In her book Stand Out (Portfolio, 2015), marketing and strategy consultant Dorie Clark, whose client list includes Google, Microsoft and Morgan Stanley, gives her advice on how to be recognized as an expert, regardless of your field. In the following edited excerpt, she discusses one of the biggest hurdles to cultivating good ideas: the pressure professionals face to always stay busy.
In a fast-paced society, it's hard to resist the pull of technology, or the elusive goal of in-box zero. Hold on--I need to check my messages! We can't help feeling overwhelmed at times. Deadlines loom. Emails pile up. Speeches need to be written. Some thought leaders even embrace their always-on state as a competitive advantage, but that is a mistake. It turns out that setting aside time for quiet contemplation--even just once in a while--can have a tremendously positive impact on the quality of your ideas.
A while back, when I moderated a tech conference panel discussion and asked about the possibility of social media overload, Robert Scoble responded by holding up the spare battery he carried for his smart phone, to ensure that he never ran out of power. There's no alternative to being constantly engaged, he said: get used to it. He's not alone in embracing the overload; studies have shown that professionals often feel more creative when they're facing time pressures, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile has discovered. (She's the professor that Scott Belsky of Behance sought out as a mentor).
It turns out that for most people, however, that feeling is actually an illusion. "Very high levels of time pressure should be avoided if you want to foster creativity on a consistent basis," Amabile says, because extreme stress hinders the expansive, associative thinking needed for creative insight (and can lead to burnout over time). Similarly, research by Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis shows that "unconscious thinkers"--people who are temporarily distracted--often make better decisions than "conscious thinkers" who are focused directly on a problem. The panic of a time crunch might eliminate distractions and get you through your to-do lists faster, but the quality of your work might suffer. You don't know what ideas you are missing because your brain doesn't have space for reflection.
One of the best places for creative insight is the shower, where the mindless ritual allows your brain to wander just enough to spark new insights. Early in his career, when Seth Godin was searching for the right language to describe his theory of Internet marketing, he vowed to his team one day that he wasn't going to come in the next day until he'd found a name for his idea, "even if I have to spend an hour in the shower." It worked, and he coined the now-famous term "permission marketing," the title of his popular 1999 book. "Once we had the words, it became easy," he says. "I wrote the book in six weeks."
Rose Shuman, too, was in a contemplative frame of mind when the idea for Question Box came to her. Thinking about a public call box, she wondered: what if a similar device could help connect people to the Internet? She was open enough to her surroundings to take in inspiration from what was around her. For four hours, notebook in hand, she had what she describes as a "musing session." Even Daniel Goleman of Emotional Intelligence fame stumbled upon the idea by reading a journal article--an activity that, in today's deadline-driven world, might even be called "leisurely." The Internet wasn't in widespread use back then; he wasn't clicking links to see the latest headlines or cat videos. Instead, he was digging deep and looking for new ideas.
Building time into your life for reflection is easier said than done. Many of us have tried (and failed) to set up a morning meditation routine, or have subscribed to thought-provoking magazines only to see them heaped in a pile on our desks or appear as a foreboding cascade of unread tiles on our tablets. Creating the space for quiet thought and self-care might seem unproductive, but giving yourself room to think may be your greatest competitive advantage in an increasingly frenzied world. While everyone else is reacting, you can make thoughtful, considered decisions. While everyone else is chasing the latest fad, you can look at the big picture and see where the future is going. What systems do you have in place to ensure that you can recharge and think? Each day, it could be a fifteen-minute walk after lunch. Each week, it could be a couple of hours blocked out on your schedule to muse about big-picture strategy. Each month, it could be a morning spent with your mastermind group. And each year, it could be a "reading vacation," as popularized by Bill Gates, who finds inspiration by binge-reading his way through a stack. Whatever your preferred method, find some way to give your mind the space it needs to come up with (or further develop) your breakthrough idea.
- What activities make you feel most energized or creative (exercise, meditation, brainstorming with a journal, etc.)?
- How can you build time into your schedule for that reflection? Take your calendar and start by blocking out one hour in the next week simply to think.
- What strategies will you use to tap the power of unconscious thought? Instead of sitting at your desk and pounding away at a problem, go to the gym or take a shower.
- What are you missing? At least once a day when you're out of your house or the office, make a point of noticing your surroundings. What do you see? What objects or concepts could illuminate your situation?
- What should you be reading? Make a list of newspapers, magazines, or journals you want to read regularly. Buy a subscription and make time on your calendar. Whether you read them on the exercise bike, while you're eating lunch, or just before bed, make a point to do it.
- When can you "turn off" temporarily? Even the simple act of turning off your smart phone during dinner can help you engage better in the present moment.