In the pursuit of innovation and making a meaningful dent in this world, most people likely have the perspective that time spent on activities outside of one's calling is just a distraction and utter waste of time.
But is this really true?
Could blindly devoting all your time to only one narrow focus actually be hurting your chances of making a real innovative impact on the world?
Well, as it turns out - Yes.
Having hobbies and working on multiple problems at once may be a critical element to experiencing higher levels of creative success.
It's Not Just About Having Hobbies, It's About Having Better Hobbies
If you are now in a panic because you want to change the world and just realized you have zero hobbies or interesting things going on outside of your work, well you should be. But before you rush to sign up for League of Legends, one of those drink-tons-of-wine-while-sorta-painting classes, ballroom dancing, a hiking club, or a weekly improv class, you should first sit back and finish the rest of this article.
You see, not just any hobby will help you unleash your true creative potential. And if you think quantity equals quality in this scenario, you're dead wrong.
In a study of 40 of the world's most prolific and impactful scientists (including 4 who eventually won Nobel prizes), Robert Root-Bernstein and colleagues uncovered some interesting correlations between how scientists spent their time and their professional impact. Of course, we know that correlation does not equal causation, but these findings, coupled with the interview data that they also collected, give us an interesting perspective of what it means to spend one's time wisely.
They found that not all hobbies are created equal when it comes to being fruitful for innovation. Scientists engaged in hobbies that exercised visual thinking, kinesthetic feelings, and verbal and auditory pattern recognition were significantly more likely to have higher professional impact ratios in their field in terms of citations per publication. Interestingly, painting, drawing, and sculpting had the strongest relations with impact.
What About Exercise and Sports? Those are Hobbies, too....Right?
Your time spent exercising and playing sports is crucial in terms of staying strong, focused, and energized. But not all forms of athletic activity are equal when it comes to being positively related to professional impact and innovation. Root-Bernstein et al. found that running, walking, sailing, tennis, and surfing were all positively related to scientific impact.
I know what you are thinking - walking?!? I mean, come on...walking?!? Really? But it's so slow and worthless.
The reasoning for why these athletic activities were linked to professional impact was that these activities (as opposed to more intense sports such as football, soccer, and basketball) could all be performed through old age. The most impactful scientists in this study reported that indeed, they felt physical activity was a crucial component of their performance and creativity throughout their lifetime. Walking, although not as physically challenging as marathon-running, weight-lifting, or crossfit, may have other creativity-inducing benefits besides just helping one stay physically fit. Ben Greenfield, probably my favorite health and fitness podcaster, recently shared that one life-changing lesson he learned was simply to take more walks. Motivated by a chapter in Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, Ben became inspired by the phrase, "solvitur ambulando" - which translates into "it is solved by walking." One of the best ways to bust out of creative blocks and solve challenging problems is to simply go on more walks.
I will start walking more and also will ask my girlfriend or boyfriend if they want to take up clay-making.
I'm golden then. Watch out world, here I come!
But Wait, Having Creative Impact Is also About Spending Time on Other Problems
Getting some "better" hobbies into your life can definitely help spark your creativity, but if you spend all of your vocational time working on only one main project, and nothing else, you likely will not make as much professional impact in your field or on the world as you hope.
In the same study, the researchers found that many scientists reported that their best ideas came to them while working on different problems, both those related and unrelated to their primary focus. Perhaps most fruitful for innovation is the link between coming up with ideas while working on different, but related problems and professional impact. The data from this study indicates that the most successful and innovative scientists work effectively on more than one problem simultaneously, switching between problems as their energy and inspiration moves them. Often, new insights into problems that may have caused the scientist difficulty in one project spring up while working on their other projects. This likely happens because new associations and connections are being made between related or unrelated ideas - a critical mechanism of creativity.
The Main Takeaway: It's All about Integration
Before you rush out the door for your walk or call your boss and let her know that you want more problems to work on, let's dig a little deeper into the true meaning and the most critical-to-your-creativity findings of this study conducted by Root-Bernstein et al.
You've probably heard it before, but work-life integration, not work-life balance may be the key to an innovative career. Having the viewpoint that there are two aspects of life - 1) activities related to work, and 2) activities not related to work - can be detrimental to your creative success. In fact, the scientists with the least professional impact compared to their very successful peers perceived science as one thing, and other aspects of their lives as "totally independent competitors for time and energy."
The key takeaway that I want to leave you with is not to only to take more walks or devote your time to hobbies that stimulate visual thinking, kinesthetic feelings, and pattern recognition. It's not to take up more hobbies so that you may become more intellectually stimulated.
It's to take a good look at how and why you allocate your time the way you do and really scrutinize whether you are helping or hurting your innovative potential.
Some of the low-ranking scientists in the aforementioned study actually engaged in as wide a range of activities as the more successful ones. What was different, however, was how they viewed these activities. The most innovative scientists viewed their hobbies with a unifying focus - some how and in some way, each and every activity and problem they became involved with was an integral part of their overarching purpose. Each hobby and activity were not only elements necessary to being "cultured," but were viewed as valuable forms of training for various aspects of their primary work. Even time spent on problems apparently unrelated to their primary focus were viewed as being of value, as the possibility of extracting new insights from them to help with efforts of solving their original problem were deemed hopeful.
As you reflect on your working habits, your hobbies, and the way you spend your time, ask yourself, "Are all these things connected in some way, or am I just putzing around with a bunch of non-related things?"
Then, take action to engage in better hobbies, to work on a diversity of problems, and to ultimately strive to find some personally meaningful connection between all the things you do.