Things we'd like to tell you 

Here are some of our recently published articles, comments and thoughts. Plus a few relevant older ones.

Updated: Mar 16





If you’re in a creative business - or if you make a living by being creative - are you worried about how the pandemic has changed the way you work?


Many of us are. I see articles all the time about the future of the office, and how hard it is to be creative when you’re working from home.


It’s not surprising, because for years we’ve been told that things like brainstorms and open plan offices encourage creativity.


We believe this, because it calms our inner Rabbit. We have deadlines, and clients, and colleagues to please, so we feel like we have to go and fetch ideas. A brainstorm might help, we think - so we arrange one. Or maybe we’ll bump into inspiration by the coffee machine.


The trouble is, research has shown that brainstorms, for example, don’t work. They’re fun for extroverts, but excruciating for quieter, shy people. And for anyone who may feel unconfident, like newer colleagues. Or women, if there are braying men involved.


I once worked with a supremely talented woman who would dutifully turn up at brainstorms, and sit in silence for the hour or so required. At the end, on her way out, she would pass me a small note, on which she had written a single idea. Not always, but very often, it was brilliant.


I decided to dispense with brainstorms. At least until I’d asked her to have a think about whatever the problem was.


It turns out that research agrees - it shows the best thing is to brief people, give them all the relevant information, and let them think about it alone or in pairs, or small groups, as they wish. Then come together when inspiration has struck. Or as Pooh says, ideas have come to at least some of the people you’ve briefed.


But wait, you say - surely we need the serendipity of open plan offices, where we bump into other people and spark ideas?


No we don’t. Again, research shows people feel less free to talk and more inhibited in an office where anyone passing by might overhear them. This is not conducive to free-flowing creative thinking. More likely, it results in a room full of people wearing headphones and staring at screens.


And by the way, the real reason for open plan offices is not to stimulate creativity. That’s the sales pitch, also known as snake oil. The truth is they’re cheaper. You pack in more people per square foot, like in a battery chicken farm.


I don’t think ideas come easily in such an environment. I think offices are on the whole the worst places to try to have ideas. In fact, the whole business of trying is the mistake. As Pooh says.


Archimedes is famous for running down the street naked, shouting ‘Eureka!’ He had not been attending a brainstorm in the nude, nor did inspiration find him sitting at a desk. It came to him in the bath.


Mendeleev discovered the periodic table of elements in a dream. It came to him in his sleep.


The French mathematician Poincare believed logic limits ideas, and instead favoured walking - which he felt made the ideas fixed in his head move around and bump into each other, sparking new ones.


Bathing, dreaming, walking - all available at home, and probably never have been available in the office, unless you had a very enlightened boss.


But you need more. Whenever I’ve run courses on creative thinking, I’ve been able to send people out onto the streets of London, and told them to wander. In a city like this, you will find all kinds of things to stimulate your imagination, your intellect, your sense of wonder. All you need is curiosity. Be open, absorb, and your inner Pooh will respond. It’s not Brain, as he says. It’s not what the poet Keats called the ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (like Rabbit). It’s allowing your mind to play with whatever it finds fascinating.


And now I can’t shoo you out into the hubbub of the universe, as another genius called it - the photographer Leah Gordon. You can walk and you will find things to inspire you, but it’s harder when every door is closed, and anyway you’re not supposed to be out for very long.


Let’s think more about this. What is it about walking that stimulates ideas?


First of all, simply moving does something. When the male angler fish attaches himself to a female, he never moves again, and his brain withers away along with most of the rest of him. Movement needs brains, and brains need movement.


But wait - didn’t Pooh say ‘it’s not Brain’? He did, but with all due respect to him, let’s refine this to say it’s not brain in its usual mode. It’s brain wandering, encountering, and if I may put it so, feeding.


You’re going to have to wander in your own home. Are there books in it? Find the ones with dust on them. The ones someone else bought. The ones about subjects you’ve never given much thought to. Open them. Look inside.


What about the newspapers? Is there one you like to read? Online, I’m guessing. Find one that doesn’t share your views. Or one from another country. You can read The Lagos Times or the South China Morning Post online, for example. Suddenly, the ads are interesting! And illuminating.


Then there’s the radio. The TV. Podcasts. Music streaming. Do I need to go on? Just don’t go to the usual places - your usual places. Turn down a new, unknown mental side-street. What we have to do is step out of our habits. Wander, encounter, feed.


Then go for a walk. Or take a bath. Or have a nap.


And when the pandemic is over, the office may beckon once again - but remember it’s not full of ideas waiting to be discovered. It never was. They’re all out in the world, as you should be too. Be Pooh, not Rabbit, and they will find you.


Updated: Mar 16


This first appeared on Medium.com, and is also the basis for a podcast in our series '168 Things'


‘Flow’ is the title of a fascinating book by an author with the most excellent name - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The subtitle is ‘The classic work on how to achieve happiness.’


How could you resist that promise? But the author tells you within a few pages that in fact it is not a ‘how to’ book, and points out that the world is full of such things, and that reading them almost always leads back to square one, where you’re just as dissatisfied as ever.


Instead, he says he wants to ‘present examples of how life can be made more enjoyable, ordered in the framework of theory’. It’s up to you, dear reader, to do the work of reflecting on the examples and drawing your own conclusions.


Here are some of mine.


‘Flow’ is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. It’s not achieved through sitting still and meditating, but it’s like a meditative state. It is arrived at when you are deeply involved in doing something - perhaps something physical, perhaps mental, perhaps both.


It might be playing sport, or climbing a mountain, or it might be solving a maths problem, or painting a picture. It’s often what you might call work. But when you experience flow, it’s enjoyable and absorbing - so it’s the best kind of work.


And by the way, it’s not reserved for the kind of work that pays the most and earns the most respect in a world obsessed with status. Csikszentmihalyi gives examples of people doing the most repetitive, simple work, but finding in it everything they need to be happy.


Because happiness is not given, but created, by each of us finding purpose, excluding distraction and controlling our inner state of mind.


Csikszentmihalyi wrote his book after many years of research and study. It’s not long, but there’s more in it than I can possibly summarise here. I can, however, tell you what ‘flow’ feels like for me.


Time slows down but also passes fast. A paradox, right? But every moment is intense and drawn out, until I look up and three hours have gone by.


My pulse slows, and my breathing gets deeper and more regular - which is why it’s like a meditative state, I think - and I’m calm.


I am hardly aware of the outside world, or anyone else around me.


I get into this state when I’m doing something creative, usually. In my life as a creative in advertising, it was when I started work on a new brief, coming up with ideas, thinking of words, lines, or images.


I can get into flow when I’m gardening, too, or making bread. Working with my hands in a creative task, in other words.


But it doesn’t happen every time, and when I became a creative director, one of the tasks I set myself was to figure out how to help all the creative people around me reach a flow state as easily and as often as they needed to.


I knew it would make them happy in their work, and that the work would be better as a result.


I started with the physical work space. In one agency, I had rooms built where creatives could go, away from their desks and phones, and shut the door, and be undisturbed. Then I hired a doorkeeper who would not allow interruptions.


That all worked well until technology started to invade every corner of our lives. Fast forward to now, and we carry in our pockets the means of our perpetual distraction. The untamed phone is the enemy of flow, because it prevents that descent into deep, uninterrupted calm that I described. It yanks you back up to the surface, even if you silence it - because you know it’s still there, waiting for your attention, ready to reward you with whatever it is you can’t resist.


But it’s stupid to blame the phone, because as Csikszentmihalyi wrote, to achieve flow, we need to control our inner life - and what is the phone but a physical embodiment of our own inner chaos? Control that, and the phone subsides into its proper place, as our servant, not our ruler.


Which brings me to the scourge of the ‘to do’ list.


I know many people who compile these lists, and they throw in everything that’s buzzing around in their heads, distracting and bothering them. The idea is to get it all on paper (or screen, or into an app or something) and then tick things off. Which makes life seem manageable, and creates the impression of progress.


But Csikszentmihalyi says, rightly, that flow comes from single-minded absorption in a task, where there are goals that can be achieved. And a ’to do’ list is the opposite. It’s many-minded, and impossible to complete. In fact, like the little pot of porridge in the fairy tale, the more you take off the top, the more it fills up at the bottom. It can never be finished.


My advice, therefore, is to do something completely joyous with your to do list: strike off every single thing on on it, bar one. Not by completing the tasks, but by crossing them out. You don’t have to redact them like a government agency - after all, things like buying milk and calling your mum still matter, but put them aside for now. Put everything aside except one thing.


You have now created a ‘to don’t’ list. Look at it. It’s a thing of joy. A long list of stuff you are not going to do today. You are free now, to do one thing utterly, completely and brilliantly, to immerse yourself in a task. To go deep.


And here’s the pure genius of it. When you come back up to the surface, out of your flow state, deeply content because you achieved something - guess what?


Pull out that list of crossed out tasks, and you will blow through half a dozen of them without breaking sweat, right away. And the other 28 things will reveal themselves to be pointless, anyway, and you can throw the list away.











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