In more and more occupations, creativity is part of the job description.
Whether you are trying to reconcile conflicting stakeholder priorities, finding a solution to a customer’s issue, or launching a new product line, your solution probably won’t come out of a textbook. But it’s hard to keep having great ideas day after day.
What do you do when you run out of good ideas? How do you “get your mojo back”?
One increasingly popular solution is mindfulness meditation. Google, Goldman Sachs, and Medtronic are among the many leading firms that have introduced meditation and other mindfulness practices to their employees.
Executives at these and other companies say meditation is not only useful as a stress-reduction tool but can also enhance creativity, opening doors where once there seemed to be only a wall.
To gain a deeper understanding of the effectiveness of short meditation sessions in boosting creativity, we looked first at the literature and then conducted our own experiments. Here’s what we found.
Mindfulness mediation works to enhance creativity and innovation. Many executives have taken up meditation because they find it helps them switch gears when stress piles up. Research shows that mindfulness meditation can have many positive effects on workplace outcomes. Regularly doing it boosts your resilience, enabling you to mitigate stress, regulate emotions, and have a more positive outlook so that you can bounce back from setbacks. It helps you develop the ability to switch off reactive fight-or-flight responses and engage in a more thoughtful mode that’s crucial for making balanced decisions.
In his book Mindfulness for Creativity, Danny Penman argues that mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness practices enhance three essential skills necessary for creative problem solving. First, mindfulness switches on divergent thinking.
In other words, meditation opens your mind to new ideas. Second, mindfulness practice improves attention and makes it easier to register the novelty and usefulness of ideas. And finally, mindfulness nurtures courage and resilience in the face of skepticism and setbacks, which is important because failure and setbacks are inextricably linked with any innovation process.
Ten to 12 minutes are enough to boost creativity. To further verify that creativity is among the early benefits of mindfulness meditation, and to test how earlier findings could be applied to benefit idea generation in organizations, we set up an experiment at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Unlike the objectives of earlier research, we were interested in whether a few minutes of mindfulness mediation would be enough to boost creativity. One hundred twenty-nine participants (all of them students) were divided into three groups and assigned a creative task: Generate as many business ideas as possible for using drones.
Before the individual brainstorming began, one group participated in a 10-minute audio-guided mindfulness meditation, and a second group participated in a 10-minute fake meditation exercise (they were instructed to think freely by letting their minds wander). A third group started to brainstorm immediately.
Each of the three groups generated roughly the same number of ideas, and the length of the descriptions of the ideas was similar. The main difference was that meditators came up with a much wider range of ideas.
The ideas of each participant in the two non-meditator groups were in at least two categories, versus four categories for the meditators. The ideas of each individual in the largest segment of non-meditators (20% of the two groups) fell into five categories (such as delivering and filming items).
By comparison, the ideas of each person in the largest segment of meditators (21% of the group) were in nine categories, which included gardening (cutting trees, watering flowers) and security (extinguishing fires) and ranged from the somewhat plausible (washing windows) to the downright silly (feeding giraffes).
We looked for other reasons besides meditation that could explain the differences. In our regression analyses, we controlled for several variables that could influence idea flexibility, such as whether participants enjoyed the brainstorming task. Even discounting the results of these other factors, the meditators demonstrated a 22% wider range of ideas than the two non-meditating groups.
We also found that a short meditation, similar to physical exercise, often put people in a more positive and relaxed frame of mind. In the group that had meditated, most people felt less negative. In particular, meditation decreased participants’ feeling of restlessness (by 23%), nervousness (by 17%), and irritation (by 24%).
To further corroborate our findings, we conducted a second experiment with a group of 24 senior innovation managers at a large Dutch research organization. Similar to the exercise with the students, these executives meditated for 12 minutes and then generated ideas individually on how to create a more inclusive culture in an organization. Subsequently, they worked in groups to develop their ideas further.
Most participants reported that meditation helped them clear their minds, focus more on the task at hand, and come up with original solutions. And they did: One idea was that managers or employees would swap departments for a week (and subsequently report in a company magazine and to their own departments about what they observed) in a way that was reminiscent of a Dutch reality program where teenagers swap families. Another idea was to give in-company TED talks to highlight cool ideas and scientists across various divisions.
Better ideas, better decision making, and a better mood — all in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee? Our study suggests that it’s all true. As Mirabai Bush, Google’s adviser for ”Search Inside Yourself,” the company’s corporate mindfulness program, puts it, “Mindfulness will make your life work better and your work life better. It’s a win-win!”
In the end, the only way to really see whether you like mindfulness meditation is to try it yourself. Download one of the many short mindfulness meditation courses available online (including meditation apps such as Headspace, Calm, or buddhify), or just follow the instructions below.
- Find a place where you won’t be disturbed.
- Sit in a comfortable position and set a timer.
- Gently close your eyes.
- Ask yourself what you are currently experiencing, and observe your feelings, sensations, and thoughts.
- Shift your attention to your body and spend a moment or two zooming in on the sensations in places that touch the chair or floor.
- Shift attention to your belly and observe your sensations. Focus on how it extends and falls with every breath.
- Observe your breathing some more without changing it.
- At some moment, your mind will naturally wander away.
- When you realize that your mind is no longer in the present, recognize it as a moment of awareness and shift your attention back to your breathing.
- Now focus on your whole body, observing your posture and face. When you are ready — or when the timer reminds you that you should get back to work — open your eyes.