Why your iPhone is killing your creativity

Every day, the insatiable parasite that is your smartphone makes you worse at your job, writes a group creative director at Ogilvy.

If you're a creative, you should hate your smartphone. It's a parasite that is sucking the creativity out of you like an insatiable zombie leech. Every day it makes you worse at your job, yet every night you dutifully bring it back to life. You keep it constantly by your side, even as it robs you of what could bring you a Pencil or a Lion or a promotion in the most insidious way imaginable: by keeping you constantly entertained.

Long before Steve Jobs attached these metal and glass appendages to all of our bodies, David Ogilvy had a method for producing impactful creative—what he called "big ideas." He suggested "going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret ... if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you."

Take another look at those activities. Notice Ogilvy didn't advise listening to the radio, reading the paper, or flipping through a photo album—let alone doing all three at roughly the same time. He knew that entertaining yourself would short-circuit that "telephone line from your unconscious" and that the key to unlocking creative ideas was to let your mind wander, uninterrupted.

So to produce great work, according to Ogilvy, you need to be a little bored. Recent studies prove he was on to something.

Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire, Penn State University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have all concluded basically the same thing: that it's not until we're bored that we tap into our subconscious, and begin to make unusual or unexpected connections. And it's these left-field inspirations that all these incredibly seductive devices are destroying.

Let's take a step back for a minute.

Think about an art and copy team trying to crack a brief in 1967—or even 1997. What's in the room with them? No Wi-Fi. No laptops. No smartphones, tablets or wearables. Just the two of them, the walls, a bunch of blank pages—and their wandering minds. For hours. Makes you anxious just picturing that, doesn't it?

Now let's think about that scene today.

You're with your partner. The two of you are working on a brief for a new client. So naturally you pop open your laptop and do a quick scan of their recent ads, as well as their recent competitors'. A piece of music on one of them catches your ear so you look up the band. Wait, didn't you see them at Governors Ball last year? Let's check. Then you realize you'd worked with one of the directors your initial search turned up and—wow, she's really taking off. Then your partner gets an email from account asking if you can attend a meeting in an hour, then you get a text canceling said meeting. Then that GIF you posted on Facebook gets a "like" from someone you went to elementary school with (wonder where he lives now?) and a writer you used to work with at another agency, who you thought wasn't very talented, re-tweets your joke about ... well, you get the point.

Look, this has to be hurting the work. We're not allowing our subconscious to break through often enough because our brains are always having too much fun or are simply too busy. That means our creative is inevitably more rational and less interesting. And if we do eventually get to unexpected places, it takes us longer to get there.

The sad truth is most adults I know are screen addicts. But luckily for most of them that affliction isn't career-threatening. Creatives, I'm afraid, need to be more vigilant.

So take a long walk. Stare out the window. And if you're not a fan of claret, as David was, enjoy an IPA or two. But by all means, turn off that zombie leech and let your mind roam in the clouds. That's where the good stuff is. 

—John Long has held creative posts in Los Angeles, Austin and New York, and is currently a group creative director at Ogilvy.

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