Take a break and just wait for that breakthrough

First published in The Age, January 11, 2014

For many of us, summer equates to long lazy days, sport to watch or play or dozing, book in hand. We might call it switching off; taking a mental break; stepping away from the chaos and intensity of alarm clocks and deadlines.

This doesn’t always come easy. For some people, swapping hurry-mode for the hammock is slightly anachronistic, a hangover from past generations with plenty of leisure time; a self-indulgent activity, one that busy and successful people no longer have time to accommodate.

But making time to turn off Gmail and turn on the voicemail – whatever it takes to allow the summer mental shutdown – could be just what we need to get the ideas flowing. According to research by William Duggan from Columbia University, we are most likely to get good ideas – ”flashes of insight” – when our brain is relaxed. For that, think running, drifting off to sleep or taking a shower.

One of the few refuges from technology, the shower provides a mental sanctuary where most electronic gadgetry is yet to intervene. If the shower is good for thinking, the bath is even better. Remember, Archimedes was stepping into his bubbly bath when his brain grasped the concept of water displacement as a tool for measuring density. But with the average bath consuming more than 100 litres of water, the conscientious water conservers will need to find their ”Eureka moments” another way.

According to Duggan, author of Strategic Intuition, innovative ideas often pop into our head at the most unanticipated moments. ”It’s an open secret that good ideas come to you as flashes of insight, often when you don’t expect them – stepping on to a train, stuck in traffic, falling asleep, swimming or brushing your teeth. Suddenly it hits you. It all comes together in your mind. You connect the dots.”

But connecting the dots requires a clear mind – Duggan calls it a presence of mind – to sweep away old ideas and the tried-and-true ways that may no longer be working. This frame of mind is rarely achieved in the traditional workplace brain-storming session, what is sometimes now referred to, ironically, as an ”ideas shower”. Tapping our brains of good ideas often requires turning off everything else.

Since we’ve become so technologically savvy, staring blankly out the window as our morning train rumbles along is considered a waste of potentially productive time, time that should be spent on the laptop or answering emails on the iPhone. Daydreaming has been cut for the sake of efficiency.

Writers have long recognised drifting off to sleep as an excellent opportunity for capturing those flashes of insight and brilliance, relying on a notebook by the bed for just that reason. One might wonder, though, as TVs creep into our bedrooms, whether our middle-of-the-night ideas could be limited to novel recipes for MasterChef or renovation tricks for The Block.

Recent research from several angles points to the benefits of imposing some time out for our brain. Studies have long shown the value of a good night’s sleep for restoring the brain, but important benefits are also now evident when we nap, daydream, spend time in nature or take a holiday. It turns out that when we are relaxing our brain gets a lot of essential work done. Giving our brain a break allows it to stock up on creativity and boosts our motivation and focus.

Tim Kreider, in his New York Times essay ”The Busy Trap” writes: ”The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration – it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Pressing the pause button, to allow the brain to work without our conscious involvement, is the challenge. But as the empty space in our day decreases, so may our creativity. The answer may not be 30-minute showers or month-long retreats to the beach. It may instead mean saying no to the creep of technology into our every waking moment. If we want to keep our thinking fresh and encourage innovation to flow, we had better learn to make time in our day for nothing.

Susan Biggar is a Melbourne writer. Her first book, The Upside of Down, will be published by Transit Lounge in September.

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