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Being Creative About Work/Home Balance

Spencer Harrison
Innovation doesn’t just happen, says Spencer Harrison: Someone has to do the work to come up with ideas for Google Glasses, hoverboards and driverless cars. But if creative people don’t work in a way that’s sustainable, he warns, “eventually we won’t have those ideas anymore because things begin to break down.” (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Hennessey | Chronicle Staff

Published: Oct. 15, 2015

Home may be where the heart is, but it may not be a very happy place if you expend all your creativity at work, according to a Boston College researcher. 

A new study co-authored by Carroll School of Management Associate Professor Spencer Harrison shows that people who use a lot of energy being creative – and without sufficient guidance or direction – seldom have any left for engagement with spouses. Those who are given some structure for their workplace creativity, meanwhile, are more likely to enjoy a better home life.

“Spilling Outside the Box: The Effects of Individuals’ Creative Behaviors at Work on Time Spent with their Spouses at Home,” which Harrison and University of Oregon Assistant Professor of Management David Wagner published in the Academy of Management Journal, was based on nearly 700 responses from more than 100 worker-spouse couples.

 “This study was an attempt to answer the question, ‘If you’re creative at work, what does that do to your home life?’” says Harrison, a member of the Organization and Management Department. “What we’re suggesting here is the really fun, innovative parts of creativity where you’re entering this infinite space of possibilities, they’re very resource-greedy. So they’re going to chew up a lot of your brain space.”

 And that’s where work-related creativity and home life collide, say the authors: “When one is mentally wrapped up in a given domain, that individual will find it difficult to mentally engage in a new domain,” according to the study.

The researchers say their study illustrates the hypothesis known as resource allocation theory – that we have a finite amount of intellectual energy to use every day: “Individuals can allocate their cognitive energy to a task, but doing so depletes their stock of cognitive resources available for subsequent tasks.” Therefore, Harrison and Wagner say, individuals need to make choices about how they spend their time because devoting energy to one activity “necessarily comes at the expense of another.”

 When workers receive some evaluation and direction – what Harrison and Wagner call idea validation – that helps shape ideas and focus the creative effort, there will be a positive impact on their home lives. 

 “The feedback is going to kill some of those paths you might have been thinking about, so you have a narrower range of possibilities,” Harrison explains. “You’re not using as much of your cognitive energy trying to think about what you can create. So when you come home, you have more mental resources available for your family. That means you spend more time with your spouse at home and you have more relationship satisfaction, and more life satisfaction.”

Encouraging creativity is always a topic of interest in the workplace, but Harrison says little research has been done on the social costs of how that mental expenditure affects the person, and those around him or her. Awareness of the issue is critical, he adds, especially by the managers of creative people. 

 “Sometimes we forget there are people behind those ideas, who are putting in really long hours to create the Google Glasses, or hover-boards, or driverless cars. You can’t harvest fruits and crops from a garden without somebody doing the work, and the same is true for creativity. So if we aren’t paying attention to the workers themselves, and making sure they’re working in a way that’s sustainable, then eventually we won’t have those ideas anymore because things begin to break down.”

Critique, as uncomfortable and threatening as it can be for a creative idea not yet fully formed, is a key solution for managers, Harrison says.

“This study says that feedback, even though it feels uncomfortable for people, can be hugely beneficial – not just in the short term but also in the long run – because it’s helping preserve important relationships,” he explains, “and it’s helping to preserve on a day-to-day basis some brain space for them to go home and keep those relationships healthy.”