Hello Cognitive Dissonance, My Friend
In an old copy of strategy+business magazine, I came across an article by Matthew May entitled Six Secrets to Doing Less, which I thought closely matched Covey’s time management matrix. May’s idea, in a nutshell, is that innovation succeeds best when you remove all distractions.
It’s the art of subtraction, defined simply as the process of removing anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, hazardous, or hard to use — and perhaps building the discipline to refrain from adding it in the first place.
I completely disagree with this concept. Or, more concisely, I believe that there are many people out there, including myself, who operate best under different circumstances. An empty inbox gives me anxiety. I am a list-creator, and generally have a couple books underway and daily podcast consumption. Where some people need quiet to focus, the absence of extracurricular stimuli (music, radio, background noise) makes it difficult for me to concentrate….most of the time.
While I think there are great ideas across all six of May’s innovation strategies, the last two points stood out the most to me. Here’s his full list (read his article for the full text behind each):
- What isn’t there can often trump what is.
- The simplest rules create the most effective experience.
- Limiting information engages the imagination.
- Creativity thrives under intelligent constraints.
- Break is the important part of breakthrough.
- Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing.
Initially, #5 really stood out to me, and brought up the memory of conversations with my high school counselor who helped me to understand and tap into my own learning style when I was 14. Prior to her guidance, I had no idea there were different ways of learning. Ultimately, I found success — and innovation — by following a style and a path that was counter to how just about everyone else studied.
Thankfully, I had someone there who recognized that how I process information, and generate my most creative ideas, is contrary to how most US schools expect their students to learn: quietly, as a group, with a lot of memorization. Instead, I was encouraged to focus on my design and artistic outputs as a counter-balance to the more formal subjects, and often found innovation through seemingly unrelated activities.
But then the quote in #6 cemented my own personal experience: Neuroscience now confirms that the ability to engineer creative breakthroughs indeed hinges on the capacity to synthesize and make connections between seemingly disparate things. A key ingredient is a quiet mind, severed for a time from the problem at hand.
For me, cognitive dissonance is not so much about conflicting inputs, but in being forced to focus on a single input at one time. That drives me crazy. Much like the development of opposing muscle groups, moving between multiple projects or topics, listen to music while reading, or “skimming” audio books or podcasts while working allows me to find equilibrium — and better innovate.