Future of Work

Want to boost your creativity? Switch off your smartphone and let your mind wander, say scientists

Being lost in your thoughts can also help with problem solving and creativity.

Being lost in your thoughts can also help with problem solving and creativity. Image: Unsplash/ bruce mars

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Creativity and problem solving can happen when you let your mind wander, scientists in Germany have found.
  • But smartphones mean we have mostly lost the habit of free thinking.
  • Other studies have shown the phase just before falling asleep is highly creative, and that adapting to change forces us to think creatively.
  • Creativity and problem solving are two of 10 key skills that will be needed in the world of work by 2025, according to the World Economic Forum.

Thinking about nothing in particular is more enjoyable than you’d imagine and can help in areas including creativity and problem solving, scientists have found.

At the University of Tübingen in southern Germany, psychologists studied more than 250 people who were “encouraged to engage in directionless contemplation or free-floating thinking”, according to The Guardian newspaper.

The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggest humans find it hard to let their minds wander, but that this is an underused talent.

The wonders of a wandering mind

The psychologists found the benefits of free thinking include enhancing your imagination and making you feel better about yourself. Being lost in your thoughts can also help with problem solving and creativity, they said.

Participants in the study said they enjoyed letting their minds wander more than they had expected. But “some people simply found it hard to spend time with their own thoughts, especially if they tended towards negative thinking,” the Guardian reported.

Smartphones were concluded to be at least partly to blame - they are “distractions” that have “contributed to a loss of the habit of free thinking,” said the psychologists.

Take a nap to boost creativity

Other studies have shown the creative benefits of disengaging our brains. Researchers in France recently identified a point just before we fall asleep which is rich in creativity. Hypnagogia, or stage N1 was said to be used by the inventor Thomas Edison to plunder sleep-inspired ideas.

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Scientists have found that creativity blends spontaneous and controlled thinking. This is the ability to “both spontaneously brainstorm ideas and deliberately evaluate them to determine whether they’ll actually work,” American neuroscientist Roger Beaty explains in an article for The Conversation.

Beaty makes the point that creativity isn’t just for geniuses. All of us use everyday creativity like drawing or making recipes, described by researchers as ‘little-c’ creativity. ‘Big-C’ creativity, on the other hand, tends to refer to creative breakthroughs in fields like science, technology, society and the arts.

Flexible thinking unlocks creativity

At the University of Cambridge in the UK, psychologists say “cognitive flexibility” is a crucial human skill in adapting to changing environments. COVID-19 essentially heralded a new era in flexible thinking – with most people, for example, having to cope with pandemic lockdowns. In the future, learning to use this flexible thinking will help us improve our resilience and wellbeing.

“Flexible thinking is key to creativity – in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, make novel connections between ideas, and make new inventions,” the Cambridge scientists say in an article for the World Economic Forum. “It also supports academic and work skills such as problem solving.”

Creativity and problem solving are two of 10 key skills that will be needed in the world of work by 2025.
Creativity and problem solving are two of 10 key skills that will be needed in the world of work by 2025. Image: World Economic Forum.

Soft skills are key in the future world of work

In the Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020, creativity and problem solving are two of 10 skills expected to be vital in the world of work by 2025.

“Core skills such as critical thinking, analysis and problem solving are consistently top of the reskilling and upskilling priorities for educators and businesses,” the report says.

Self-management skills like active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility are newly emerging skills on the list.

People skills like leadership and social influence are also vital, according to the report.

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