Can mindfulness make you more creative?

Paying attention to your surroundings and listening intently can improve ideas.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 11 Mar 2020
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Innovation

To the uninitiated, mindfulness sounds like something you’d expect rather more in a yoga retreat than in a business. 

Psychologists broadly define mindfulness as a “state of conscious awareness resulting from living in the moment”, but perhaps the definition least likely to raise cynical eyebrows is having presence of mind. 

What this means in practice is paying attention - focused and undistracted - to your surroundings, to what people say and to how you feel. Critically, it involves doing so without evaluating or judging those things. 

This has been proven to benefit creativity in several ways. There is a well-established empirical link between individual creativity and the ability to observe your surroundings: ideas are reactions to stimuli, so if you don’t notice stimuli, you’re unlikely to have many ideas.

This link wasn’t apparent until recently in groups, however, where so much creative work in business is done. This is likely because the creativity of a group largely depends on its dynamics - how ideas are shared and shaped by the team, and whether people feel safe to suggest and to challenge those ideas.

However, new research by Matthijs Baas, Barbara Nevicka and Femke Ten Velden in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology shows that a different facet of mindfulness can raise creativity in groups: the ability to ‘act with awareness’, i.e. to focus on a single thing without distraction or judgement.

They organised 270 students into groups and gave them a creative task, asking them afterwards to assess their own and their group’s level of mindfulness in a questionnaire. They found that teams containing members acting with awareness came up with more ideas.

They then followed up this observational study with an experiment that showed meditation directly before the session increased the originality of ideas, though not necessarily their usefulness.

What does this mean in a business context? Perhaps group meditation before board meetings is a step too far. But it might make us think twice about how we conduct creative meetings.

Hurrying from meeting to meeting - with those precious minutes in between dedicated to clearing emails on your iPhone - is not great preparation if you want to give something your full attention. 

And when you’re in the meeting, making snap judgements as soon as you hear something can shut down what could have eventually been a great idea.

Mindfulness may be the voguish word for it, but it comes back to taking your time and doing it right - an old concept, but a good one.

Image credit: Michel Porro/Getty Images

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