How to Create More by Doing Less

14 September 2023

Christopher Wickenden 14.09.2023


Roughly 75% of people feel that they’re not living up to their creative potential.

In a survey conducted by the World Economic Forum, 90% of business leaders emphasised the importance of creativity in maintaining competitiveness in today’s market.

However, in the US and UK, 80% of people said that they felt a greater pressure to be productive rather than creative at work.

Within this snapshot of stats may lie the problem when it comes to creativity.

Most of us want it within our organisations.

The number of requests for workshops and initiatives that we get to help stimulate it bare this out.

But are we willing – really willing – to create and maintain the necessary conditions for it to thrive in our workplaces?

When the sheer volume of work and pressure increases, taking time out to be creative can feel a little too much like a luxury, far removed from the conveyor belt of production.

Far removed from the conveyor belt of serious work.

No time for play.

From creative void to Chief Creative Officer

I get it.

My journey in this area has ebbed and flowed.

I used to like art.

My first answer to – “What do you want to be when you grow up?” – was an animator.

I continued with Art up to GCSE level, got my  A*, then I was out.

When my teacher asked why, I now reflect back on my response and recognise that the answer’s so relevant to what we’re discussing today.

I’m paraphrasing. 

“I don’t feel like I’ve got time to be creative with all my other subjects. I find it really stressful because I know that there’s so much work to get done – coursework deadlines etc. It just feels too stressful to take the time out to be creative. There’s too much to do”

The difference is, there was such a clear, finite output required for all of the other subjects. Art just felt too open ended and accessing that space to open up, think laterally and create felt nigh on impossible at my school.

How does it feel in your organisation?

I got great results but at what cost?

Fast-forward about 5 years and I’d find out.

Just because I’d pretended it wasn’t there for a while, I’d never lost a desire for a creative outlet. Don’t underestimate this desire and capacity within your teams too – even in the departments that don’t obviously strike you as creative or needing huge amounts of creativity. Everyone and everywhere benefits when there’s space to be creative. 

And for me, my goodness did it feel sticky trying to step back into this arena.

I trained as an actor. And it took an incredible amount of unlearning to open myself back up to creative flow.

To get out of my rigid head and into my body.

Through education I’d attached a lot of value to, and been rewarded for my ability to analyse, think critically and analyse some more. It was all very heady stuff. I was very rarely in my body, in the room, in the moment, with the people around me. I was very rarely present.

This rigidity just won’t wash if you want to act just as it won’t wash if you want to get creative in your organisation.

Too much of a sense of self derived from a busy, overthinking mind blocks the ability for any creativity to flow through you.

We’ve seen this rigid dynamic at play time and again  in our creativity workshops.

Acting done well requires you to be fully present, relaxed and responsive to your environment. (There’s other stuff too)

I had a LOT of work to do.

I share this because I feel like I have such a first hand, self aware experience of relearning how to open up to creative flow.

I say open up, because creativity is something that we can be a conduit to when we create the right conditions.

The single most significant condition I found to accessing creative flow was heightening my ability to be present. Getting out of my head, which was so full of past experience and what I already knew, and into my body – more accurately, into the now. (I won’t bore you with all of my processes!)

Presence is a hard sell in business because it doesn’t feel like it does much. “What, just being?” All feels a bit inactive. But dedicating all of your attention to the here and now, quietening down the noise in the busy head is SO foundational to creativity.

And it’s our responsibility as leaders to be intentional about creating these conditions for the people in our teams if we want them to be creative.


8 components to creative flow

Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi speaks brilliantly on the subject of “flow” saying that “Flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”

Most of the components to flow, outlined below, are just as relevant to creativity:

  1. Clear Goals – knowing where you’re going and why
  2. Immediate Feedback – clear strategy for knowing how you’re doing along the way
  3. Balanced opportunity and capacity – both challenge and skill level need to be high and equal to each other
  4. Deep concentration – distinction between self and activity disappears
  5. Being present – attention fully focussed on here and now
  6. Feeling in Control – at the peak of our powers with our skill level matching the challenge
  7. Altered sense of time – total absorption by the task
  8. Egolessness – transcendence of self or individuality

Think about how you, as a leader, can move the dial forward just a little bit on each of these.

We focus so much on output.

In the case of creativity, we want the results so much.

But the more that we focus on being creative, striving for it, the less open to it we become.

So take the pressure off of the output and place the focus on getting these conditions right

72% of people report having creative insights while taking a shower. So often, the moment we stop striving and take the pressure off, the ideas begin to flow.

Victor Frankl’s hyper-intention theory is pretty apt, here, talking about sleeplessness: 

“The fear of sleeplessness results in a hyper-intention to fall asleep, which, in turn, incapacitates the patient to do so.”

I can certainly relate to that sense of anxiety when I know that I’m going to need to be creative. It’s too much pressure.

So, instead, I focus on continuously and strictly living the conditions that I know tend to allow creativity to thrive.

I joke all of the time that I get much more work done when I’m not working. Flippantly arguing that, therefore, I should work much less. But there’s truth to it. All of my creative breakthroughs happen when I’m not actively working.

I always thought that this quote from Don Draper in madmen in response to Peggy’s anxiety over coming up with an idea for an ad campaign is great:

“Peggy, just think about it. Deeply. Then forget it. And an idea will jump up in your face.”

Don Draper

So, what can you do right now?

Apart from the intentional work on each of Csikszentmihalyi’s 8 components to flow above – improving the conditions for your team – here’s something just for you:

Focus and flow: Do this 3 times per working day:

  1. Sit on the edge of your chair, feet planted firmly on the floor, with your back straight. Place your hands on your stomach. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and out through the mouth, then allow the breath to return to its normal rhythm.
  2. For about 30 seconds, focus your attention fully on the breath, counting to 10. One on the in breath, 2 on the out; 3 on the next in breath, 4 on the out etc. If thoughts pop into your mind, just acknowledge them, and return to the breath.
  3. After about 30 seconds of focus on the breath, spend about 30 seconds allowing your mind to do whatever it wants to do, without control. Anything.
  4. Repeat the above process for a few minutes.
  5. Take out a piece of paper and write or draw the first thought/ feeling or idea that comes to mind. Then return to what you were doing.

Don’t expect miracles. Especially not right away.

It might be nonsensical rubbish that goes down onto that page and it’s important to allow that to be so.

However, this practice of creating space to loosen control over the mind and let it roam free will pay dividends over time.

Creativity requires us to “do” a lot less and “allow” a lot more with our minds.

This is a huge challenge given the emphasis placed on productivity and output in our working worlds.

It takes discipline to get off of the conveyor belt of busy doing and step into the moment, opening ourselves and our organisations up to creative flow.

If you need help or guidance in this area – either personally or for your team – please get in touch. We’d love to talk.


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