In the world of e-commerce, so much is written about how to take better care of the customer, that the poor old store owner tends to get left out of the picture. Occupied with daily tasks and an unrelenting onslaught of distractions, one of the most significant challenges facing the beleaguered founder is how to recreate the mindset and creativity which led to the formation of the business in the first place.

In his excellent book, The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel Levitin speaks at length about this subject. It’s rare to find a book that blends tips for organising information alongside treatise on creativity, but Daniel deftly combines the two to describe a landscape of cognitive overload that snuffs out daydreaming – an essential part of the creative process.

If while reading this, to-dos are ping-ponging around your brain, you’re not alone. Business owners face so many daily decisions and distractions that even a Buddhist Monk would retreat to his temple in the face of such an onslaught. The challenge then is to silence the noise and focus on what makes a difference to your business. Or in other words, to attain a balance where creativity is allowed to flourish in the midst of a fundamentally distracting environment.

Before we look at strategies to free up the mind, let’s first examine your history with creativity. Aside from starting a business, which required an idea (the most creative step, so far), there must have been times when other thoughts occurred to you, or perhaps when a solution presented itself seemingly out of the blue? Humans are always ready to conjure up a new turn of phrase, and surely ‘out of the blue’, (what Henri Poincaré called ‘sudden illumination’) is just another way to explain the result of a creative process.

In these moments of creativity, were you burdened with decisions, under intolerable pressure, made immobile by fear? If the answer is no, you’re with the majority. The fight or flight response is easily activated and not conducive to creativity, or, as the Cognitive Neuroscience of Thought Laboratory at the University of British Columbia describe it, ‘undirected thought processes’; in other words, daydreaming.

Is it such a surprise that the benefits of letting the mind wander are only now openly discussed? Actually, yes. The e-commerce community reflects trends in the broader business world, a realm which values quantitive analysis over non-statistical qualitative research at every turn.

Daydreaming again

Alexander Graham Bell called it the power of ‘unconscious cerebration’, Einstein, ‘combinatory play’, yet finding time for the process of daydreaming is regarded as a poor use of time by traditional business leaders. Of course, business admin has its place, but if you’re always interrupted, under pressure, fearful and unable to find the space to create the conditions for new ideas to appear, your business will, in a perfect example of irony, fail.

It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down…

Bob Dylanon songwriting

1. Manage distractions

At this point, I check my phone, whose ringer I had turned off. Two missed calls, three emails and a news notification – if I’d had the phone on, I would have been continuously distracted and unable to think or maintain the feeling of inner calm which writing always affords me. In short, for creativity’s sake, it might be a good idea to turn the phone off, silence the radio (songs with words are really hard to avoid engaging with) and, in a terrible perversion of the Pomodoro Technique, put a plum on your desk. You can choose your fruit, but something to signify to your work colleagues that you are not to be disturbed is essential; it’s also an excellent snack once you’ve drifted back to earth for the day.

2. Don’t reply to email

Even once back to task management duties, answering email is a black hole from which it can become impossible to extricate yourself. Estimates vary, but spending upwards of 17 hours per working week on email is not unusual. Rather than reply to every email, I would like to propose a radical approach: don’t reply.

To clarify, set up an auto-responder that triggers for each email that hits your inbox. In the responder, apologise that you may not be able to reply quickly, or at all: the ethos of email is no different when managing personal work mail or your store’s newsletters – you merely have to set a reply expectation. Now, whenever you receive a new email, if the person is someone with whom you wish to communicate, assign them VIP status, route them around your responder, and in short order, you’ll find email becomes infinitely more manageable. Oh, and that crushing 3 am email-guilt that wakes you from your slumbers? Gone!

3. Stop going to meetings

Unnecessary meetings are the preserve of the damned, and you don’t want to toast your behind like a marshmallow in the fires of hell for eternity, do you? If a meeting lasts for an hour, and it’s three people’s time, that’s three combined lost hours. Was the meeting good for you?

The Harvard Business Review has a blog on this topic which illustrates how complicated the psychology of a meeting can become without (and seemingly, with) ground rules. Surely though, before organising a meeting, the question should be asked as to whether it is at all necessary? Also, what is the goal of the meeting? All of this might sound obvious, but how many meetings have you been in where it became quickly apparent that there was no good reason for scheduling it in the first place?

Perhaps a meeting should only be arranged if all other avenues of communication have been exhausted, or proved themselves unfit methods with which to tackle the proposed topic? But that only deals with part of the issue. Many issues require a face to face meeting, but do they demand that everyone attend? Or could a well-written summary of the meeting suffice?

4. Away from work, rest

The working day is increasingly demanding, stressful and long. To counter its effect, it follows that we should make more of our rest time. But how many of us sit rat-like on our smartphones, even after a full day of digital devices? A few months back, under intolerable pressure from an (intolerable) investor, I threw my phone at the wall. As it splintered into a thousand pieces, I felt momentarily free. Of course, it wasn’t the phone’s fault; in my highly-stressed state, I wasn’t able to separate the medium from the message. That moment though served to reveal two truths: I needed to recover my balance and to sever the link to my changeling investors as quickly as possible (a tale for another time…).

5. Be aware of your conditioning

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that we are all, in various ways, conditioned into modes of thought, belief and behaviour. Becoming aware of conditioning means looking deep inside to see how we react to things and how we are in relationship to others. Apply this to the business world, and the truth is you may hold views and opinions that limit your ability to think freely and which prejudice your decisions. Regardless of the way you are conditioned (and you are most certainly conditioned), being aware of it and working to attain the peace of mind and clarity that comes with a free, unfettered mind will help both at work and in your personal life.

The act of recognising and challenging conditioning is quite a big topic, but there are few better guides along this path than J. Krishnamurti.

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