Creatives have two ways of working: open mode and closed mode.
Open mode is a state of unfocused play where you discover new ideas. In contrast, closed mode is a state of focus where you work towards a specific outcome.
The problem with traditional productivity advice is that it doesn’t take open mode seriously. Standard tropes like turn off the Internet, tune out distractions, and turn towards your goals are all examples of closed mode thinking. The productivity world is oriented around closed mode because it’s easy to define, easy to measure, and therefore, easier to write about.
Meanwhile, open mode is filled with surprises that are impossible to predict. On most days, you feel like you wasted time because you don’t make a breakthrough discovery. But once in a while, open mode leads to an intellectual breakthrough that you would’ve never discovered in closed mode and, in turn, improves how you allocate your closed mode time.
John Cleese of Monty Python went as far as to say that “creativity is not possible in closed mode.” In closed mode, we’re too focused on our to-do lists and fueled by productive stress. Writing about open mode, he says:
“By contrast, the open mode is a relaxed… expansive… less purposeful mode… in which we’re probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor (which always accompanies a wider perspective) and, consequently, more playful. It’s a mode in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we’re not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, which allows our natural creativity to surface.”
Cleese offers the example of Alexander Fleming, the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of Penicillin, which saved somewhere between 80 million and 200 million lives. One day, in a state of intellectual wandering, he saw a Petri dish near an open window. The day before he uncovered a Petri dish that was contaminated with mold. But looking at the dishes, he noticed that the bacteria near the mold was dying. He isolated the mold and identified it as the Penicillium genus. To his surprise, it was effective against the gram-positive pathogens which caused diseases like diphtheria, gonorrhea, meningitis, pneumonia, and scarlet fever.
Reflecting on his discovery, Fleming said: “I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”
Fleming may have only discovered Penicillin because he was in open mode. If he’d seen the moldy dish in closed mode, it might have looked irrelevant. But because he was in open mode, it turned into a clue that led to one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century. The lessons of Fleming’s discovery are hard to implement because, as goal-oriented humans, we want to be in control. We hate uncertainty, which is the epitome of open mode. But they work in tandem. Just as you have to silence the world in closed mode, you have to surrender to it in open mode.
Reflecting on his time at Bell Labs, Richard Hamming wrote that some scientists worked with the door open while others worked with the door closed. On any given day, the scientists who worked in closed mode were more productive. But over the long arc of time, the scientists who embraced the interruptions of open mode ultimately did more important work even though they didn’t work as hard.
The see-saw of open and closed mode is like breathing. Your best ideas emerge when you balance the inhale of open mode with the exhale of closed mode. Closed mode rewards action, while open mode rewards serenity. Closed mode rewards focus, while open mode rewards wonder. And while closed mode rewards clarity, open mode rewards serendipity.
Our best ideas rarely come alive in busyness. They spring to life in calm and aimless contemplation. In open mode, you find inspiration. And in closed mode, you harvest that inspiration. If you only spend time in closed mode, you’ll shut yourself off to transformative ideas because the fruits of genius are sown with the seeds of open mode wanderings.