Making time to think, an extended version.

Whilst the speed of the earth’s rotation hasn’t changed, it feels like we have less and less time in everything we do.

The half-life of messages or attention spans of audiences seems to have fractured, and the pace of responding to briefs has rocketed. Real-time media and always on strategies have forced the creative mind to work at breakneck speed.

Physiologically speaking, the faster we think, the more basic and animal it gets. We have two modes of thought: System 1 and System 2. Those of you who’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow or Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink will recognise these two brain states.

System 1 is the lizard brain, our quick reactive brain, fight or flight, unconsciously acting and reacting in gaps of time too small to perceive. Reliant on existing pathways in the mind, it’s the quick snap judgment tool we rely upon to keep us safe.

System 2 is the conscious mind, thinking and considering, taking in many more inputs and possibilities and coming to much slower, more open conclusions.

Creatively speaking, I think the same is true.

We have two modes of creative thought, Type 1 and Type 2.

Type 1 creative thought are snap judgements, the immediate idea you get, the gut feeling of what is right, the quick ideas which build upon existing things we’ve seen or spotted, sometimes sparks of genius, often obvious (but possibly perfect) ideas. They’re ‘one step’ thoughts. It takes one logical step from the problem to solve it. It is assumption based, it is the shortest distance between two points. It might be wildly off the wall, it might be a lateral leap, but its starting point and its end point are close together. Even if you have days (or weeks) to respond to a brief, if you’re asked to generate an idea – this is Type 1 creative thinking.

Type 2 creative thought is long, slow burning, considering, absorbent, combinatorial, connective, marinating, surprising and uncontrolled.

It’s the idea which develops whilst you’re standing in the shower, or doing your laundry. It’s the nagging thought which forces you to find a piece of anything to scratch it down upon for later rumination. It’s every start-up idea you had in your day job, and every brilliant concept you had whilst you were meant to be thinking about something else. It’s what Steven Johnson coined as ‘the slow hunch’, connections which form slowly over time, collecting mental crumbs, until it resembles something with tangible shape.

These two forms differ from the classic definitions of thinking: Type 1 creative thinking is forced, it is on demand, generally instigated by a brief, and Type 2 creative thinking is the unconscious form.

Type 2 creative thinking is a task running in the background constantly, like an itinerant iOS application, collecting location data, recording sound and images without our knowledge, until one day, at some point in the future, it generates a notification, a mental pop-up window which says “Hey! Check me out!”

And, we all know how good slow cooked meat tastes.

In our jobs, generally, we’re asked to generate thinking quickly and on demand. We do everything we can to lengthen the time we have for ourselves to think, to hope for that Type 2 thinking to kick in, but frequently, there will be a deadline. You have to ‘be creative’ between 9-5, and deliver that creativity by the date on the brief.

We rely on established pathways in the mind, existing thoughts and inspiration, augmented by lots of reading, discussion, exploration of context and insights, data, sketching, brainstorming, whatever techniques are available to us, but ultimately, we’re calling upon the brain to use the existing connections to generate a thought.

And existing connections are blinding.

In Frank Partnoy’s brilliant book on procrastination ‘Wait’, he describes an experiment which demonstrates the brain’s ability to mask new ideas behind established thinking, with a game of chess. He recounts a research project at Oxford university which gathered a range of chess players, from grandmasters to novices, and asked them to look at a chessboard, arranged three moves away from checkmate. The three moves were not obvious, and would require a keen and innovative mind to spot, which the most expert players in the group did. A new group of players was then assembled, of the same expertise, but this time the board was arranged with a five-move checkmate and the three-move checkmate. The five-move checkmate was a more obvious and commonly played gambit.

Once the obvious move was spotted, the board was rearranged, leaving only the three-move checkmate. This time, the group was asked to find the three-move checkmate, and took a substantially longer period of time (if at all) to find the move than the first control group. The five move established combination was blinding them to the shorter checkmate. Upon reviewing video of the players looking at the board, the subjects eyes didn’t even look at the squares in which the three-move pieces were sitting, but kept returning to the squares from the five-move combination which had been removed. Their brain was falling into the known, established route subconsciously.

This effect is called Einstellung, the tendancy to act how we’ve always acted, even if easier or better options are presented to us. The five move, well known checkmate was immediately visible because it was instinctive to those expert players, almost like a daily task which is completed without thought.

Naturally, established pathways and established existing thoughts are going to present themselves when our minds are asked upon to generate new thought.

If we’re to try to bring Type 2 creative thought to bear on a Type 1 request, we need to encourage the brief to be a filter on all of the slow hunches in our minds, to show us the most relevant existing pathways and bubble them up in to a neat package to be used.

To be blunt, and to steal from ‘Steal like an Artist’ – Garbage In, Garbage Out.

If you’re only filling your head with a single source of inspiration, sitting in a single environment, thinking about a single topic, you’ll only ever have a single output. We are the sum of our experiences, so when asked to generate new thought, we’ll be calling upon the existing thought in our heads, breaking it down and recombining it.

This is why side projects are the single most important tools in the creative process.

To spend time thinking about unrelated things, not because you need to find inspiration to solve a task, but simply for the sake of surrounding yourself with new hooks to make connections to at a later date, is the only way of encouraging Type 2 thought. You might be able to simulate Type 2 creative thinking by immersive creative exercise, lots of research and reading around a brief, but you’d still be trying, your mind would be actively looking for a solution, rather than being open to things which aren’t needed immediately.

Do some work for charity. Pick a charity, learn about what they do, why they do it, help them out. Go volunteer somewhere. Learn from others about they work they do. Read a magazine you have no existing interest in. Teach yourself a new skill. Read a text book from a career you don’t have. Go gatecrash a lecture on a course you’ve never heard of. Read more. Read even more than that. Read long form things. Read short stories. Watch old films, and then the DVD extras of making of old films. Go to a niche museum. Read children’s books. Listen to children reading children’s books. Release 500 disposable cameras across the planet and see what happens (actually I tried this one already… I don’t recommend it).

Then, in three, six, nine, twelve months time, perhaps even later, you’ll be working on a brief about local communities sharing stories, and you’ll recall an anecdote from when you released those cameras that allows you to skip the first idea, and move on to something much smarter. You’ll be working on a brief about broken families and you’ll remember the technology which helps parents read their children bedtime stories from the other side of the planet. You’ll be asked to solve a problem of brand engagement, and you’ll remember a lecture on community dynamics and connect the two.

It’s not about being more intelligent, it’s about setting up as many open conversations and thoughts in your mind as possible, which can collide, serendipitously with other conversations at the right time, when needed. It’s about creating the environment which encourages coincidences to happen.

The other way to make the most of Type 2 thinking is demand a different type of brief from your clients. Rather than a ‘brief’, demand a ‘lengthy’.

If a brief is to respond within a defined time to specific question, a lengthy is to think over a long period of time about a general question, and respond if and when something feels right.

Design procrastination into your process, put things off as long as you can, because for every delay, you’ll gather a little more to work with. What client wouldn’t want to receive a stream of ideas when they pop into their team’s head, rather than forced thinking in pockets? (Well, most of them actually, but that’s a different blog post).

This is what start-ups are. In the main, most start-ups are a slow hunch towards an idea which, once formed in the head of the founders, feel important or valuable enough to demand leaving a job and committing to making the idea a reality. They’re not responses to a brief of ‘what company should we start’ (although those do happen, in fact, more and more agencies are chasing this model), but a tipping point reached where the slow hunch turns into a tangible concept worth exploring in detail.

This is what the best community management and social engagement strategies are. The recent Bodyform response video wasn’t a proposed solution to a brief, but the right thing to do in reaction to an opportunity, and having the right environment to connect the bravery of the client and the smarts of the agency team, and the brilliant writing and timing of the content. (A disclaimer, Carat, my employer, created the Bodyform video. I had nothing do with it, and it’s brilliant no matter who I work for).

“Chance favours the connected mind” says Steven Johnson, speaking about the benefits of a networked society in driving innovation. Creating more opportunities for connections to be made within your own mind will only ever increase the odds of you generating a brilliant thought, on demand, because actually, it will have been there for months already.

This isn’t a complaint about the nature of real-time technology. The multi-tasking, always on environment we now inhabit somewhat improves our chances of randomly discovering pieces of inspiration which are begging to be connected up in some way. The cost of being connected to others with diverse interests is practically zero, and it is more and more easier to be constantly putting yourself at risk of colliding with someone else’s thinking that might trigger a connection in your own mind.

The risk is, however, that the demand of fast output overshadows the value of slow input, and if we’re only ever supported to deliver reactively, rather than proactively – the rich, combinatorial goodness from Type 2 creative thinking will be reserved for start-ups and personal projects, rather than in our agencies and creative businesses.

(This is the extended version of a thought piece I wrote for the IAB, which you can see here).