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Could irritation really be the key when you want to foster creativity?



Want to foster creativity in your work environment? Of course you do. There’s a reason 60% of CEOs say creativity is the most important quality for business success. Innovation requires creativity — and a lot of it!

But how do you increase creativity? One method that’s often overlooked is utilizing irritation. That’s right! Irritation — as in, a synonym for aggravation — could be your secret weapon to increase creativity.

There’s such a thing as useful irritation, and when used strategically, it can foster creativity in a pretty mind-blowing way.

Breaking down the brain science: Our brains and irritation

Here’s our “brains in business” take on irritation…

No one likes to get irritated. But, if we can recognize when we’re irritated, we start to see opportunities we might have otherwise missed. In our lives, we all teeter among euphoric, neutral, and threatened states of being. In other words, we’re either:

  • Pumping with dopamine and feeling great

  • Not particularly happy or sad, just neutral

  • Threatened and not having a great time

It’s in the threatened state where negative emotions lie, including irritation. Irritation starts to happen as soon as we exit neutral and venture into threatened. There are three basic levels of threat, which determine your mental and emotional state and your ability to innovate, create, or be productive.


The three threat levels are:

Moderate/manageable: In this level, we’re alert and ready for action. Irritation first arises at this point, and it’s our opportunity to foster creativity and make use of the irritation. In this heightened state, we’re looking at things more closely. The brain is asking, “Do I need to make this a bigger threat, or is everything okay?” Your brain is still using neural pathways that lead to innovation, problem solving, and creativity. With mild irritation, it also increases activities in those areas to help assess the situation.

Research shows the brain is predisposed to think that unknowns are bad. If we don’t take the time to redirect, our brains will decide the situation is bad and get rid of it before it can present its value. We don’t like to sit in this space very long because there’s a chance it’s going to escalate to the next level — but in doing so, we’re cutting ourselves off from useful irritation (more on that in a minute).

Strong: In this level, we engage autopilot. We aren’t thinking as much because our brains are protecting us. We lose some cognitive ability and problem-solving capabilities and are less creative and innovative because our brains are focused on keeping us safe and alive.

Overwhelm: At this level, we completely shut down. We’re in fight or flight mode, running on emotions. And when we’re running on emotions, our brains stop thinking. At this point, forget about productivity and clear thinking.



The magic formula to foster creativity through useful irritation

The key is to sit with irritation and allow yourself to see and try other options. Over time, irritation can become a useful tool to foster creativity and stimulate action, movement, new ideas, problem-solving, getting unstuck, and more.

Here’s how to turn that irritation into perspective.

Tip 1: Recognize the gift of useful irritation. Work to recognize when you’re irritated. This is a challenge for many people. Too often, we find ourselves in the strong or overwhelmed state of threat before we’ve even recognized we’re irritated. By that point, it’s too late to right the ship.

What if instead, we thought about it for a minute and embraced our irritation? Could it give us new options or prompt us to try something new?

Start by working to recognize irritation the second it happens, not when it’s too late to do anything with it. This is especially important for business leaders. Irritation is a clue from our brain that something is different… different isn’t always bad!

Tip 2: Harness the power of choice. Once you’re in a useful irritation situation, ask yourself, “What about this allows me to see something new?” and then follow that question up with, “What will I intentionally choose?”

Let’s say you’ve recognized that your boss is irritating you. You’re in a threatened state, and you know it. You could decide to change your perspective and think differently, asking yourself:

  • I wonder if he’s having a bad day.

  • I wonder if I could help her.

  • Does he have a justification for being angry?

  • What is something different I can do that might help?

  • Could I buy them a cup of coffee?

  • How can I help tone the situation down?

You may be surprised by your response. In a moment of useful irritation, you just might choose something different. Make it an intentional choice. By asking yourself these questions while you’re at a manageable threat level, you force yourself outside of the emotional part of your brain and allow yourself to be neutral.

Not only will you make some interesting choices, but you’ll be intentionally helping your brain from entering the strong threatened state.



Tip 3: Take small steps. Regardless of your choice, know that you’re still in a threatened state when you make that choice. Even if you recognized you were irritated and asked yourself some probing questions, your brain is still skeptical and on high alert, ready to enter the strong threatened state.

That’s why it’s important to come up with small, incremental steps that will make a meaningful and lasting impact.

For example, you could decide to believe your boss is just having a bad day. You know he likes an afternoon cappuccino, so you decide to get him one to cheer him up. Alternatively, you could choose to focus on getting your project done and not worry about your boss at all.

Our brains can’t physically stop thinking about something, but we can choose to redirect our thoughts to something new. This gives us the opportunity to foster creativity and innovation in times of irritation.

Don’t be afraid to use irritation to foster creativity

Irritation isn’t fun. Your brain naturally wants to make it a more significant threat than it is. But, if you choose to sit with useful irritation, you have the unique opportunity to see yourself and your situation through a new lens. You create space for new choices, which can foster creativity and unlock innovation in your work environment.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to leverage useful irritation, contact us today. We can help you and your team unlock innovation, boost productivity, and increase creativity through brain awareness and mindset reboots.