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.”

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