

And in the course we talk about the brain science of the unconscious, how it applies to creativity, and how to give your brain the right data it needs to figure out the problem or next course of action, even when you are not consciously working on it.

Here’s the opening lesson: 


Go to the Udemy page for more information, to register for the course, or preview more videos.

We are offering a special price ($89, more than 50% off) if you register by March 3, 2014 and use the coupon code: VIPEntry

Instead of teaching this one by myself, I’ve got a co-instructor, Sam Spitzer. Sam is a rocket scientist, inventor, and composer. He’s very creative! I think you will enjoy learning from the two of us together.



100 Things You Should Know About People: #57 — There Are 4 Types Of Creativity


Have you heard someone say, “Oh, John – he’s so creative! I wish I was creative like that.” It makes it sound as if creativity is a natural skill or talent, like the ability to sing or paint. Other times people say “I’m going to a seminar to learn how to be more creative.” That makes it sound as if creativity is a skill that anyone can learn. So, which is it? Well, kind of both and kind of neither.

Four Types of Creativity — Arne Dietrich (2004) identifies 4 different types of creativity with corresponding different brain activities. Think of it like a matrix:

Matrix of 4 types of creativity
The Creativity Matrix

Creativity can be either emotionally or cognitively based, and it can also be spontaneous or deliberate. That gives you the four quadrants.

#1: Thomas Edison — Deliberate and cognitive creativity is the kind of creativity that comes from sustained work in a discipline. For example, Thomas Edison, the inventor of the electric light bulb, was a deliberate and cognitive creator. He ran experiment after experiment before he would come up with an invention. In addition to the light bulb, Thomas Edison also invented the phonograph, and the motion picture camera. One of his famous quotes is:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #57 — There Are 4 Types Of Creativity”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #39 — Your Mind Wanders 30% of the Time

Photo by Dave Grave*

You are at work reading a report that one of your colleagues has written and you realize that you’ve just read the same sentence about three times. Instead of thinking about what you were reading, your mind wandered.

Mind wandering is similar to, but not the same thing as daydreaming. Psychologists use daydreaming to refer to any stray thoughts, fantasies, or stories you imagine, for example, winning the lottery, or being a famous celebrity. The term mind wandering is more specific, and refers to when you are doing one task and then fade into thinking about something that is not related to that task.

Mind wandering is a very common phenomena – We underestimate our mind wandering; according to Jonathan Schooler of UC, Santa Barbara, we think our minds are wandering about 10% of the time, when it is actually much more. In normal every day activities our mind is wandering up to 30% of the time, and in some cases, for instance when driving on an uncrowded highway, it might be as high as 70%.

Wandering minds annoy some neuroscientists – Some neuroscientists became interested in studying wandering minds because they were such an annoyance while doing brain scan research. The researchers would have subjects do a certain task, for example, look at a picture, or read a passage, while scanning for brain activity. About 30% of the time they would get extraneous results which did not seem to be related to the task at hand. That’s because the subject’s mind was wandering from the task at hand. Eventually the researchers decided to start studying the wandering rather than just getting annoyed by it.

Why a wandering mind can be a good thing – Mind wandering allows one part of the brain to focus on the task at hand, and another part of the brain to keep a higher goal in mind. So you are driving and paying attention to the road, but you are also thinking about when you should stop for gas. Or you are reading an article online about a thyroid medication called Synthroid that your doctor thinks you should take, but your mind wanders to the idea that you should put that salon appointment on your calendar. Mind wandering might be the closest thing we have to multi-tasking. It’s not really multi-tasking, (which doesn’t exist…you can see my previous blog post on that), but mind wandering does allow you to keep important goals in mind while doing one thing.

Why a wandering mind can be a bad thing – Much of the time when our mind wanders we aren’t aware of it. More “zoning out” than “mind wandering”, this means that we can miss important information. For example, if you are supposed to be reading that report from your colleague, but you are instead thinking about what to make for dinner, that may just mean you are being unproductive. We aren’t usually aware when we are zoning out.

More mind wandering = more creativity – The researchers at UC, Santa Barbara have evidence that people whose mind wanders a lot are more creative and better problem solvers. Their brains have them working on the task at hand, but simultaneously processing other information, and making connections.

Mind wandering and the internet – I’ve been thinking about the fact that the ability to quickly switch from topic to topic is what the web does really well.  Is web surfing related to mind wandering? Here are some of my mind wanderings on this topic:

  • Do we like web surfing because it enables this type of wandering?
  • Rather than designing web sites to try and hold people’s attention should we design to encourage wandering?
  • Should we build in feedback about the wandering so that it is easier to get people back to the original thought?

What do you think?

If you like to read research:

Christoff, et. al., Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, May 11, 2009.

Mason, et. al., Wandering Minds: The default network and stimulus-independent thought. Science, January 19, 2007.

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In The Zone: 10 Characteristics of the Flow State

Picture of singerHave you ever been in a flow state? You are engrossed in some activity; maybe it is something physical like rock climbing or skiing; maybe it is something artistic or creative, like playing the piano or painting, or maybe it is an everyday activity, like working on a powerpoint presentation or teaching a class… whatever the activity you become totally engrossed, totally in the moment. Everything else falls away, your sense of time changes, and you almost forget who you are and where you are. You are in the flow state.

The man who wrote the book on Flow is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s been studying the flow state around the world for many years.  Here are some facts about the flow state, the conditions that make it occur and what it feels like:

You have very focused attention on your task – The ability to control and focus your attention is critical.  If you get distracted by anything that is outside of the activity you are engaging in, the flow state will dissipate.

You are working with a specific, clear, and achievable goal in mind – Whether you are singing, fixing a bike, or running a marathon, the flow state comes about when you have a specific goal. You then keep that focused attention and only let in information that fits with the goal. The research shows that you need to feel that you have a good chance of completing the goal in order to get into, and hold onto, the flow state. If you think you have a good chance of failing at the goal, then the flow state will not be induced. And, conversely, if the activity is not challenging enough, then you won’t hold attention on it and the flow state will end.

You receive constant feedback – In order to stay in the flow state you need a constant stream of information coming in that gives you feedback as to the achievement of the goal.

You have control over your actions – Control is an important condition of the flow state. You don’t necessarily have to be in control, or even feel like you are in control, but you do have to feel that you are exercising significant control in a challenging situation.

Time changes – Some people report that time speeds up — that they look up and hours have gone by. Others report that time slows down.

The self does not feel threatened – In order to enter a flow state your sense of self and survival cannot feel threatened. You have to be relaxed enough that you can engage all of your attention onto the task at hand. In fact, most people report that they lose their sense of self when they are absorbed with the task.

The flow state is personal – everyone has different activities that put them in a flow state. What triggers a flow state for you is different from others.

The flow state crosses cultures – So far it seems to be a common human experience across all cultures with the exception of people with some mental illnesses People who have schizophrenia, for example, have a hard time inducing or staying in a flow state, probably because they have a hard time with some of the other items above, such as focused attention, control, or the self feeling threatened.

The flow state is pleasurable – People like being in the flow state.

The pre-frontal cortex is involved – I’ve been trying to find research on the brain correlates of the flow state. So far the research seems slim (if you know of any, please pass it on to me). From what I have read it seems that the pre-frontal cortex is very involved. That would not be a surprise, since the pre-frontal cortex is all about focused attention. Some researchers suggest that dopamine may be involved as well, but there isn’t exact research on that.

Recently I experienced a flow state. I was teaching an Insight Improv workshop. This is a workshop where we use theatre techniques to have people learn and experience insights into their own behavior, the behavior of others, how to communicate and express yourself, and build a strong team. And during the workshop I realized that I was “lost” (but in a good way). I was totally engrossed in the workshop, time had stopped, and I was enjoying myself tremendously (as were the workshop participants).

I’ve decided I want to spend more time in the flow state, especially at work, and I want to help other people experience the flow state as well.  I have some ideas about how to do this, and I’ll be writing more about the flow state (and how I plan to achieve it more!), in upcoming blogs. (If you want to schedule an Insight Improv Workshop for your group email me at:

In the meantime, write in and tell me about some of your experiences with the flow state.

And if you’d like to read more:

Flow: The psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990.


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Sometimes The Best Idea Is To Steal One

bottle of Method laundry detergentWhat do rolling luggage and Method laundry detergent have in common? Bear with me while I tell some stories, and I’ll explain.

The Mayans had wheeled toys, but not wheeled tools — I’m listening to a Financial Markets course by Robert Shiller from Yale. In one of the lectures, Professor Shiller talks about the Mayan culture. When the Spanish came to the New World in the 16th century they were impressed with the Mayan culture, for example, the buildings of the Mayans, and the Mayan calendar, which was more accurate than the calendar used in Europe at the time. But they noticed that the Mayans did not have any wheeled tools — no carts, no wagons, not even a potter’s wheel. Interestingly, the Mayans did know about wheels. Archeologists have found many wheeled pull toys, for example, animals made of fired clay that stand on a platform with four wheels, and a string around the neck. So the wheel existed, but not for a utilitarian purpose. here’s a picture of an early Mayan toy with wheels.

Picture of a mayan toy

The invention of rolling luggage — Professor Shiller goes on to talk about rolling luggage carts. Luggage itself has been around for a long while. First there were large “steamer” trunks that were used on ocean voyages, and then later on many variations of suitcases. Wheels have been around for a long time, yet like the Mayans, no one had thought to put wheels on luggage. The first time that someone married wheels and luggage was 1973! Robert Plath, a pilot, is often credited for creating wheeled luggage in 1988. Though he is the one who created the rolling luggage that we are all used to these days, Bernie Sadow was actually the first person to put wheels on luggage. Bernie’s rolling luggage is different from the carry-ons we use today, but he was the first (and he has a patent to prove it). And if you want to get picky, a man named Denton Chester Crowl In the early 1900’s invented a set of wheels that could be attached to luggage temporarily. Here’s a picture of one of Bernie’s  versions of  luggage with wheels.

Picture of Bernie Sadow's rolling luggage

Innovation is all around us — Professor Shiller’s point is that there are always new inventions in any field. Even when we think we are quite advanced, we can assume that there will be more innovation and inventions. I think the key is to be willing to steal ideas. In other words, look around at what works in one arena, and figure out how to apply that existing idea to the design of something new in your field.

Where the laundry detergent fits in — In a more recent example, Method One has recently come out with laundry detergent. I use liquid laundry detergent (Purex is the brand I’ve been using for at least 15 years or maybe more). The typical liquid laundry detergent bottle is large and clunky. You take off the lid, then pour detergent in the lid as a measuring device, pour the liquid from the lid onto your clothes, and then replace the lid. It kind of works, but you always end up with a sticky mess on the outside of the bottle, as the liquid drips down the side. Method One is different. They took the pump dispenser used in other products (think window cleaner or hand soap dispenser) and put it on a small, sleek bottle of laundry detergent. You just press down 3 or 4 times and out comes the correct amount of laundry detergent. Small, easy to handle, no mess.

What do you think? — Have you ever had a design problem that you were stuck on? Did you try looking around you to see if there was a design from another object that you could use to get unstuck?


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5 Steps to More Creativity Using Brain Science

Want to be more creative? Whether you are an artist, writer, scientist, web designer, marketer, sales person or business executive, being more creative means you’ll come up with more and better ideas and have more fun while you are doing it.

If you want to have more creative ideas you need to work with, not against, the part of your brain that comes up with ideas: the pre-frontal cortex. This part of the brain focuses on finding answers and solutions. It combines separate ideas from the rest of your brain and makes connections between them. But the pre-frontal cortex has some interesting and idiosyncratic ways of working, so there are things you can do that help it do its work, and things that hinder. Below are 5 things you can do to help the pre-frontal cortex, and thereby help you be more creative:

1.Find “your spot” and go there: In order for the pre-frontal cortex to connect up different ideas in your brain, and come up with that great creative idea, it has to be quiet, still, focused and not distracted. This means you have to be doing an activity that does not require much conscious thought. Everyone has a certain activity/place that is where they get their most creative ideas. For me it is water… if I am in the shower, or washing dishes, or swimming laps my mind kind of “spaces out” and then all these creative ideas pop in. For some people it is when they are going for a walk, for others when they are gardening, or in bed about to fall asleep… Figure out the activity/spot where your creative ideas come to you and then make sure you do that activity regularly.

2. Forget about it: In order for the pre-frontal cortex to work you have to consciously forget about the “thing” that you are trying to be creative about… So if you are trying to solve a business problem, come up with a new design for a web page, or decide what to write in your blog, the best thing to do is to forget about it entirely. This allows time for your pre-frontal cortex to go combing around your brain for ideas. If you stay focused on the question and keep mind chatter going on about it, then the pre-frontal cortex will be too distracted to go solve the problem.

3. Give yourself time: You will need to be patient. You will need the time to forget. So give yourself enough “elapsed” time… you will need at least a couple of hours and sometimes days or weeks to come up with creative ideas. The more you let go and the more you go to your “spot” the faster the creative process will happen. Similarly, if you want others to come up with creative ideas you can’t just say, “Quick, I need an idea about XXX!” and expect them to have a good answer. The pre-frontal cortex needs time.

4. Work with others: Multiple pre-frontal cortices are better than one! Give the whole team the problem or issue you are trying to solve, then let each person (each pre-frontal cortex) have time to work on it alone. Then bring the team together and let them share their ideas. And then take some more time to let the pre-frontal cortex absorb the ideas from the group. Then bring the team back and you will have some truly great creative solutions.

5. Act on your ideas: When I’m in the shower I get some really great ideas. The trick is getting them written down as soon as I get dried off! and then acting on them. Don’t forget to follow through.

P.S. I had the idea for this blog on creativity… you guessed it, in the shower!

Photo: Creative Commons,