When we think of efficiency, the first place our minds go is technology.
Tech is what has allowed us to automate, communicate, track and measure in ways that would otherwise be impossible. The obvious conclusion to follow is that technology has done wonders for our productivity — not just as human beings, but as a society.
However, it’s safe to say that the shine of emerging tech is now a bit more grounded in reality, and users are beginning to see a blind spot: there are cases wherein tech can actually be a hindrance or crutch, not a solution.
This is especially true when it comes to creative thinking, a spontaneous art that has long been praised for its sudden appearances in the minds of our world’s greatest thinkers.
When we talk about creativity, we know we are framing the unframeable.
To put a tried-and-true process to the act of “being creative” is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle.
All we know is that creative thinking requires space to unfold — not deadlines to meet or production quotas to fill.
One such creative thinker, Teresa Amabile, attempted to describe the unfolding act of creativity in her research and theoretical creative componential model. According to a paper published by Stanford University, “She claims that creativity is accessible to all individuals and is dependent on one’s social environment (e.g. organizational support), domain relevant skills, creativity relevant processes, and intrinsic task motivation (e.g. finding the task enjoyable). Extrinsic motivation or reward (e.g. monetary compensation) is detrimental to creativity and lowers intrinsic interest.”
Many would agree.
It’s safe to say that anyone with the slightest background in creative thinking, or even working within or parallel to a creative industry can recognize the spaciousness required for such ideas to arise.
Creative thinking does not often come in moments of stress or distraction — hence the jokes made about creative departments “doing nothing.” The act of creativity is an oxymoron in itself; an action and non-action, simultaneously.
But when framed in the context of today’s digital and hyper-connected society, we often fail to see ways in which technology is preventing this sort of state from ever happening.
The more we move into digital platforms, the more access we have to other more distracting mediums (like social media, email notifications, etc.).
When was the last time you went out to dinner and saw a table full of kids without iPads or iPhones in their hands?
How about teenagers walking around the mall? Are their heads up, looking around? Or are they staring at their mobile devices? What about your own kids, hanging out in the basement? What screen are they looking at, and for how long?
According to The Alberta Teachers’ Association, pretend play in the physical world has a far more valuable impact on early brain development than electronic media. This means putting the screen away and existing in the real world, wherein children can more effectively develop skills such as problem-solving, language expression, and creative thinking.
In addition, another study cited that kids ages 13 and younger spend an astonishing 30 minutes a week outside, with 8–10 year olds racking up close to 8 hours per day on some sort of electronic device.
The issue here is not so much the technology itself, but rather the opportunity to think and imagine it is distracting us from — beginning at an early age.
Applications that automate processes and make tasks easier also remove elements of problem solving.
Going back in time here, E.P. Thompson, a British historian and writer, raised this idea of clock-based time versus rhythmic time as it relates to worker productivity during the British industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries. In his research, his general point was that by operating on clock time instead of the human body’s more natural rhythmic time, it made it easier to measure profit as it relates to time invested. “Even in post-industrial economies, clock time has become indelibly associated with the capitalist urge to maximize production (Reisch 2001).”
The takeaway here is that clock time, which is the basis of all measurable productivity, is very opposite to rhythmic time, which is seen as an ebb and flow and essential to the creative process.
What has ended up happening in the workplace, then, is people have become fixated on, as E.P. Thompson would put it, “clock time results.” To the working class, it’s not so much the final product that matters, but the tangible amount of hours spent. Again, this only encourages a distracted way of thinking, forcing workers to stay tunnel-visioned on tasks and allotted time amounts, rather than having the freedom to pick their heads up and contemplate whether or not the route they are taking is actually an effective route at all.
Tech encourages the habit of “instant gratification,” which assists us when in the context of productivity, but also diminishes our patience level for the deeper thinking required to be truly creative.
The final piece to the puzzle here is the contradiction of instant gratification, a human desire that seems to have been exponentially magnified with the rise of technology.
It’s safe to say that culturally we have accepted some of the bad habits technology encourages, such as endless scrolling through our social media news feeds, or a constant checking of our email inboxes.
The cons are chalked up as the price paid to benefit from all the good that technology has welcomed into our lives.
However, the mental space required for true creative thinking exists on the opposite side of the spectrum of instant gratification. For example: while messaging applications allow us to stay connected from anywhere, they also welcome in a world of distraction.
If creative thinking requires deep thought and notifications keep us in a constant state of hyper-connectivity, then it should be more widely understood that the latter is essentially the antithesis of the former. One cannot be both hyper-connected and in deep, creative thought simultaneously.
This was summed up perfectly in 99U’s book, Manage Your Day-To-Day: Building Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind, a compilation of insight directed specifically toward the intersection of productivity and creativity. In the book, it’s said, “In a world filled with distraction, attention is our competitive advantage.”
Technology, in itself, is not bad.
It is our relationship with it, and our unintentional habit of giving away our attention, that needs work.