The common thread in the research is clear: New experiences seems to lead to more creativity.
CHICAGO (MainStreet) -- The leisurely two-week (or more) summer vacation may be a relic of the past. These days, it's easier to list the reason you shouldn't go away. It costs too much. You can't afford to leave work for that long. You're too busy and stressed out to even think about planning a trip.
But what if leaving your company for a while actually made the business stronger? If getting away made you a more effective a leader when you got back?
Then a vacation wouldn't be a luxury, it would be a necessity.
Americans have long celebrated the workaholic, who's always available for a conference call or breakfast meeting or late-night email session. Even when we're technically on vacation, we cart our cellphones and laptops along. But if you want your company to grow, or diversify, or simply get out of a rut, you have to get creative -- and that doesn't happen when you're following the same old routines.
Recent research on creativity has found that people think most freely when they escape from their everyday habits. The crucial thing to remember is that creativity isn't just for artists or poets; it applies just as equally to solving complex business problems. Learn to think creatively and you have an edge in everything from product development to vendor negotiations to marketing plans.
In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer offers case studies of artists and scientists who had dramatic breakthroughs, looking for common threads between their experiences. One of his underlying points is that creativity isn't simply a personality trait certain people have and others don't; it's a skill that can be learned and honed.
One of the book's most important insights is that inspiration comes when we aren't necessarily looking for it. Focusing attention on a problem is good up to a point, as your brain sorts through all the relevant details and hurdles. But then you have to give it up to your subconscious. Activities that literally get you away from your desk -- such as a walk or a long shower -- are more effective than an hours-long, in-office brainstorming session.
Variety also enhances creative connections. If you follow the exact same route to work every day, the exact same office routine and the exact same evening wind-down, you'll follow the exact same patterns of thinking. Expose yourself to new people, unfamiliar locations and unexpected conversations, however, and you're giving your brain lots of new input to work with.
In other words: Taking a vacation from your business can inspire great ideas about that business.
Other studies in scientific journals have confirmed the link between getting away and thinking more creatively. Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity, co-written by business professors William Maddux of Insead in Fontainebleau, France, and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, concluded that people who had lived in a foreign country were more likely to be creative problem-solvers.
The authors designed five studies, each with a different measure of creativity. (One study rated how well test subjects handled a tricky one-on-one negotiation; for another, test subjects were asked to draw a picture of an alien creature.) The more subjects had adapted to a foreign culture -- learning the language, making friends with locals -- the more creative they tended to be. Intriguingly, simply asking subjects to recall their past experiences abroad was enough to increase their creativity temporarily, by taking them mentally out of their present circumstances.
As the authors wrote: "It may be that those critical months or years of turning cultural bewilderment into concrete understanding may instill not only the ability to 'think outside the box' but also the capacity to realize that the box is more than a simple square."
Another study, Lessons from a Faraway Land: The Effect of Spatial Distance on Creative Cognition, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by researchers at Indiana University, found that test subjects showed more creativity in problem-solving when they thought the test they were given was designed far away, rather than close to home. In other words, just thinking about a distant place made them more creative. The same phenomenon has been demonstrated with time distances: If a person thinks an event is not likely to happen, or will happen in the far-off future, they will be more creative when describing it.
The common thread between all this research is clear: The more we immerse ourselves in new, unfamiliar experiences, the more creative we can be. Vacations force us out of the everyday, allowing our brains to spark with ideas.
Now if only we could write off a trip to Italy as a business expense.