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Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday! I am currently in-hiding from carbs (the cookies were as good as they looked).

For today's newsletter, we're going to be talking about noise. According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, moderate levels of ambient noise can significantly boost creative thinking ability. But why?

For Skimmers:

  • Researchers ran an experiment with a group of undergraduate students at the University of British Columbia to study the effect of background noise on creativity.
  • Subjects in this experiment were asked to complete a traditional test of creativity with ambient noise played in the background at three different levels: low (50dB), medium (65dB), and high (80dB).
  • The study found that moderate levels of ambient noise (an average coffee shop) are more conducive to creative thought than either low (a hushed library) or high (a packed restaurant) levels of noise.
  • Researchers concluded that moderate levels of ambient noise encourage creative thinking by causing subtle distractions which increase the likelihood of higher level abstract processing by making it hard to over-focus on the details.
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Starting to meditate can seem overwhelming at first.

When many people think of meditation, they think of 20-day silent retreats and eight-hour sessions of intense concentration. They view meditation as a time-consuming and energy-intensive hobby that is just a little too intimidating to jump into with both feet.

If that's sounds like you, reading this study might change your mind. According to research in the Journal of Consciousness and Cognition, even short meditation sessions (done for only a couple days) can substantially increase focus and significantly decrease anxiety.

Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: Researchers gathered 63 students from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and assigned each to one of two groups: the "audiobook" group and the "meditation" group. Students in the meditation group spent 20 minutes a day for the next four days doing a mindfulness meditation exercise, while students in the audiobook group spend the same amount of time each day listening to a recording of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. After four days, the students each filled out a survey and completed a battery of tasks to measure focus and anxiety levels.
  • The findings: The meditation group had a significant increase in focus and a decrease in anxiety compared to the audiobook group.
  • The takeaway: You don't have to hire a yogi or retreat to a secluded cabin for a month to take advantage of the brain-sharpening benefits of meditation. You can boost your focus and blast away your anxiety just by setting aside the time it takes to watch an episode of Friends (sans commercials). It's that easy!
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Get This In Your Inbox!

YouTube! Facebook! Amazon!

Each are drains on precious company time. Employees who putz around social media, surf through viral video playlists, or purchase knickknacks and curios during work hours are killing productivity and degrading efficiency. Right? Maybe not.

The apocalyptic case against personal internet browsing during work hours is easy to understand. More time on personal digital dawdling means less time actually working. But just because it's easy to understand doesn't necessarily mean it's true.

According to a study authored by a researcher from the University of Melbourne, moderate amounts of personal internet browsing actually boosts productivity. Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: The researcher, Brent L.S. Coker, conducted a workplace productivity survey with 2,700 randomly selected office workers. Each individual was asked by the survey to describe his or her personal internet usage during work hours (i.e. sites visited, duration, frequency). Then, each respondent answered a battery of questions called the "Endicott Work Productivity Scale." The Endicott scale is a commonly used measure of workplace productivity and produces a score from of a low of 25 (think Homer Simpson with a hangover) to a high of 125 (think Hermione Granger with an espresso). The information gathered from the survey was then statistically analyzed to try to spot correlations between personal internet usage and workplace productivity.
  • The findings: Individuals who surfed the internet for personal reasons during work hours were about 9% more productive than individuals who did not. And individuals who broke this personal internet time up into a higher number of shorter breaks were about 16% more productive than all-work-all-the-time internet users.
  • The takeaway: The findings are clear! Personal surfing is productive, especially when using that surfing in short "internet breaks" spread throughout the day. If you're a manager, relaxing your restrictions against personal internet usage could help kickstart workplace productivity. If you're not a manager, print out this email and anonymously leave it on your boss's desk!
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Creative Briefs

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"Dreams, if they're any good, are always a little bit crazy." – Ray Charles

In my dreams, I've been chased by marshmallow monsters. I've flown over the Washington Monument just by flapping my arms. I've lived underwater and in outer space. In the hours between midnight and morning, my brain is a weird and wild place.

While you sleep, your imagination unfurls its full strength and creates without the hinderance of lame restrictions like "the U.S. legal code" or "gravity."

Many have tried to develop techniques to simulate the unbounded innovative power of the dream world. After all, what is brainstorming (where there are no bad ideas, and anything is possible) other than a dreaming exercise?

A new study offers an interesting and compelling method for improving your waking creativity with more of the imaginative spice of the nocturnal mind. All you have to do is start a dream journal.

For Skimmers:

  • The setup: A group of willing college students was assembled by researchers to explore the impact of recording dreams on creativity. The students were divided into two groups, one of which would describe their dreams in a journal every morning for a month and one of which would not (this group would instead write about an event from the day before). When the month of journaling was over, the students returned to the lab and were given a comprehensive creativity test.
  • The findings: The dream journalers boasted much higher scores for "imagination" and "novelty of perspective" than the other group.
  • The takeaway: If you want to improve your ability to think outside of the box, harness the power of your sleeping mind by starting a dream journal. By writing for just a few minutes a morning, you'll stretch your imagination by tuning in to the funky frequencies of the dream world.
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So Much Social Media

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


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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Get This In Your Inbox!

@freestocks via Unsplash

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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@jamakassi via Unsplash

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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So Much Social Media

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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@markusspiske via Unsplash

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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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.

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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Class clowns everywhere, rejoice!

A new study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology has demonstrated that short breaks for humor can actually help sharpen focus and strengthen concentration. Turns out, when you were cracking up the kids in your class you weren't being distracting—you were helping create a robust learning environment.Here's what you jokesters need to know.

For Skimmers

  • Researchers assigned 124 Australian college students to groups. One group watched a humorous video (an 8-minute clip from one of the Mr. Bean movies), while the other two groups watched non-humorous videos (an educational video and a travel video of a beach).
  • Participants in all three groups were then given a specially designed persistence test that included an unsolvable problem. Researchers measured how long they worked on that impossible problem before giving up.
  • Individuals who had watched the humorous video before starting the impossible task worked, on average, more than 50% longer than individuals who watched the non-humorous videos. In short? Humor made them more persistent!
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@ripato via Unsplash

A coat of paint could turn your office into a productivity dojo.

Researchers at the University of British Columbiaran a study to see whether looking at the colors blue or red could meaningfully impact task efficiency. Here's what they found.

For Skimmers:

  • Researchers had a group of participants complete a battery of tasks after having been exposed to either red or blue.
  • Individuals who viewed the color red performed better on tasks that measured precision (detail-oriented tasks), while individuals exposed to blue performed better on tasks that measured creativity (flexibility-oriented tasks)
  • Harnessing the power of color is an easy way to enhance your performance. Surround yourself with the color best suited to your task and you could give yourself a competitive advantage.
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@johnschno via Unsplash

Want to focus more and stress less? Pausing your email might be the key.

Working without access to email can significantly increase focus and decrease stress, says a study run by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and the U.S. Army. Here's what you need to know.

For Skimmers:

  • Researchers studied a group of office workers for a week. Half the workers had their email access cut off entirely, while the other half were allowed to continue using their email normally.
  • Researchers monitored participants' work output and online behavior during the duration of the study to see how the differences in email access impacted performance. Participants in both groups wore monitors to measure their stress levels through heartrate variation (the more variation in heartrate, the more stressed the individual).
  • Participants without access to email blew their email-using colleagues out of the water; "email-free" individuals focused longer and stressed less. These findings suggest that working without the disruption of email could have some serious productivity benefits.
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Jenelle Ball via Unsplash

Boring work is a part of life.

Dry reports must be read, messy files organized, and mind-numbing meetings attended. I hope that these tasks are few and far between for you, but unfortunately, almost all jobs (even the creative ones) involve some amount of boredom.

If you've been thinking of your boring tasks as wasted time, you could be missing out. According to two researchers from the U.K., your boring tasks can be harnessed to help increase your creativity. Here's what you need to know.

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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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