Creative Kryptonite and the Death of Productivity

Businessman using smart phone

Great work, brilliant ideas, extraordinary art requires space.

Time away. Room to process, synthesize, allow connections between seemingly disparate parts to effervesce out of the ether of the mind.

Genius is the offspring of the in-between.

But, increasingly, technology is removing the in-between.

We don’t just walk in contemplation, we walk, talk and type.

We don’t just drive, we drive, talk and every time we stop the car, we check, tap and reply. Red lights, the bain of a life-long quest to get “there,” have now become a sought after opportunity to catch up on any communication that may’ve arrived since the last red-light…5 blocks ago.

But when we fill in all the organic in-betweens with texting, e-mailing, DMing and updating, we unintentionally kill the a critical step in the ideation process—percolation and contemplation—and along with it go creativity, innovation and despite your opposite intention, productivity.

So, why do we do it?

Filling in the in-between, we say, lets us get so much more done. Wrong.

Hyperconnectivity gives us the perception of getting more done, it makes us feel like we’re doing more, because we’re using every free moment of every waking hour.

There is often a huge chasm between being busy and being productive.

Hyperconnectivity requires a massive volume of switchtasking, which destroys true-productivity and efficiency because every time you page through your various modes of connectivity and respond to different prompts, you lose focus. To regain that focus requires a certain amount of time and cognitive effort.

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Put another way, there is a ramping cost every time you switch gears, then return.

So when you spiral through every known mode of communication hundreds of times a day, you may be busy as hell, but you damn sure aren’t productive. At least nowhere near the level you could be. You’ve just created the illusion of productivity.

By the way, if you’re wondering if that’s you, here’s an easy test:

Next time someone asks what you did at the end of a day, if you know you were crazy busy but you can’t immediately pin-point a small number of substantially-meaningful accomplishments, critical insights or measurable forward movement…let alone recall anytasks beyond “oh I answered a lot of emails, put out fires and had a bunch of meetings…you’ve very likely fallen into hyperconnected lost-sock land.

All of which raises an even bigger question…

If hyperconnectivity really isn’t about efficiency and productivity, like we claim it is, what is it about?

Two things:

1. An insanely addictive phenomenon called intermittent reinforcement.

Intermittent reinforcement is a behavioral pattern where repeated reinforcement of a behavior over times programs your brain to crave more and more opportunities to express that behavior. It mirrors addiction and, in fact, may well trigger chemical dopamine releases in the brain quite similar to those triggered through chemical addictions.

In the context of mobile notifications, Kevin Hoffman described it beautifully:

Every time your phone vibrates to alert you of the possibility of something interesting, exciting, or even mundane (but new) – your brain is getting what psychologists call a “Dopamine squirt”. Over time, your brain links the phone vibration, ring, or the “new SMS” tone to a brief release of dopamine. You feel this tiny little rush of excitement that feels like adrenaline every time your phone vibrates, jingles, rings, or otherwise begs for your attention. Since this is dopamine we’re talking about, you actually suffer mild withdrawal symptoms when you are away from your phone or your phone is idle/quiet for a long period of time. You get fidgety, anxious, bored, etc.

Intermittent reinforcement annihilates will.

Hyperconnectivity has become one of the purest forms of intermittent reinforcement ever to exist. Which is a bit horrifying, because in addition to pulling us away from activities and relationships we claim to hold dear and degrading “real” productivity, it all but eliminates the opportunities for disconnection that are crucial in the creation of great art, business and life.

But, that’s not all…

2. Enter the Zeigarnik Effect.

I’ve written about this before in the context of chronic non-finishers:

Legend has it, famed Russian and psychologist and researcher, Bluma Zeigarnik, was sitting at a café in Vienna when she noticed that her waiter could remember the details of a large order perfectly until that customer was served. Once served, the order literally vanished from the waiter’s memory.

Through further research, Zeigarnik discovered that people, in general, will remember the details of most any task until it is completed and then, remarkably, forget much of what unfolded. Moreover, once begun, there is an underlying psychological drive to complete the task.

So, between the process of remembering what needs to be done and enduring the constant tug to bring a task to completion, every unfinished task stakes a claim to a small piece of our memory and short-term cognitive abilities.

It stands to reason, then, that the more we begin and the less we finish, the more chronically occupied our minds become. Beyond feeling stressed, frazzled and overwhelmed, this can also lead to impaired thinking, problem-solving and creativity. Not the most pleasant state in the world.

What Zeigarnik also discovered is that once a loop has been opened (a task or conversation begun), we become increasingly compelled to complete it. It creates an urge, a pull, to finish what was started.

How does this relate to hyperconnectivity, productivity and creativity?

Simple. Every time we begin a conversation by text, email, twitter, Facebook or Google+, it’s like we’re opening a new loop. One that, until completed, compels us to want to finish the conversation. To keep checking and responding until the loop has been closed.

Problem is, in a hyperconnected world…the loops never close.

And if they ever do, the space created is instantly filled by countless new loops that overlap and stack like an eternally-thickening linguistic lasagna, consuming the mental juices needed to do great work, create genius, divine solutions and get stuff done.

Along the way, we eviscerate both the downtime needed for insight and the consistent focus needed to accomplish much more than being busy.

Indeed, left unchecked…

Hyperconnectivity has become a form of productivity decimation and intermittent creative destruction.

Question is…what are you going to do about it?
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  • Nicole Williams

    Excellent, excellent article!

    • Thank you, Nicole! We’ll pass that along.