A Lack of Focus Can Boost Your Creativity

How the right distraction can make you more creative.

Itxy Lopez
Sep 18, 2019 · 5 min read

No matter what our careers are, the number one thing we tend to work on is improving our focus and removing distractions. We’re obsessed with this area of productivity.

However, as a writer, my top priority is to be creative. Whether you dance, teach, or start businesses, coming up with new ideas and being innovative should be one of your top priorities too.

The issue is that, sometimes, the very thing we’re trying to improve (focus) ends up being the reason we get stuck on a problem. Through striving hard to pay attention to one thing, we end up constricting our creativity.

In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer says that being unfocused and distracted — to a certain extent — can boost creativity levels.

To prove his point, he shares a study that two neurologists conducted at Harvard and the University of Toronto.

“The researchers began by giving a sensory test to eighty-six Harvard undergraduates,” Lehrer wrote. “The test was designed to measure their ability to ignore outside stimuli, such as the air conditioner humming in the background or the conversation taking place in the nearby cubicle.”

In other words, the neurologists wanted to test their subject’s focus and whether they could concentrate on the task at hand despite any distractions.

The researchers were astonished by the results.

Lehrer writes, “Those undergrads who had a tougher time ignoring the unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as ‘eminent creative achievers.’”

Lehrer explains that the reason those who were distracted were more creative is that by being open to what’s out in the world, they let more in.

By not focusing, we’re not stuck paying attention to what’s right in front us, but what’s all around us. What’s creativity if not curiosity?

Since you’re open to any possibility, when facing any issue, you tap into your creativity and curiosity to think up different and unique solutions. You would’ve missed them if you’d been closed off to the world.

Letting yourself get distracted keeps you open-minded, and that open-mindedness leads to high levels of creativity.

Photo by Martin on Unsplash

If you’re looking for permission to open Twitter or watch a YouTube video while working, you’re not getting it.

Social media and your phone won’t give you the type of creativity boost you’re looking for. You’ll only succeed in wasting time and getting sucked in by posts that add no value to your life.

The right kind of distraction is the outside world. When your partner strikes up a conversation while you’re in the middle of painting or your dog chases the mail-woman, those random types of distractions can lead to insights.

They’ll spark creative solutions you would’ve missed if you’d locked your door and closed the window.

One of the best types of distractions is daydreaming. In Imagine, Lehrer references the research of Marcus Raichle, a neurologist, and radiologist.

Raichle had people perform tasks, like counting a collection of dots, to study visual perception. While he switched the tasks, he asked the participants not to think about anything so they could have a blank mind.

Of course, humans are always thinking.

Raichle had no interest in studying the data of the fMRI from those in-between moments, but he decided to anyway.

He was astounded to see that the brain was overflowing with thoughts and action. Eventually, he realized what they’d been doing was daydreaming.

Lehrer states, “People had previously assumed that daydreaming was a lazy mental process, but Raichle’s fMRI studies demonstrated that the brain is extremely busy during the default state.”

He also says, “There seems to be a particularly elaborate electrical conversation between the front and back parts of the brain.” These parts of the brain don’t normally interact, so when they do as we daydream, it allows for new connections and relationships to be made.

You come up with strange ideas that end up being useful and concepts you normally would’ve missed.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

To show the power of daydreaming, Lehrer uses the example of Arthur Fry — an engineer at the fortune 500 manufacturing company, 3M.

Fry attended a Tech Forum presentation by Spencer Silver, who’d developed a weak glue that could barely hold two pieces of paper together.

Fry thought nothing of it. What could anyone do with glue that didn’t stick?

Sunday came, and Fry was in church, where he sang in the choir. During a dull sermon, Fry started daydreaming.

On Wednesday nights, the choir rehearsed. Fry would put pieces of paper in the music to mark the songs they’d sing on Sunday, like bookmarks. However, sometimes, the pieces of paper would slip out before the service, and Fry was stuck scrambling to look for the music.

He decided he needed a better bookmark.

In the middle of that daydreaming, he realized what he needed was a bookmark that stuck to the paper and wouldn’t fall out. It was then that he remembered Silvers weak adhesive that stuck to paper without truly sticking to it.

Fry started working with the glue for months until he created the perfect bookmark, which people now use for notes, reminders, and more.

He called it The Post-it note.

As you can see, being unfocused and distracted has a positive effect on creativity. This isn’t always the case, but when you find yourself stuck on a particular issue, indulge in some daydreaming.

Think about your problem, possible solutions, and when your brain starts wandering off, let it. You never know where it might lead you.

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