From billboards to banner ads to bathing suits, corporate logos are everywhere. They're so ubiquitous that we tune them out. They're just part of the scenery of the modern world.

But just because we stop noticing logos doesn't mean they stop affecting us. A group of researchers published a study in the Journal of Consumer Research that explored the subliminal impact that logos can have on our behavior. And what they found might surprise you.

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: The researchers wanted to see whether subliminal exposure to company logos could impact behavior in areas such as creative expression. To explore this, the they gathered two groups of university students and asked them to complete a basic counting task on the computer. But while completing this task, a company logo (either Apple or IBM) was flashed on the screen. Each individual was exposed to one of the two logos 48 times for a duration of 13 milliseconds per flash (much too fast to be consciously noticed).
  • The test: Both the Apple and the IBM groups were then given a standard creativity test: they were asked to brainstorm as many creative uses for a brick as they could.
  • The findings: Individuals who had been secretly flashed the Apple logo performed 19% better on the creativity task than individuals who had "seen" the IBM logo. Even though their exposure to the two brands was entirely subliminal, the Apple logo managed to seriously improve individual's creative ability.
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Unsplash via @RobsonHMorgan

Naps.

The best, right? They're refreshing, relaxing, and revitalizing. And they're also super frowned upon during work hours.

Unless you've got a very cool boss, pulling out a pillow and catching some z's at your desk will probably earn you a reprimand.

But, as shown by research published by the National Institute of Health, napping on the job is actually a professional power-up. It's one of the best ways to keep your brain open and receptive to new information throughout the day. Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers

  • The setup: Researchers gathered a collection of subjects and divided them into two groups: the "nap group" and the "no nap" group. Both groups were asked to complete two tests that measured their ability to learn new information, one at noon and another at 6 p.m.
  • The twist: In the time between these two tasks, individuals in the nap group took a 100-minute snooze, while individuals in the no nap group stayed awake.
  • The findings: Without a nap, individuals performed much worse on the second learning task than on the first. But a sleepy siesta between the two tests prevented this deterioration in learning ability. Subjects who took an afternoon nap performed just as well on the second learning task as they did on the first. So, what gives?
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Open plan offices are all the rage. In an effort to spark collaboration and innovativeness, companies are removing partitions as fast as they can. Walls and cubicles are so 90's. The era of the free-range employee has arrived.

But this architectural shift has had a sonic impact: open plan offices are much louder than their more traditional counterparts. Ambient office noise—the keyboard tapping, coffee slurping, and coworker chatting that's common to every office—just sounds louder with fewer walls to muffle the noise.

In many overly loud offices, workers turn to white noise to help tune out distractions. But, according to research recently presented at the Acoustical Society of America, there could be a better solution.

For Skimmers

  • The setup: Researchers wanted to test the impact of "masking" noises (sounds played to cover or distract from ambient noise) on focus. To do so, they gathered a group of subjects and divided it into three. Each of the three groups completed a task designed to test focus but did so while listening to a different type of background noise. The first group worked while listening to office noise masked with white noise, the second worked while listening to office noise masked with nature sounds, while the last worked while listening to pure, unmasked office noise.
  • The findings: Subjects who listened to natural masking sounds performed much better on the focus task than individuals who listened to white noise. And both performed better than the "no masking" group.
  • The takeaway: Next time you're trying to focus in an overloud and overstimulating office, hit play on some natural masking sounds.
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Spirals. 3D boxes. Complicated flower patterns. That weird looking "S" thing that everyone learned to draw in elementary school.

As long as there are tedious conference calls, boring presentations, and monotonous mid-afternoon meetings, there will be doodling. Doodling is a time-tested technique for making unexciting tasks a little more manageable.

And it is, almost universally, viewed as a distraction. If you're focusing on shading, you're probably not paying enough attention to the call, presentation, or meeting (so the popular wisdom goes). But a researcher in the United Kingdom ran a study to test this common assumption.

And her findings might surprise you.

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: A group of 40 study participants each listened to a two-minute, intentionally monotonous recording of an individual talking about an upcoming party. While listening they were asked to take notes on the important information (e.g. the names of those intending to attend the party). Then, after the recording had finished, participants were given a memory test to see how much of that important information they could remember without checking their notes.
  • The twist: While taking notes on the recording, half the participants were told to doodle, while the other half were instructed to focus exclusively on notetaking.
  • The findings: Individuals who doodled as they took notes were 29% better at remembering important information from the recording than non-doodlers.
  • The takeaway: Doodling isn't a distraction, it's a cognitive power-up. If you're trying to retain information while listening to something (or someone) boring, doodling can help you stay alert and engaged.
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Background music is all around us— doctor's offices, supermarkets, restaurants, coworking spaces, barber shops, and more.

You probably don't notice just how ubiquitous background music is because…well…that's the point. It's background music. You're not supposed to notice it.

But just because we don't notice background music, doesn't mean it doesn't affect us. According to a handful of scientific studies, background music can impact our productivity both positively and negatively. It just depends on what type of work you're doing. Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers:

  • Bad for reading and memorization: A few years ago, a group of German researchers undertook a review of scholarly work on background music and human performance. The researchers painstakingly analyzed more than 180 scientific studies and found that, among other things, subjects read less efficiently and memorized less effectively when background music was playing.
  • Good for repetition and simplicity: A classic study not included in the German researchers' review found that factory employees who listened to background music were more productive on the assembly line than employees who didn't. What's important here is the type of work that these employees were doing: boring, repetitive, simple tasks.
  • In summary: Background music seems to boost productivity on tasks that don't require much brainpower or active attention, while degrading productivity on tasks that eat up a ton of mental resources (like reading or memorizing).
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Many offices manage indoor air quality for health reasons—too much dust or mold in the air can have some nasty effects on human health.

But it turns out, air quality also has a pretty big impact on productivity. According to a study by a Danish researcher, dirty indoor air can be a major productivity drain. Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: The research team refitted offices in Sweden, Denmark, and Singapore to have lower or higher levels of air quality. In some cases, they decreased air quality by hanging strips of 20-year-old carpet in front of sources of office ventilation. In other cases, they did so by reducing outdoor air flow and increasing air circulation through dusty air filters. Researchers then compared the productivity of employees in these "dirty air" offices to employees in "clean air" offices.
  • The findings: Air quality had a huge impact on productivity levels. Employees in the "dirty air" offices typed 6.5% more slowly and made 18% more typing errors than their "clean air" counterparts. And here's the really amazing part: employees didn't notice a difference in air quality between the dirty and clean offices.
  • The takeaway: Even if you don't notice it, low air quality could be disrupting your productivity. If you want to stop dirty air from polluting your productivity, clean up your indoor atmosphere!
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What is the role of sunlight on creativity?

In one study, researchers compared people at a company who sat close to a window to those who worked without a window in sight. They found that employees who sat near a window were happier, slept better, and exercised more—all of which contributes to higher productivity.

But window access isn't always easy to come by. In most offices, spots near windows are limited and coveted; you might have to make it all the way to a corner office before you get a window of your own.

That's why this study caught my eye. Apparently, artificial sunlight can provide many of the productivity benefits of real sunlight. No windows needed. But you'll need the right kind of artificial light. Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: Researchers built their experiment by tinkering with the lighting at a U.K. call center. While one floor of the call center was left with normal fluorescent lighting, another floor had its lighting updated to be much brighter and whiter than normal (think artificial sunlight vs. flickering fluorescents). Researchers waited a few weeks, then had employees on each floor fill out surveys about their recent performance.
  • The findings: The group in the artificial sunlight condition reported that they felt more alert, less sleepy, and more mentally healthy than the fluorescent group. After being exposed to the brighter, whiter light, employees on average felt 36.8% more productive than they had in the normal office lighting.
  • The takeaway: Real sunlight is good but can be hard to come by. Artificial sunlight is great for alertness, mental health, and productivity. And luckily, artificial sunlight is accessible to all, regardless of window access.
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As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."

So begins one of the most famous pieces of absurdist literature, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Kafka was a 20th Century German novelist, and his works are a staple of high school English classes everywhere.

But Kafka is good for more than just confounding precocious teenagers. According to a study published in the journal Psychological Science, reading Kafka and other absurdist works could help make your brain better at spotting patterns. Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: Researchers gathered a group of Canadian undergrads and divided them into two groups. Both groups were given different short stories to read. The absurdist group read a Kafka story, The Country Doctor, while the normal group read a story called The Country Dentist, which had none of Kafka's absurdist panache.
  • The test: After doing the reading, both groups were given a task to test how quickly they could learn new rules and pick up on novel patterns. Each subject was given a series of 9 letter strings (e.g. X M X R T V T M G). These strings conformed to certain rules (e.g. "the letter V must always be sandwiched between the two T's"), but participants had to decode these rules for themselves by examining the examples. Once they had looked at all the examples, both groups were then tested to see if they had successfully identified the patterns.
  • The findings: Subjects who had read the absurdist story were 62% better at correctly identifying the patterns in the letter strings. If you want to improve your pattern recognition, read something brain bending!
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I've got something to tell you. But you might want to lie down first.

According to a study in the journal Cognitive Brain Research, people solve simple insight problems faster when lying down than when standing up. Aha moments of creativity come more quickly when you're reclined on your back. Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: Researchers asked a group of participants to solve anagrams (a method commonly used to test insight). "Solving an anagram often produces an 'Aha!' or Eureka moment…These 'insight' moments are similar to what people experience when achieving creative breakthroughs," the author of the study, Dr. Darren Lipnicki, explains, Half of the group solved these anagrams standing up, while the other half solved worked lying down.
  • The findings: On average, recliners solved anagrams more than 10% faster than standers.
  • The takeaway: Lying down could help sharpen your powers of insight and make aha moments come quicker!
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@jakobowens1 via Unpslah

On the Florida-Georgia border there's a very special forest.

Researchers at the Tall Timbers Research Station have worked doggedly for the past 40 years to keep a 23-acre plot of land free from forest fires. And they've been successful. For four decades, the dense, tangled forest on those 23 acres has been growing without being thinned by fire.

And the forest is worse because of it.

After 40 years without a major burn, the protected forest had lost nearly 90% of its plant diversity.

Forest fires play an important role in nature. They burn away rotting trees and suffocating brush to make room for young saplings to rejuvenate the forest. Destruction enables growth.

The same is true for creativity. Some of the world's most dynamic creators are also devoted destroyers. Their creativity comes from their commitment to destruction. Let me show you what I mean.

Skimmable Examples:

  • George Carlin is one of the most famous stand-up comedians of all time. He's also one of the most prolific. Carlin released an album or a special almost every year for more than four decades. How did he keep up such a feverish creative pace? Carlin never reused material. At the end of the year, he would toss out his old jokes and start anew. He pushed himself to stay creatively productive by trashing his old work.
  • Stanley Kubrick directed Eyes Wide Shut, Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and a handful of other genre-defining, history-making movies. When Kubrick was filming The Shining, he shot and reshot a single scene 127 times, the vast majority of which ended up on the cutting room floor. It was enough to earn Kubrick an award from the Guinness Book of World Records for the most retakes of a single scene. All just to get that one perfect shot.
  • Ira Glass, host and producer of the radio show This American Life, is a creative force. More than 2 million people listen to his program every week. But, as Glass shared in a freewheeling lecture on the art of storytelling, he still throws away between one-third and one-half of all the interviews his team records. Think about that. One of the most famous names in radio interviewing trashes up to half of all his interviews. Just so that he can find those truly magical clips.
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Remember Opposite Day? The game you'd play as a kid where everything you said meant the opposite of what it usually did?

If you do, this study might give you flashbacks.

According to an article in the journal Thinking and Reasoning, the best time for creative discovery is actually the opposite of when you probably think it is.

Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: Researchers gathered a group of 428 college students and gave each one a questionnaire to determine whether they thought of themselves as more of a morning or a night person. Then, students were randomly assigned to a morning testing session or a late-afternoon testing session and were given a series of analytic problems (simple math or reasoning problems that required little creativity) and insight problems (more complex brainteasers that required creative insight to solve).
  • The findings: The students solved the analytic problems equally well regardless of time of day. However, when it came to the insight problems, time of day had a big effect on success rate. But maybe not how you'd expect. Morning people were much better at having creative insights later in the day, while night owls were most creatively insightful in the morning.
  • The takeaway: Tackling a tough creative problem at an abnormal time can help make flashes of creative insight more likely. But why is this the case?
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@wildlittlethingsphoto via Unsplash

Brainstorming is a lot like Where's Waldo.

By the end of a brainstorming session, good ideas, bad ideas, unfeasible ideas, tried-it-already ideas, and a couple amazing ideas are all mixed up on a whiteboard or notepad.

It can be hard to spot the game-changing idea in the sea of almost-but-not-quite-right ideas.

But there's a simple trick, discovered by this study, that you can use to upgrade your team's idea-spotting abilities. Let me explain.

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: A group of employees from the Dutch Tax Ministry agreed to participate in a research study exploring brainstorming techniques. Employees were each given a list of 18 pre-brainstormed ideas for improving public trains and were asked to select the five most creative. Researchers already had creativity ratings for each of the 18 ideas, generated by a group of 10 creativity experts. They compared each employee's rankings of idea creativity against the master rankings to see how successful they were at picking the most creative.
  • The twist: But, before completing this task, half the employees were given a special experimental treatment: they looked at a picture of a smiling baby and listened to upbeat music (designed to make employees feel happier), read slogans such as "where there's a will, there's a way," (designed to make them feel more outgoing), and completed a self-affirmation writing exercise (designed to make them feel more confident). The other half of the employee group received no experimental treatments.
  • The results: The group that had been made to feel happier, more outgoing, and more confident were much better at correctly selecting creative ideas. Boosting your team's mood can improve their ability to spot creative ideas.
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So Much Social Media

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How many times has this happened to you?

You walk away from a conversation, meeting, or presentation with a stack of notes and a brain full of things to remember.

Then, over the next couple of hours, something starts to happen. I like to call it the "Memory Hunger Games." One by one, the things you committed to memory as you were taking notes (deadlines, project specs, feedback, instructions, etc.) start dropping away.

By the end of the day, your notepad is still full, but your memory feels empty.

On one hand, that's totally cool—that's why people take notes, to remember things they might forget. On the other hand, wouldn't it be better if you didn't have to rely completely on your notes?

Good notes should supplement your memory, not replace it. Here are two science-backed tips for keeping your memory sharp when it comes to notetaking.

For Skimmers:

  • Write it by hand: In an appropriately named study ("The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard"), a group of researchers found that taking notes by hand is more effective (leads to deeper processing and longer retention) than taking notes on a computer.
  • Read it out loud: In another study, researchers found that reading something aloud improved memory more than reading something in your head. Reading aloud combined reading and listening in a way that improved information recall.
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A little bit of weird might be the key to a whole lot of creativity.

A group of researchers ran a study to see whether completing normal tasks in weird ways helped enhance cognitive flexibility (a key component of creativity). Here's what they found.

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: Researchers gathered a pool of Dutch college students and divided them into two groups. One group was asked to prepare a butter and chocolate chip sandwich (apparently this is a common Dutch breakfast).The other group was asked to prepare the same sandwich but was told to do so in a weird way—instead of sprinkling the chips on the buttered bread, they put the chips on a dish and pressed the bread onto the chips butter-side down so that the chips would stick. Both groups were then given a test to measure cognitive flexibility.
  • The findings: Students who prepared the breakfast sandwich in the unconventional way scored better on the cognitive flexibility test than those who made the sandwich in the usual way.
  • The takeaway: Adding some weird to your daily tasks may help make your mind more flexible and more creative.

Let's Get Weird

Routine-breaking can push your brain to think out of the box. Weird experiences, even just switching up your sandwich-prep pattern,couldbreak you out of your mental ruts.

Think of your daily routines as a game of Boggle. At a certain point, if you want to discover something new, you're going to have to shake things up.

There's growing support in the scholarly literature that routine-busting experiences can act as jet fuel for your creative spark.

One study found that the disruptive experience of studying abroad had a significantly positive impact on creativity.Another study showed that children taught a second language were more creative than their single-language peers. Jumping between languages was disruptive enough to encourage creative flexibility.

But luckily, you don't have to learn another language or visit another country to boost your creativity.

You just have to do what you usually do, but weirder. Brush your teeth and shower in a different order. Or take a different route to work. Or sit in a different place during lunch.

As this study makes clear, a little bit of weird can go a long way.

@coopery via Unsplash

Cat videos are the prototypical example of wasted on-the-job time. Only goof-offs and slackers waste worktime surfing YouTube for videos of kittens wearing hats or puppies meeting piglets, right?

Maybe not.

Believe it or not, a study run by four Japanese researchers found that looking at videos or pictures of cute animals may actually help make you more focused and more careful when completing tasks that require deliberateness and precision. Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers:

  • The set up: Researchers asked a group of students to play a game similar to Operation. With tweezers, each study participant would remove tiny plastic toys from holes on a game board made to look like a patient's body without touching the sides of the holes with the tweezers. Students were instructed to spend as much time as they needed to obtain the best possible score.
  • The twist: Before playing the game, half the students were shown extremely cute pictures of baby animals. The other students viewed pictures of adult animals (also cute, but not nearly as furry/fuzzy/huggable as the baby animals).
  • The findings: Participants who looked at cute animals scored higher and worked more deliberately than participants who viewed photos of adult animals. Researchers ran two additional experiments with slightly different study designs, both of which confirmed their initial conclusions: seeing cute animals improves focus and carefulness on subsequent tasks.
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Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You start the day with a long list of things you need to do. You work productively throughout the day and cross a good number of those things off your to-do list.

But at the end of the day, as you lie in bed trying to fall asleep, your mind keeps returning to the things you didn't do. It seems like there's still so much left undone. It feels like you didn't really make a dent.

Frustrating, right?

Well, if you'd like to blame something for keeping you up, blame the "Zeigarnik Effect."

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: In a classic psychology study, Bluma Zeigarnik (after whom the effect is named) gave a group of subjects a series of 18-22 simple tasks to complete. About half of the individuals were allowed to complete all the tasks without interruption, while the other half were repeatedly interrupted mid-task and asked to move on.
  • The twist: When both groups had reached the end of the task list, Zeigarnik asked subjects to recall as many of their tasks as possible. Subjects did a much better job of remembering tasks that they didn't complete than the ones they did.
  • The findings: This is the Zeigarnik Effect. Incomplete tasks are much more likely to stick in your mind than completed ones. It's why you may not be able to fall asleep easily after having a productive day. Luckily, the Zeigarnik Effect can be defeated.
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@lvnatikk via Unsplash

Cat videos are the prototypical example of wasted on-the-job time. Only goof-offs and slackers waste worktime surfing YouTube for videos of kittens wearing hats or puppies meeting piglets, right?

Maybe not.

Believe it or not, a study run by four Japanese researchers found that looking at videos or pictures of cute animals may actually help make you more focused and more careful when completing tasks that require deliberateness and precision. Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers:

  • The set up: Researchers asked a group of students to play a game similar to Operation. With tweezers, each study participant would remove tiny plastic toys from holes on a game board made to look like a patient's body without touching the sides of the holes with the tweezers. Students were instructed to spend as much time as they needed to obtain the best possible score.
  • The twist: Before playing the game, half the students were shown extremely cute pictures of baby animals. The other students viewed pictures of adult animals (also cute, but not nearly as furry/fuzzy/huggable as the baby animals).
  • The findings: Participants who looked at cute animals scored higher and worked more deliberately than participants who viewed photos of adult animals. Researchers ran two additional experiments with slightly different study designs, both of which confirmed their initial conclusions: seeing cute animals improves focus and carefulness on subsequent tasks.
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@breather via Unsplash

Fights over the office thermostat are as inevitable as the seasons.

If you work in an office, chances are you've surreptitiously tweaked the temperature dial, only to find your change undone by one of your equally sneaky coworkers. Thermostat battles can lead to heated disagreements and icy stares.

Those who prefer a warmer workplace will be happy to know that they have a group of Cornell researchers on their side.

Their study found that turning up the thermostat can be great for productivity. Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers

  • The setup: Researchers outfitted a group of office workers at an insurance company in Orlando, Florida, with portable temperature sensors and loaded their computers with productivity tracking software that measured total time spent typing and typing errors, among other things. Measurements were taken every 15 minutes for more than three weeks.
  • The findings: Higher temperatures (around 77 degrees) were associated with greater productivity than lower temperatures (around 68 degrees). Warmer workers typed 150% more and made 44% fewer mistakes than their chillier colleagues.
  • The takeaway: Warm offices can help spur productivity hot streaks.
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Let's say you're trying to come up with a big idea—a creative blockbuster that will really shake things up.

What's the first thing you do? If you're like most leaders, you pull your team together and start brainstorming. If two heads are better than one, than a group of heads must be fantastic, right?

Turns out, jumping right to group brainstorming could be stunting your collective creative process. A recent study might make you rethink your brainstorming strategy.

For Skimmers

  • The setup: In their first experiment, researchers placed a group of college students in a room and asked them to brainstorm ways to improve their campus. Half the individuals brainstormed in groups of four, while half the individuals brainstormed alone.
  • The findings: The loner brainstormers produced significantly more novel ideas (44% more in the first 5 minutes) than group brainstormers.
  • The reason: Why were groups less effective than individuals at brainstorming? Probably because of something known as "fixation effects." Group brainstormers seem to subconsciously gravitate toward ideas that are similar to ones that have already been suggested by others in the group. By fixating on ideas already proposed, group brainstormers generate fewer new ideas than individual brainstormers.
  • The takeaway: If you're looking to increase the novelty of ideas produced in your brainstorming sessions, you'll have to find a way to avoid these fixation effects.
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@chrisbair via Unsplash

Humblebragging sucks. It mixes the worst parts of cockiness and false modesty into one irritating, cringe-inducing cocktail.

But it turns out humblebragging isn't just irritating; it's also ineffective. As a recently published study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard Business School has shown, humblebragging is a terrible strategy for building interpersonal goodwill. Here's why.

For Skimmers

  • Over the course of nine different experiments, researchers exposed subjects to humblebrags (defined as "bragging masked by a complaint or humility") and askedthem to describe their feelings toward the person doing the bragging.
  • Subjects consistently rated humblebraggers as less likable and less competent than non-humblebraggers. Humblebragging made individuals seem both irritating and incompetent (quite the one-two punch of negative qualities).
  • What's more, researchers found that humblebraggers actually scored lower on perceived likability and competency than normal braggers. Translation? Humblebragging is even more alienating than regular old bragging!
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@vitaliy77 via Unsplash

For most of my life, I approached creative projects like a mountain climber preparing to summit Everest.

Before I started, I would obsessively check my gear. Stacks of notes? Check. Oodles of time? Check. Pens, paper, computer, charger, stress ball, coffee, power bar, and white board? Check, check, check, check, check, check, check, and check.

I wanted to make sure I had everything I could possibly need at my fingertips. Once I started climbing my creative mountain, I didn't want anything impeding my journey. I wanted to create without limitation.

Turns out, that's a bad idea. Limitations are actually great for creativity. To understand why, we'll need to explore something called the "paradox of choice." And to understand the paradox of choice, let's talk about jam.

For Skimmers:

  • In a famous study, researchers set up two booths at a Northern California supermarket. Each booth offered free samples of a variety of jams. The only difference was in the number of flavor samples available. While one booth offered 24 flavors, the other offered only 6.
  • Researchers wanted to see which booth spurred more jam sales. Most people would assume the booth that offered more flavor options would sell more jam, right?
  • Turns out the 6-choice booth destroyed the 24-choice booth. Customers with fewer options bought jam 30% of the time, while customers with more options purchased jam only 3% of the time. What's more, researchers found that individuals who were offered more choices were actually less happy with their final decision.
  • That's the paradox of choice: Having more choices can actually hinder decision making.
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Hi!


I run a company called TrackMaven and wrote a book coming out in June from Penguin Random House about how anyone can have moments of creative genius.


This blog is my musings on how you can identify your potential and act on it.


Every Wednesday and Sunday I send a "creative brief" with creativity hacks and tips backed by real-world science and case studies.


Join the family below.

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