How to Tap Into Your Creative Flow & Avoid Burnout From Technology

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Natalie Nixon is the CEO of Figure 8 Thinking and the author of The Creativity Leap. The following is an excerpt from her keynote, How to Tap Into Your Creative Flow: Gut-Up Work for Well-Being & Productivity, from the SHE Media Co-Lab Future of Health event at SXSW.

Here’s a question that keeps me up at night: How might we build our creative capacity in the midst of a life saturated with technology?

And more importantly, what if we don’t focus on our creative capacity? 

Let’s start with some context: We’re in the midst of the 4th industrial revolution, where technology is ubiquitous and saturates our lives: augmented reality, robotics, automation, AI, and ChatGPT. Tech appears to be saturating our lives. 

Tap into Your Creative Flow Because Burnout is Real

What do creativity and our well-being look like in the midst of this ubiquitous tech? My headline to you is that we need to chill out and flow. And that’s because the statistics on burnout are horrifying. People’s mental health challenges are striking. For example, 76 percent of American workers have reported symptoms of mental health conditions, and in that same study, 84 percent of respondents attribute their workplace conditions to those mental health challenges. 

Burnout is real. So what do we do about it? 

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Well, because of artificial intelligence, the fourth industrial revolution, and the emerging mental health crisis, tapping into our creative flow is the most significant investment that we can make for our health and for our well-being. In fact, if we don’t make that investment in our creative capacity, it’s my concern that our emotional and mental health is at stake. 

At the end of the day, humans will need to design the algorithmic code. If you have played around with ChatGPT then you know that you must frame better questions to get the more interesting outputs. Thus, we have to optimize our curiosity and our ability for critical thinking. The Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was one of the first psychologists to focus on this idea of flow: deep immersion in an activity where you forget where you are and time seems to stand still. 

Flow does not happen actually, when we’re doing nothing. Flow happens through immersion in activity that is meaningful to us. And if we don’t design the space and the time for wonder and for rigor — for that flow — then stress increases and our mental and emotional health are challenged. 

Gut-Up Work

Now, be aware that there is actually a new AI in town. It’s not just artificial intelligence, but also artificial imagination. I first heard the term artificial imagination back in 2017, when reading an interview with the musician and technologist Shelley Palmer in a PriceWaterhouseCoopers publication. Palmer shared that AI code can generate convincing jazz music improvisational compositions. So when we think about that, we could have a really dystopian perspective and say, “Run for the hills, the robots are taking over” or we could have a utopian perspective, “Nothing to worry about — all’s good here.” I tend to take on a heterotopian perspective: these augmentations can help us to get work done as long as we commit to optimizing our creative capacity.

The opportunity, then, is to ensure that we make room in our work environments and our organizations for activity that makes us uniquely human. And one of the things that makes us uniquely human is our creative capacity.

For the past 100 years, we’ve been rewarded by showing up to work from the chin up and emphasizing our IQ. Then about 30 years ago, the concept of EQ or emotional intelligence was introduced. EQ is now valued in our work environments. What I’d like to offer is that we also need to be showing up to work from the gut up — and accept that we are sentient beings. In the midst of this ubiquitous technology, it’s our sentience, our intuition, and the fact that we are feeling creatures that will actually help to optimize our work. 

Now, gut-up work from a physiological perspective starts with the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, extending from the brain, through the heart, and into the gut. So when we say things like “my gut is telling me…”, it literally is. It is the vagus nerve that actually allows for interoception to occur. 

Interoception is our internal sense-making equipment. It helps us to understand, “Am I feeling hungry, or am I satiated? Do I feel thirsty? Do I feel safe here? Do I feel a little nervous or do I feel completely fine?” And it’s the vagus nerve that allows interoception to work. It turns out that we are sentient beings. Descartes, who said “I think and therefore I am,” got it partially right. In reality, we sense, then we feel, then we think, and finally, we act.

Tips for Flow & Gut-Up Work

Here are some practical ways you can begin to practice gut-up work: 

  1. Commit to taking more daydream breaks. If this seems absurd to you, start with 90-second daydream breaks. Let your prompt be a cloud or an ant crawling on the sidewalk and make sure you time yourself and work your way up to 5-minute daily daydream breaks to pause. 
  2. Consider treating yourself to micro retreats. They don’t have to be really fancy extravagant retreats to far-flung locations. They can be what I call noticing retreats — taking micro retreats in order to notice more — so go to a neighborhood in your city or your town that you rarely frequent and just have a walk and take in what you’re observing that’s different from around your way.
  3. Work standing and move regularly. We are not designed to sit and work all day. Our spinal cord is an extension from our brain’s medulla oblongata. When we sit hunched over, oxygen gets cut off from the brain.
  4. And finally, be a clumsy student — of anything. Because when you are a clumsy student, you get a lot better at practicing inquiry, listening to your intuition, honing your ability to improvise, and you’ll design time for wonder and rigor. 

In conclusion, consider these questions:

  1. What would my life look like if I shifted away from churning and speeding my way through the day to slowing down? 
  2. How about if I shifted away from prioritizing winning to considering what am I willing to lose? 
  3. What if I shifted away from thinking about leadership as being out in the front to learning to follow? 
  4. Finally, what if I shifted away from a focus on winning to making space in time for quitting? 

These questions may feel counter-intuitive, but they’re your best bet for engaging in flow and gut-up work. Enjoy!

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