Edward de Bono said it best in his now world famous book, the six thinking hats, ‘the main difficulty in thinking is confusion. We try to do too much at once.’ Humans can’t multitask. That’s not a new insight, all the way back to Adam Smith’s Division of Labor, and before, people have decried our inability to do lots of things at the same time. Rather we are much more successful when streamlined, when doing one thing at a time and doing it well. It’s what propelled Venice to naval dominance in the 11th Century and made Ford the one-time biggest car manufacturer in the world.
De Bono’s book, the six thinking hats, took this idea from the realm of physical production to mental production – devising a 6-step process of thinking. Each step involves the putting on of a metaphorical coloured hat, so as to focus the attention on one type of thinking at time (the Blue hat for planning and organizing the thinking itself, the White hat for collecting information and data, the Red hat for intuition and feelings, the Black hat for reasoning and discernment, the Yellow hat for positivity and benefits, and the Green hat for creativity and idea generation).
More recently, there has been a renewed rallying cry to promote focusing on thing at a time. Monotasking. In the workplace, there are quick fixes for this, such as muting your phone or closing your emails. Focusing your attention on just doing one thing on the computer, all to help us get less distracted. But I’d argue that in fact computers are part of the problem.
Nearly all of us in our jobs are, to some extent, creative. I don’t mean we are creatives, I mean we create. Be it a presentation, or a document, or a video, or a diagram, or even just an email. We create things at work every day.
The problem with computers is the programs we use. Programs such as Word, PowerPoint, InDesign, or Outlook are good at helping us create. But they are also seductively good at helping us edit. How many times have you been writing in Word, happily putting your thoughts down, when you see the little red squiggle come under your text indicating a typo. And suddenly you stop. You go back. And you fix the word. Now you’re editing. You’ve stopped creating and started fixing your creation. It’s the same in things like PowerPoint, where the ease of aligning shapes or colouring objects or resizing fonts pulls us out of our creativity and into an editing mode.
This is the very thing that De Bono was railing against all those years ago. We should wear the Green hat of creativity first before we wear the Black hat of discernment and reasoning, of editing. But by using computers we wear all the hats at once, juggling between them. Multitasking. Never really allowing ourselves to focus on creating the thing first, then editing it. Fixing it for final release.
So, what’s the solution?
Think on paper.
As communication expert, Nancy Duarte, suggests, ‘the best creative process requires stepping away from technology and relying on the same tools of expression we grew up with – pens, pencils and paper’.
Thinking on paper allows us to just create. We can misspell without our attention being drawn to it, we can misalign objects, we can sketch out pictures without perfecting their form. The point is we are creating. Perfecting our creations, editing our work, comes next. But for the moment let’s focus on getting the idea down.
It’s not just that these programs can distract us by slipping our minds into editing mode. It’s that it can knock the flow from our creativity, the idea once so clear in our minds suddenly disappears (a 2014 experiment by psychologist Erik Altmann showed that even very short interruptions, as brief as 2 seconds, can significantly hamper cognitive performance). Having a creative idea is frustratingly, amazingly, tormentingly fickle. The poet, Ruth Stone, once described the feeling of a poem coming to her as ‘like a thunderous train of air, and I have to get a pencil and paper fast enough so that when it thunders through me I can collect it. Other times, I wouldn’t get a pencil fast enough and the poem would go through me and carry on along the landscape.’
Ideas and creative thoughts can be fleeting. Not only an idea for a poem, but of a good turn of phrase to use in a report; of a way of visualisation information for a presentation; of a way of drawing an image. The more we can focus purely, singly on capturing our creative ideas the better. The less we will be distracted, letting the idea slip away before we’ve captured it.
Of course, these ideas need to be edited before they’re ready to be released for public consumption, but that comes second, after we’ve captured it. Then, with our thoughts down on paper, in a wonderful flurry of scribbles and notes, can we transfer this to a finished form on the computer. So, the next time you need to create, close the laptop lid and instead reach for the pen and paper and monotask. You might be surprised by how much more fluidly and easily your creative ideas come to you.