Stepping off the Hamster Wheel: How to Stay Creative even When You’re Insanely Busy

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. After working remote for two years, knowledge workers were said to have learned a lesson. They vowed to never fully and completely get back on the hamster wheel, to take their work-life balance with them back to the workplace. Instead, I’m hearing from managers that the pressure has never been more intense, and managers and executives alike need creative ideas to keep up with relentless changes and challenges.

So this month, I wanted to offer some suggestions on how to keep your “idea factory” running smoothly no matter what’s on your plate. I’ve been fascinated by how entrepreneurs and innovators generate incredible ideas since I first started interviewing movers and shakers back in the ’80s. I believe it requires frequent introspection and constant retooling — and keeping a journal can also help. Moreover, it requires self-analysis of how and where you’re getting ideas, and great intention to keep the ideas flowing even when you’re busier than ever.

Inspect your “idea factory” regularly. One way to do this is to look at your “to do” list, and your key projects list. Both are snapshots of the ideas you’re working on right now. What does your list reveal? Are the ideas mostly related to your basic functional duties, or are there also ideas related to larger projects and opportunities and goals?

Routine details can easily consume us, and they are also needful of ideas. But if you go for days and days running like the proverbial hamster on a wheel, your idea factory is greatly in need of retooling. It’s not that you aren’t generating ideas; you almost certainly are. The problem is that you aren’t moving on them in systematic fashion; you’re reactive rather than proactive. You are slighting your big ideas while allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by the tactical details. You’ll never get ahead this way; at most you’ll only get by.

To thoroughly inspect your idea factory, try this for a week: Wherever you go, use your smartphone to jot down ideas as they occur. Checking up on your ideas will make you more aware of the many possibilities that are flashing into your mind. Some will be lifters, and some will be poppers. The lifters are those you “borrow” from other industries or people—or even from competitors. The poppers are those that come out of your own conjuring process. If you’re in the defeatist mode or sustainer mode when you conjure an idea, you might tune it out. You might reject it the minute it occurs no matter how promising it might be.

Identify when and where you do your best thinking. Where are you when you generate your best ideas? I’ve asked this question of managers in 54 countries. The overwhelming response? In the shower, followed quickly by driving in your car. How about these questions:

  • When, where, and at what time of day do you generally do your best thinking?
  • What do you do to get yourself unstuck when facing a vexing problem?
  • How did you inject creativity to handle a task in the last 24 hours?
  • How often do you come up with solutions that others compliment you on as being “creative?”

Jot down your responses so that you fully explore these issues. If you take time to think about these questions and their answers, you’ll gain further insight into your own ways of fortifying your idea factory. The next step is to go to that space when you want to do some serious cogitating.

If there’s a time of day when you feel you do your most creative thinking, try to reserve it for yourself and use it to its fullest. If there’s a particular spot that says “idea space” to you—your study or the bathtub or an unused conference room—set aside time to use that space, alone and free of noise and distraction. Check out places outside your home, too: a park, a library, the neighborhood Starbucks.

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