The 5% Creativity Challenge

Take a quick look at your schedule. Most of us have calendars that are packed to the gills with endless appointments, meetings, conference calls, and deadlines. When, in this insanely-busy schedule, are you planning to come up with your best ideas?

In today's always-on, 24/7 business world, when are we supposed to generate creative breakthroughs? In-between checking our iPhones, responding to email, and updating our Facebook status? We're so busy being "heads down" on our to-do lists, that we fail to spend time being "heads up" to explore the possibilities.

In fact, very few people actually schedule time to think, create, and invent. But those that do are the ones that make history.

One busy executive schedules "Think Weeks" a few times a year. He goes off into seclusion for a week, loaded with reading material and time to explore his creativity. His staff waits with baited breath to hear about his newest ideas for the business. In fact, some of this company's most important advances originated during these Think Weeks. His name? Bill Gates. His legendary time to think made an indelible mark on Microsoft, and was the source of many of their biggest innovations.

Most of us don't have the staff and resources to disappear for weeks on end, but we all have the ability to schedule two, one-hour thinking sessions each week (5% of a 40 hour week).

Get away from your desk to a place of inspiration such as an art museum, park, or historic landmark. Turn your phone off and your ideas on. Schedule the time, and treat it with the same importance as any other business meeting. Show up fully, and let your imagination soar.

Scheduling just 5% of your week to reflect, think, and create can yield dramatic results. I've had many individuals and companies try this approach, and here's what they report:

1. A zero-percent drop in productivity. Turns out that it's not that hard to cram 40 hours of tasks into 38 hours after all.

2. A tremendous gift. It is a gift to the organization, which becomes flooded with new ideas and fresh thinking. And it's a gift to the individual, as creativity is one of the most powerful sources of human joy, fulfillment, and renewal.

Give it a try for 30 days. Two-hours-a-week of unplugged, creative exploration. I have a hunch that it will quickly become one of your most important and rewarding habits.

P.S. Please let me know how it goes. I'd love to hear your stories, feedback, and examples. Can't wait to hear what you do with your 5% Creativity Challenge!

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  • Demetrios K.

    I strongly agree with time to be creative. Im a painting contracter and came up with the idea to add another service to our clients. I was tired of fixing the trim carpenters work, so I purchase all the equipment needed and taught my self as well as my lead employees and this has been a great addition to our list of services. And I came up with this idea, while working out, thats my unplug time.

  • laurie tema-lyn

    I totally concur with the power of taking some time away from the office on a regular basis for creative thinking. While I do this almost daily--even a 20 minute walk in the woods with my dog will give me fresh perspectives for whatever task I'm working on but I also like to schedule a day every month or so in NY or Philly that I call my "Creative Inspiration Days". I rarely have an agenda--I spend my time walking, visiting museums/galleries, "eavesdropping" on cafe conversations (I'm an innovation consultant and market researcher so it all helps advance learning and insights!), a bit of retail schmoozing too and sometimes coffee or lunch with a friend. I return back home with tired feet but thrilled at having discovered, experienced or learned something new and exciting... or I have just the idea to solve a thorny problem that was unsolved back in the office. And by the way--it always helps to have some paper/pen or a camera or digital recorder on hand to capture those ideas before they disappear. Laurie Tema-Lyn

  • kristine reynolds

    Wow - I got the link to this article just as I was contemplating the fact that I never have time to just step back and think. I love the idea of scheduling creative time into my calendar. I actually used to do that but have somehow moved away from it. Obviously, I let it slide down the priority ladder.
    Thanks for prompting us to keep creativity as a priority.

  • kathleen

    Great article except for one small thing: staff would actually wait with 'bated' breath (unless they're fishing for ideas...)

  • Malla

    This advice is even more critical to part time entrepreneurs who work full time. You have to spend time creating in the midst of the operations and daily grind.

  • ted parrack

    and people wonder why 3M thrives through thick and thin... wonder if it has anything to do with them BUDGETING for creativity?

  • Dscientific

    Most of you describe individual routines, which are ideal for your specific rhythm. For someone constantly under pressure of productive tasks, the 2 hours/ week challenge could be the ideal start for a conscious testing searching and exploring methods to find their individual routine.
    Most important might not be Eureka moment itself, but mainly the time spend on undirected inspiration. The actual insight, when the brain unconsciously connects known facts into an actual (problem solving) idea, might be happening outside this inspirational time frame.
    One thing is clear though, it's most unlikely to have an insight moment when staring at the computer, trying to finish off a particular project!

  • Zander Powell

    Great challenge! We (BRG) present Dr Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats course to companies and ask delegates "where do they do their best thinking?". Almost all answer "in the shower", "while driving", "when exercising", etc... NEVER at work. This is a major problem for any business. It can be solved by applying a simple method (and there are many) like the Six Hats, which prompts creative thinking when the Green Hat is used. Amazing results can be achieved by simply placing creative thinking on the agenda... It requires a deliberate, motivated effort, but can be done. Happy thinking!

  • Mary Jo

    Great idea! Many times I will be busy with something and creative thoughts pop into my head. By the time I find a pen, the thought is gone.
    I'm going to give this experiment a try :)

  • Greg Martin

    Morning shower is used for this - no distractions (unfortunately some of you are thinking I;m sure...). The ideas flow and some of my best thinking is done in this 15 minutes a day (sometimes twice!). What I am missing however is water proof paper and pencil to write the stuff down...

  • Stefan Mumaw

    This is a fantastic practice, but let me add one more habit to the mix to make that 5% as valuable as possible: develop a method to document ideas before the segregated ideation time. Bbaker6212 is right, creativity is a fickle beast that often arrives unannounced, we need a process to both develop creative strength and document ideas as they come. That segregated ideation time will certainly come with a purpose (the problem you are trying to solve creatively) and that purpose should be shared ahead of time to give those who will participate time to develop the germs of ideas and bring them to the collective. If those idea germs aren't documented, they can't be collected and brought. Take physical notes, take cell phone pics, record audible ideas, journal, whiteboard, chalkboard, post-its... whatever method best suits your process, use that method to record your ideas prior to the dedicated time and that time will be even more valuable.

  • Trish Fischer

    Excellent post! Creativity takes time, but time is exactly what we are all lacking these days. Our culture’s insistence on the "instant answer" is relentless. When I started in the advertising/marketing business in the late 80s, we were often encouraged to take the project brief and any accompanying research and actually think about it for a week. Then the creative team (a dying breed these days) would reconvene to brainstorm concepts. We'd all contribute ideas developed over bits and pieces of days at the office or other places (while working out, while showering, while preparing dinner, while playing with the kids, etc). It was a rich creative stew; the longer we let it cook, the better the end results. Sadly, those days of satisfying creative processes -- the kind you could really sink your teeth into -- are waning. Time is too precious. As a result, creativity is now more likely than ever to be viewed as a commodity to push through as quickly as possible. What saddens me most is the growing belief among clients that fast, copious content trumps substance.

  • Nathan Meffert

    Perfect. I absolutely agree. Isn't it strange how little, unstructured moments like this (in the shower, just before falling asleep, when your iPod runs out of batteries) always yield crazy insights, and yet we avoid structuring such moments into our lives like the plague. I think the thing that keeps us from doing this is WHAT ELSE we might find out about ourselves if we did... THANKS FOR THE THOUGHTS JOSH!!!

  • marci segal

    Thanks for this article - especially because it's posted during World Creativity and Innovation Week 2011, April 15 - 21. WCIW's purpose is to prepare people for the innovations to come. It does this through encouraging and engaging people to use new ideas, imagination and to make new decisions that make the world a better place and make their place in the world better too. Totally volunteer, since 2002, started in Canada, now in 50+ countries.

  • Wolfgang Kranzle

    Good stuff, love the idea of 'Think Weeks'...if you have that luxury that is.

    Just read a similar article a couple weeks ago on maintaining creativity in your work -

  • Ann Kankaanpaa

    Love the article. My best creative time comes when I can lunch outside without music or other peoples voices. Also gardening has produced many great ideas / solutions that were challenges without and end.

    Stop and smell the roses and just listen to the birds or watch some ants. Even Manhattan has great down time to watch ants and have a cart dog. I use to call it dead brain time, but maybe I'll create a new phrase! Any thoughts?

  • Tom Mallard

    Why do you think there are ping-pong tables in the hallways at Microsoft? ... companies that deal with creative people encourage taking a break when slammed and nothing is happening.

    Since that's not on any schedule when you take a break and why, it must relate to getting stopped in a solution and the relief is to distract the conscious away from the problem.

    So, the creative process is to beat your head on a problem until you can't move it forward, then talking a break works to free the subconscious to solve the problem, so this is all a technique to deal with that relationship between the two parts of the mind, there are books on this ...