in conclusion

Slow Down to Think More Creatively

Mental overload squelches creative thinking BY DAN PONTEFRACT

Dan Pontefract is chief envisioner of Telus and author of “Open to Think: Slow Down, Think Creatively, and Make Better Decisions.” He can be reached at


hen we were babies, every day was an opportunity for exploration. The journey seemed endless. First, we explored our crib. Then we graduated and began to circumnavigate the floor. Eventually, we discovered that kitchen drawers were full of items to examine with our hands and mouths. As we started to walk there was more to explore: the velvety sand at the beach, the soft grass in the park, the glistening snow in a field. It was endless exploration. We were constantly learning.

We did so because we had the luxury of time. Aside from a schedule of naps and snacks, no one was telling us to complete a task by day’s end. No superiors were badgering us to “do more with less.” Every minute was not accounted for by overtaxing schedules, inane meetings or rushed deadlines. Social media was as foreign to us as those objects we popped into our mouths. We were free to think creatively and were unafraid to do so.

Today, we know there is a conflict between our desire to be explorers and the reality of being exploited. Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist at Bar-Ilan University and a professor at Harvard Medical School, found in 2016 that creative thinking is the default cognitive mode we employ when our minds are clear. However, there is a problem: The research that Bar and his peers conducted found that an occupied mind diminishes any chance for exploration. Further, our brains have become overly occupied, which is the very reason we resort to exploiting our time, not exploring it.

When our minds are overburdened with tasks or we have to put up with a high mental load, we consistently and effectively deliver what we already know. When we become too busy, we choose the predictable. As a CLO, this can have dire consequences. After all, you are responsible for your organization’s learning ecosystem. If employees are unable to learn or do not have the time to do so, where does that leave their creativity? Where does that leave the organization’s next big idea?

If our mental load exhausts us, any chance for increased creativity diminishes. Ultimately, we dull down and desensitize ourselves. It is the crux of spending more time exploring versus exploiting. The balance between reflection and taking action has never been of more significant concern.

Consider the following:

  • How do you spend your free moments?
  • How often do you fill moments of free time aimlessly scrolling through social media?
  • Even when you do have free time, are you too stressed or tired to think creatively?
  • How much time do you dedicate to letting your mind wander?
  • How much time do you spend in meetings versus creative thinking?

An occupied mind diminishes any chance for exploration.

Now ask those same questions with your team in mind. When stress or busyness sets in at work, quality can suffer. If you (or your employees) fail to invest the time to enrich knowledge, how do you formulate new ideas? If we overprogram every second of the workday, we will eventually exhibit strain and fatigue. When we become too tense to dream and too dispirited to choose a new path, it can lead to low reflection and stagnant action. It can lead to a lack of dreaming.

Ultimately, this indifferent behavior affects creative thinking, and the consequences can be far-reaching. As Bar pointed out, “The mind’s natural tendency is to explore and to favor novelty, but when occupied it looks for the most familiar and inevitably least interesting solution.”

“Big ideas take time” was the general motto of Bell Labs and a sublime example of instituting creative thinking as an organizationwide trait, something CLOs may want to consider. Bell Labs employees were renowned for exploring their time (and creativity) when delivering such Nobel Prize–winning advances as the laser beam and the transistor.

John Maeda, former president of Rhode Island School of Design, once wrote that creativity “can be rekindled in people — all children are creative. They just lose their capability to be creative by growing up.” Truer words may never have been written. Perhaps we should look back to the days of being a baby crawling around the floor: It’s a reminder to take time to induce creative thinking, both for the health of your organization and for your professional success.