Back when I used to be an employee, the following scenario occurred with regularity: My staff and I would be sitting in a lengthy meeting, trying to come up with a creative solution to a problem, but totally stumped. Finally, after hours of fruitless discussion, someone would get up to go to the bathroom and come back beaming, announcing, “I’ve got it!”
Turns out there is actually a scientific basis for why taking a break (not necessarily a bathroom break) can help to spur creativity—and why locations outside the office setting may be better at unleashing our innovative minds. The phenomenon is so common that one scientist who studies creativity refers to it as “the bathtub, the bed and the bus”—three places where ideas commonly emerge.
What do all these places have in common?
- We’re relaxed. When in bed, taking a hot bath or shower, or in transit with nothing to do but sit and think, we're in a relaxed, meditative state of mind where ideas tend to pop up. In fact, 14 percent of people claim they sometimes take showers just to get ideas.
- We're drowsy. Surprisingly, studies have shown that there's something about being groggy that can help generate new ideas. Since you're more likely to be bathing, in bed or commuting at the beginning or end of the day, your mind is less focused and more likely to drift in creative directions at night or early in the morning.
- We feel secure. What's more comforting than being in bed or in a hot shower? (I'm not so sure about feeling secure on public transportation, but I know I get some of my best ideas when commuting cocooned in my car.) Spaces where we feel safe and know we won't get interrupted may lend themselves to creativity.
When we're at work, sitting in front of a computer or in a meeting, our brains tend to be focused—which is a good thing in terms of getting work done, but not so good for being creative. (No wonder my team and I couldn't come up with good ideas by focusing on generating good ideas!) To unleash the imaginative aspect of our brains, we may need to stop focusing and let our minds wander.
Ideas for Getting Ideas
So how can you put your imaginative brain to work for you? No, you can’t spend the whole day in the tub with a bottle of wine and an inflatable nap pillow. Here are some more practical ideas.
- Do some work upfront. For your imaginative mind to work on solving a problem or coming up with creative ideas, you should give it some material to work with. Put in some focused time doing research, gathering ideas or otherwise storing away food for thought. Then you'll have plenty of fodder for creativity.
- Make time for your brain to go on autopilot. Doing something physical that doesn't require a lot of thought can help stimulate creativity. Taking a walk or going for a run, gardening or washing dishes are all examples of “mindless” tasks that can work.
- Build in time for inspiration to strike. Ideas may arise most naturally during unstructured time, but that doesn't mean you can't plan for that unstructured time. Building breaks into your day—to take a short walk, leave the office for coffee or lunch, or just get outside in nature—can re-energize you physically, and inspire you mentally.
- Find your creative space. A relaxing and moderately noisy environment such as a coffeehouse may inspire creativity. And because inspiration tends to strike when we’re alone, try to find a creative place that provides solitude (even if it's solitude in the midst of a crowd, as in the coffeehouse or on the train).
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