Option #1: Lots to do, probably under pressure to get them done. Focused on a task before jumping to another task, or juggling several (or many) projects at once. People coming into your office – your supervisor, team members who report to you, colleagues – enquiring about status updates, asking questions, demanding this or that. Given these distractions, you become tunnel-vision, if not rigid, inflexible and impatient. It may sound negative, but this environment may be pleasurable to you: invigorating, having a purpose, being efficient and ordered.
Option #2: Lots to do, but your choice of tasks is random and leisurely. In fact, the ‘shiny’ projects get your attention because there’s something curious about them. You perceive there’s something to discover under the layers of information. Routine is dropped for day-dreaming. You find a relaxed oasis somewhere to think – even if it’s simply inside your own head – so you can play and be humorous with your thoughts. The purpose is not specific, in fact, you’re not really sure where your thoughts are headed, but your intuition tells you there’s something to be found by letting go of right and wrong, yes or no, completed or unfinished.
For obvious reasons, most people spend their time in the first mode (called te Closed Mode) versus the second mode (called the Open Mode). The terms themselves were coined by comedian John Cleese, from two famous speeches on creativity (here in 1991 and here in 2009). His points were built on the research of the late Donald W. MacKinnon, a noted professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.
As MacKinnon demonstrated in his research “The Nature and Nurture of Creative Talent” (1962), “Creativity is not related to one’s intelligence, and it is not a talent.” Cleese said it slightly differently: “Creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating.”
Cleese’s point is that we cannot be creative in the Closed Mode. Surrounded by demands, deadlines and details, it’s extremely difficult for the mind to think of different strategies, see patterns, explore possibilities, or observe trends.
For obvious reasons, the Closed Mode is likely to be our default mode because it’s what keeps us employed, promoted and accomplished. At the moment of making a decision, an executive doesn’t want to start thinking of options and alternatives, any more than they want to see the humorous side during an issues or crisis situation.
Yes, the Closed Mode has significant benefits, but that’s not to say it should be the default mode for all business activities. When an executive needs fresh thinking, the brain needs to change to Open Mode so the discovery and exploratory side of creativity can come front-of-mind. A group brainstorm with everyone in a Closed Mode will be ineffective. Even if you’re working alone in the Closed Mode, your restricted mindset will be influenced by censure and negativity, not creativity and discovery.
In Cleese’s second video, he gives this examples to show the differences: “Alexander Fleming must have been in the open mode when he found a petri dish with no culture growing. In the closed mode, he would have discarded it as a failure. But in the open mode, he became curious and this led him to discover penicillin. In the closed mode, the uncultured petri dish is useless. In the open mode, it is a clue.”
Because the Closed Mode is ‘automatic’ in many ways, it’s important to find effective ways to change the mind from one to the other. The most common suggestions:
- Change your environment. Get away from your desk, go somewhere with a more relaxed atmosphere.
- Ignore email, silence the phone, leave behind the to-do lists.
- Give yourself a few minutes to decompress.
- Since most Closed Mode work is stationery and text/numbers-based, try the opposite: walk around the block, head to the gym, glance through magazines, window-shop. Even sitting quietly somewhere with your eyes closed is acceptable. The longer the transition time, the better – but frankly, 10 to 15 minutes is usually plenty of time to allow your brain to switch gears.
- Find others who are also trying to change their mindsets, or look for environments that help change modes. Stephen Johnson, in his wonderful book Where Do Good Ideas Come From?, is a big advocate of coffee houses and cafés to stimulate creativity thinking.
These tactics will be useless because (understandably) deadlines are looming. Perhaps a different plan of escape may be to plan for times when you can more easily switch from Closed to Open Modes. Plan them when your brain is most clear and unencumbered. Match up times when your brain is most active. (Do you think best in the morning, later afternoon, evening?) Coordinate them when you’re not in the office or at your desk.
There’s many tips to effective day-dreaming, but I’ll focus on one: Be prepared. Daydreaming without a goal, plan or direction may be a waste of time. Give yourself a problem to solve. Don’t make the problem overly complex. Write it as a simple (not simplistic) statement, something to overcome, improve or change.
Any other tips you’ve tried to switch from Closed to Open?