08/15/2014 03:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Is Creative Thinking The Next Big Productivity Hack?

When it comes to productivity, the last thing on most minds is "creativity".

Not surprisingly, most training for professionals in the US is focused on developing better "critical thinking" and memory skills.

Yet all great thinkers depend on another skill that isn't being taught: coming up with a great idea or question.

Coming up with a great questions and ideas is what all the great entrepreneurs, scientists and inventors have done - and it requires creative thinking.

In our rush to stay ahead of foreign competition and to raise higher-ed standards, we've continually raised the bar on analytical and memory skills - which has left virtually no time or space for students to develop or apply creative thinking.

Former scientist and professor Dr. Morgan Giddings says, "That's because creative thinking has different set of optimal conditions than the other types of thinking, and when we take those conditions away, the creative thinking goes with it." 

According to Giddings we need to pay more attention to the role of creative thought in science, engineering, and entrepreneurship.

Creative thought is at the heart of all the major advancements in fields from science to business. One big leap can far outweigh many years of hard work on smaller, less creative ideas.

In many cases, our education system has sacrificed the arts and other "softer" skills in the name of creating more time for math and reading skills. In some places, especially in the Eastern USA, there's been a dramatic reduction in "free time" that allows learners to play, think, and create.

Math and reading are important, but so are the creative skills that are engaged by the more artistic classes.

In our race to stay ahead (or in many cases, keep up with) of the Asian countries in terms of education, we've thrown our biggest competitive advantage out the window, which is our ability to be creative, flexible, and develop world-changing new ideas.

Some recent discoveries about the brain show that over-working and over-thinking shut down the part of our brain associated with creative, divergent thought.

Dr. Giddings stated, "We have a series of circuits in the brain called the Default Mode Network that appears to be an important source of creative thinking. This part of the brain only activates when we're in quiet, unfocused states, not when we're trying too much to think about a problem. It explains why so many big insights come while taking a shower or driving a car."

We can do several things to enhance our creative powers, and get more of the big breakthroughs in our business or work:

1. To stop working too hard.

When we are overloaded and overwhelmed, it leaves no room for the Default Mode Network to

2. Kick in and give us the big ideas.

Frequent breaks on a daily and weekly basis are important, and so are vacations. Many of us are overworked to the point that we are trying to compensate for lack of great ideas and focus on implementing those by sacrificing sleep and health. It is a vicious self-defeating circle.

3. To meditate and exercise regularly.

The science shows that both meditation and exercise improve brain function, with exercise improving intelligence and meditation improving mood. These activities are also frequent sources of great new creative ideas.

4. To take time out during the work day for developing "clarity."

When we don't have clarity on a project, procrastination and delay sets in. When clarity is present, it allows focus and rapid progress on a project.

Clarity is a state of creative insight that can't be readily achieved by hard work in front of a computer, but instead by old fashioned brainstorming with pen and paper, or with mind mapping software.

We have to get rid of industrial-era notions that tell us that productivity is tied to the quantity of hard work we do - that is total bunk, especially in our modern era of thinking work.

Very few of us are working on assembly lines, yet we're still using assembly-line thinking in the way most of us do productivity. It's like oil and water, they don't work together.