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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The Secret to Creativity and Productivity

Do you ever find yourself thinking, "Well, I could move to San Francisco, or New York, or China, or Chile! And I could work in tech, or fashion, or marketing, or something else!" while another voice in your head says, "This is my list of things to do today. I need to go buy groceries, book a bus ticket for tomorrow's trip, follow up with Joe from the conference... "

In my experience, holding these two types of thoughts—big picture ideas and day-to-day details—in my mind at the same time leads to major stress. And in a recent class on creativity, I learned why: They require different types of thinking, which come from different rhythms inside your brain. So the good news: It’s not just you.

The expansive possibilities we entertain come from what’s called “divergent thinking.” Our to-do lists, on the other hand, come from the opposite, or “convergent thinking.” As Nancy Duarte explains in her book Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, “Divergent and convergent were identified by J.P. Guilford in 1967 as two different types of thinking that occur in response to a problem. Divergent thinking generates ideas, while convergent thinking sorts and analyzes these ideas towards the best outcome.”

What does that look like practically? When you think divergently, you generate lots of possibilities. You might scribble all over a paper placemat. Or surf through favorite blogs, clicking whatever catches your eye. Or brainstorm with a friend. Or dream about where you might go next. Thinking divergently is like browsing through an all-you-can-eat buffet. You can admire all the food, but soon you have to pick a few items that fit on your plate, so you can really dig in.

When you dig in, this is convergent thinking. This means organizing, editing, getting things done. You might make a list. Or turn off your phone. Or put the article you’re writing in full-screen mode, so you can’t see anything else.

At work and in life, both types of thinking are important. Divergent thinking generates new ideas; convergent thinking transforms these ideas into concrete steps. The problem is when we try to do both at the same time—when our brain is switching back and forth between the different types of thinking, it doesn’t accomplish either particularly effectively.

Whether the challenges you deal with every day involve creative work, like design or marketing or writing, more operational work, or something else entirely, consciously separating and making time for both ways of thinking can maximize your brainpower and fuel your productivity and creativity. But of course, that can be easier said than done. So, here are a few ways I’ve found to separate divergent and convergent thinking in my day-to-day life—and keep myself better focused on the type of brainpower I’m choosing to use.

1. Give Yourself Space to Explore

Take a look at your schedule each day or week. If most of your day is spent “getting things done,” that’s a good sign you need to carve out some time for divergent thinking. So do yourself a favor and schedule it: Plan time to step away from the computer and mind-map your ideas for a new project, go for a walk outside, or read a book on an unfamiliar topic. It’s important to do this every day, for at least 20 minutes or so, to give your brain space to create new possibilities. Try to minimize distractions that might send you into get-it-done mode. And write down everything that comes to mind.

2. When it’s Time to Converge, Make it Your Mantra

Once I’ve collected a wide variety of ideas, or need to get started on my to-do list, I say to myself, “Now it’s time to converge on this assignment.” (Yes, in the same voice a preschool teacher might use to direct kids to line up for snack.) Sometimes I’ll even write this message on a Post-It and put it next to my computer screen—sounds silly, but these reminders help keep me on track.

3. Separate Your Tools

You can train your brain to switch into a certain thinking mode by using different tools for each divergence and convergence—a very helpful skill as you’re training yourself to be better at separating the two modes. I like to use an unlined notebook for divergent brainstorming, and then switch to the computer to polish these ideas into a cohesive article. Or I’ll write divergent ideas on Post-Its, and then converge them into an outline.

4. Beware of Distractions

Even with the best of intentions, staying in your chosen mode of thinking won’t necessarily come easily. On a recent Sunday morning, I woke up and made a long list of things I'd been meaning to do the previous week and settled into “convergent mode.”

Just as I started the first email, my friend came in and started talking about new ideas for promoting her startup, big plans for China-Chile trade, and what to make for brunch. Since I’d just coaxed myself into a convergent flow, her divergent energy stressed me out! I listened to her ideas, but my heart began to pound at the thought of my to-do list. I explained what was going through my head, and then eventually, excused myself and headed to a café to re-enter that convergent flow.

My advice: When you’re in one frame of mind, adjust your environment to help you stay there, so that you can maximize it. In the office, this might mean wearing headphones or moving into the conference room. It could also mean going to the gym, park, or library to get in the zone. With practice, you’ll figure out what works for you.

No matter what field you’re in, thinking both divergently and convergently is important. But even more important is being conscious about separating the two—it’ll help you focus your mind, reduce your stress level, and get more done.

Photo of woman thinking courtesy of Shutterstock.