Can creative activity help us focus better?

I’ve a guilty pleasure with a surprising work and productivity result.

On the days when I decorate and varnish rocks, paint botanicals with liquid watercolors, or simply indulge in still-life or nature photography with my phone, I’m hugely productive. In fact, on the days when I boldly devote a full hour to these creative outlets (I mean after the school bus rolls out and before my laptop opens) I’m my most laser focused ever.

And I see instant, tangible results in my work. I halve my regular time I spend grading and editing assignments while giving the same level of detailed feedback. I can better spot redundancies in my own writing, remember otherwise forgotten quotes and reorganize my ideas more aggressively and with less ego. I can also say I’m calmer, more peaceful, and generally a nicer, less stressed person on the days where I devoted time during my productive ‘work’ hours for my art.

So what’s going on? I’ve multiple theories and science backs me up on some.

  • Creative activity helps us focus. Research by psychologist Jackie Andrade found that subjects who doodled while listening to a 2.5-minute dull voicemail message absorbed 29% more information than the group who just listened. So, by doodling—or indulging in any creative activity—we’re less likely to day dream (or check email, answer personal phone calls or  window shop online) when on deadline.


  • Creative pursuits make us feel happier, more grateful, and therefore more capable of focusing. Recent research from the University of Otago in New Zealand found from a sample of 658 young adults, those who kept a daily journal in a 13-day study and focused on creative goals during a day felt more positive.


  • Doing art at the top of our day provides an incentive.  If we’re productive and finish our work earlier, we create more time for blissful non-work activities.


  • Task switching provides a focus boost and reduces stress. I’ve also reduced my blood pressure by reducing my stress. Years ago, my doc detected high-ish blood pressure. After returning for a follow up one month later (and doing art daily vs. on the weekends only) the next reading said my pressure was perfect. (The Mayo Clinic cites stress reduction as one of the ten non-medicated ways to reduce blood pressure.)

Finding ways to integrate creativity within your work day becomes another challenge, but I’ll share in closing some tips that work for me:

  • Have an art project out ready (and visible from your work station) before your productive work hours begin. Seeing the set up becomes irresistible. I promise.
  • Remain self disciplined. I’m not always. But on the days I remember all I just shared above, I’m super productive and happy!
  • Remain patient and open. Baby steps. Try out painting/drawing/photography/music one day and see how you feel and how you work.
  • Steal small moments for creativity throughout the day. Return to your project. Even five minutes every hour or few hours can restore and energize us .
  • Multitask where able. Doodle during a phone conference (unless you’re the key stakeholder) or in a meeting/conference/on a subway or plane. While others around me read their phone at lunch, I’ll paint botanicals.
  • Encourage others to join in. I’ve painted with colleagues, my students, my family and neighbors — all with great results.

More Hanging Rock Media blogs live here.







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