Free your mind with mundanity
Where are you when you get your best ideas? Are you in the shower or driving your car? Maybe it’s while exercising at the gym, or when you’re out walking the dog. Surprisingly, more people get their best ideas when they’re performing one of these activities rather than when they’re in a formal brainstorming session with colleagues.
Research by the University of California in 2012 required participants to think creatively and find unusual uses for everyday items. Once the test ended, participants had a brief break and then completed the test again, and the improvement between the two tests was measured.
Different participant groups had different activities to perform in the gap between the tests. Some were told to relax and do nothing; some had to perform an undemanding task, while others had to do a demanding one. The group that was given the undemanding task improved their performance significantly more than any of the others.
The activities that people say they do when getting their best ideas can similarly be regarded as undemanding. For example, driving in a city centre where you are constantly checking for cyclists, pedestrians, traffic lights, bus lanes and one-way systems would not be good for thinking. But cruising along a quiet motorway, or driving down a gently winding country road would be. This type of driving is more conducive to your mind wandering and making interesting – and valuable – creative connections.
In the University of California research, it may be expected that the participants told to relax and do nothing between the tests would have been the most successful. However, when your mind doesn’t have an undemanding task to occupy it, your own internal thoughts become the distracter.
Ever tried thinking deeply about a topic when you’re sitting down, only to find your mind wanders? When there’s no undemanding task occupying part of your mind, your spare mental capacity decides to go walkabout. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t like to go alone – so it takes the rest of your mind with it. Strangely, you never notice yourself wandering off-topic. You only recognise the fact some minutes later and have to take meaningful steps to re-focus back on your desired topic.
One of the key benefits of undemanding tasks is that you usually perform them as part of your daily routine. You’ve done them many times this way in the past, often in the same place at the same time. They are tasks so familiar to you they occupy just a small part of your mind, rather than distracting a large portion of it.
For example, imagine walking your dog in a different area from usual, where many things may catch your attention and distract you. This isn’t conducive to good thinking. By contrast, walking the dog on your usual route doesn’t distract you as much, as nothing is new to you in this familiar territory. Hence, this is better for your thinking.
Ideas are simply the answers to unresolved questions, either that someone has asked or that you have posed for yourself. You’ve subconsciously deemed them important and, as you haven’t been able to answer them yet, you let them percolate into your subconscious.
These unresolved questions are the purpose of your thinking. They are your ‘killer questions’ – questions that, when answered well, will make a significant beneficial difference to your issue. These challenging questions require bold and powerful answers, which require your most creative thinking. The nature of your killer question defines the scale of the answer you require and will, by default, form a grand purpose for your thinking.
Thinking creatively about an interesting – and valuable – topic each day is mentally stimulating in more ways than one. An 18-year-long US study of 1,349 older men published in the Journal of Aging and Health found that creativity, not intelligence, decreased the risk of mortality.
Possible reasons for this are that a self-proven ability to resolve problematic issues helps to overcome hurdles that you may face in later life. Also, being creative keeps the brain’s neural networks active and, as the brain is the control centre for the rest of the body, this helps keep your mental and physical systems operating well.
Besides getting great ideas that address your killer question, performing your undemanding activity usually gets you exercising, out in nature and in fresh air. If you’re a hybrid worker, you may get trapped in your home office; this is a method to break away from your desk while still working.
Wherever you work, the time when you get your best ideas often isn’t during ‘work time’. But you should consider this thinking time as the most valuable part of your working day. If you’re working from home, why not swap the early-morning dog walk for another hour in the day? Become efficient at thinking during this hour and you’ll deliver your best ideas as a routine.
Author: Chris Thomason, business author and founder of the consultancy Ingenious Growth
This article was first published in AB magazine July 2023
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