Open & Closed Mode

How to be creative

In this video, John Cleese of Monty Python fame gives an entertaining lecture about creativity.

Here is a transcript.

  • Your mind works in 2 ways: open and closed. Each is important in some situations but not all.
  • Open mode is conducive to creativity and problem-solving. Set aside a separate duration of time and a separate focus-conducive space for this. This is called a space/time oasis.
  • During open mode, no idea is bad or off-limits. Encourage yourself to be absurd, impractical, and humorous when trying to solve a problem.
  • Don’t expect yourself to solve the problem by the end of the space-time oasis. Have confidence that an idea will appear in your mind at a later date.
  • Once you’ve decided on an idea, switch to closed mode: figure out how to execute the idea.

This advice has multiple layers of usefulness.

The structure of a problem-solving meeting

First, it has a blueprint of how to structure a brainstorming meeting. At my workplace, Agolo, here’s how we structured our problem-solving meeting about how to reduce office distractions:

  1. Communicate the agenda of the meeting.
  2. List the problems we’re trying to solve.
  3. 15 minutes open mode: list as many solutions as possible without criticizing any ideas. No ideas are good or bad yet. Allow for what John Cleese calls “Intermediate Impossibles,” which are absurd ideas that act as stepping stones to inspire good ideas.
  4. 15 minutes closed mode: pick 1-2 best solutions.

We ended up with 2 ideas that we agreed to try: making use of the Do Not Disturb feature on Slack, a policy for email usage, and specific times of day when the office is a quiet space. In addition, we also generated about a dozen other ideas and explored them thoroughly to our satisfaction.

The structure of a deep work session

Computer science professor Cal Newport has written extensively about the idea of Deep Work. It’s very similar to the idea in the John Cleese lecture about the space/time oasis.

The Deep Work book goes into detail about tactics to use when setting up a space/time oasis.

It has some contradictory advice to Cleese because it advocates for whole-day deep work sessions. Cleese recommends an hour and a half as a good length of time for a session. However, Cleese’s definition of a session is one sitting, whereas Newport defines it as non-distraction. So, Newport counts eating lunch to be inclusive in a deep work session as long as your mind is still occupied with the task at hand.

To sum up

Open mode / closed mode is a solid framework with multiple applications. It’s something that I look forward to applying to my own work.