Why Focus And Unfocus Are Vital For Creativity

Ambiguity can be at odds with many design approaches and with creative work in general. But ambiguity can actually help you get the most from any creative process if you know how to navigate it. Part of that navigation includes knowing when to focus and when to unfocus. For example, when your creative work requires making multiple decisions in a short period of time, focus is imperative. When you’ve been staring a screen too long, it’s time to unfocus. Both focus and unfocus are vital to creative teams, so it’s important to learn to practice both.

Focus. Unfocused.

For more than five hundred years, she has fueled conspiracy theories, provoked heated criticisms about her crowds, and inspired innumerable souvenirs with her moniker. In 1852, her image drove artist Luc Maspero to throw himself from the fourth floor of a Parisian hotel; he left a note that supposedly read, “For years I have grappled desperately with her smile. I prefer to die.”

All that for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, a 1’9″ by 2’6″ oil painting from 1503, housed in the Louvre. Journalist John Lichfield dubbed it “the most visited, written about, sung about, and parodied work of art in the world.”

In How to Think Like Leonardo da VinciMichael J. Gelb writes that da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa using a technique called sfumatoresulting in forms—in the artist’s own words—“without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.” Sfumato directly translates from Italian as “turned to mist” or “up in smoke.” It describes the dreamy, misty effect created by tiny brushstrokes and veils of paint that blur the edges of subjects in a painting. Instead of sharp, crisp lines, it is as if you’re looking at it through a steamy window.

The Mona Lisa is a textbook example of sfumato, but its fame really comes from the subject’s enigmatic smile. In a New York Times article about this smile, Sandra Blakeslee wrote, “First she is smiling. Then the smile fades. A moment later the smile returns only to disappear again. What is with this lady’s face?”

We used to think the painting’s compelling draw was the mystery of the woman’s gaze. What was she looking at? Was she smiling at a loved one? Or a lover?

Today, there is another, more concrete explanation. Dr. Margaret Livingstone, a Harvard neuroscientist and authority on visual processing, points out that the mysterious smile “comes and goes because of how the human visual system is designed, not because the expression is ambiguous.” She says the human eye has two distinct regions for seeing the world: a peripheral area where we see black and white, motion, and shadows and a central area where we see color and pick out details.

When you look directly at Mona Lisa’s eyes, her mouth is in your peripheral vision. Because your peripheral vision is more interested in shadows than details, it prioritizes the shadows from her cheekbones. These shadows are curved in a way that tells your brain she is smiling. But when you look directly at her mouth, your peripheral vision does not see the shadows, so you don’t read a smile. Dr. Livingstone points out, “You’ll never be able to catch her smile by looking at her mouth.”

This flickering quality—serene smile there, then gone— occurs as you move your focus around Mona Lisa’s face. The smile doesn’t change. Your focus does.

We see things differently when we shift our focus, in more ways than one. According to Dr. Srini Pillay, a psychiatrist and brain researcher, “The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus,” which helps build resilience and boost creativity.

Da Vinci embodies this. As Gelb writes, “This ability to embrace uncertainty by ‘blurring the edges’ and to hold opposites in tension was not only the characteristic of his painting, but of his life.” Periods of rest and work across many different disciplines allowed da Vinci to return recharged, refreshed, and ready to focus.

Both focus and unfocus are vital, and our work demands that we practice both. Being able to shift our attention in the face of uncertainty, to focus and unfocus, is a powerful secret of unleashing creative potential. Reality changes in the periphery.


Spend less time on trivial stuff.

Unlimited choices and decisions are constantly demanding and depleting our attention. Making faster decisions about smaller, inconsequiential things frees up our time and focus.

Easier said than done, right?

Finishing unimportant tasks is just so rewarding. For example, you might need to work on your portfolio, but before you know it, you’ve spent an hour rewriting your biography or Googling different types of Poodle mixes. There’s probably a live stream of Golden Doodle puppies somewhere on the internet right now.

As writer and emotions expert Dr. Alice Boyes points out, “Unimportant tasks have a nasty tendency of taking up more time than they should.” We give them more attention, too. According to a study conducted by Meng Zhu, Yang Yang, and Christopher K. Hsee in 2018, people tend to complete urgent tasks (which they define as “tasks with short completion windows” and “more immediate and certain payoffs”) over important tasks (“tasks with larger outcomes” and “further away goals”). This means low-importance, time-specific tasks (like doing invoices or rearranging your sticky notes by size and color) get done, but you still haven’t pursued bigger, more nebulous goals (like changing careers or tackling your crippling phobia of improv ).

Focus is crucial to navigating ambiguity because it keeps you steady in the face of the unknown. It is easy to get distracted and overcome by the multitudes of decisions and possibilities out there. Limit yourself to making the most important moves, or give yourself a time limit for how long you’ll spend in la-la-land. Do what you need to do (within reason) to protect your focus.


There’s an upside of downtime.

As you might recall, Dr. Margaret Livingstone had an epiphany about that Mona Lisa smile. This epiphany didn’t occur while she was in front of the painting; it occurred on her bike ride home from the museum. This kind of thing comes up a lot—creative people seem to land on their best ideas in random places, like in the shower or while staring at a lava lamp.

Many companies seek to build a culture of “nonstop innovation,” but innovation comes only with a healthy dose of unfocusing from our overly scheduled work and lives. Unfocusing is different from being distracted. Your brain needs a “break,” but it’s still working to solve problems. Some of our most creative ideas come from this very intentional but ambiguous place.

Do mostly nothing.

Dr. Srini Pillay says, “When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the ‘default mode network,’” or DMN. He reports that this circuit uses a whopping 20 percent of our body’s energy, whereas intense concentration (like doing a calculus problem or reading Simone de Beauvoir) requires only an additional 5 percent. “The DMN needs this energy because it is doing anything but resting. Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas.”

Pillay says that a great mnemonic for remembering the DMN is “Do Mostly Nothing.” To clarify slightly, doing mostly nothing usually means doing a little something else. This might be driving, watching water boil, petting an animal, swinging, pushing someone on a swing, people-watching, going for a run, looking at art, anything that doesn’t push your brain too hard. Scrub the oven. Tidy your desk. Paint a wall. Allow your mind to wander away from the thing you’re trying to solve.

Give yourself a break.

Gelb describes how when Leonardo da Vinci was creating The Last Super, he would spend days at a time on a scaffold, painting nonstop all day. Then suddenly, without warning, he would disappear for half a day or longer. Da Vinci learned to follow a rhythm of intense focus and relaxation to maximize his creativity. He was fueled by sharing and discussing ideas with others, but he also needed solo time for creative insights to come. In his Treatise on Painting, da Vinci wrote, “It is well that you should often leave off work and take a little relaxation because when you come back you are a better judge.” When we remove cerebral congestion with a little downtime, we naturally restore the brain’s attention, motivation, productivity, creativity, and performance.

Call it something that reflects its value.

What language do you use when you talk about unfocused time? Do you call it a “break” or an “energy boost”? The way you refer to it could help you make your case for yourself and for your organization.

End the day with a question or idea.

Rather than planning to end the day with a certain deliverable, which provides a nice sense of closure and completeness, try ending the day with questions. For a few minutes before going to bed, think about the thing you are trying to solve. Let go of expectations, and let those questions simmer while you sleep.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Andrea Small and Kelly Schmutte and the Stanford d.school. Excerpted from their book Navigating Ambiguity:

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