You’re probably reading this while doing something else. You might be eating, or pretending to listen to a conference call you don’t care very much about – or maybe you’re driving, in which case LOOK OUT!!! Most of us spent a lot of time trying to do multiple things at once, if for no other reason than because we feel like there’s no other choice. The phrase ‘do more with less’ is so ingrained in our culture that it seems inescapable. Why can’t it be ‘do less with more?’ That sounds like a much better system.
However, most research suggests that our brains aren’t actually very good at doing multiple things at once. The anterior cingulate cortex gives us the ability to stay focused on the road while we’re daydreaming, but we’re basically awful at thinking about two mentally intensive exercises at the same time. Which begs the question: how are you supposed to come up with great ideas when you are constantly engaged in other thought-intensive activities – completing assignments, sitting in meetings, writing emails, helping your children with homework, etc.?
The key to innovation is not figuring out how to think up a great idea; we all know how to think. Rather, the key is to find the time to do that thinking. In a world that seems busier and busier all the time, here are a few ways to escape long enough to come up with ideas that will make everyone else think you’re a genius:
Write Down The Questions You Want To Answer
My guess is that you have a lot of questions you’d like to answer, and trying to think about all of them at once generally ends in a whole lot of nothing. So prioritize a little bit. Pick one or two questions that are particularly pressing or intriguing, then write them down somewhere that you’ll see them often. Having the physical reminder to focus on will help you concentrate your thoughts when it’s time to have them. Which leads to how to have those thoughts (you’ll like the next one)…
Waste Time More Effectively
You absolutely should waste some time every day – and even if you shouldn’t, you’re going to anyway. Most of us do it by staring at our phones or watching television. That’s fine too, but neither of those will help you think. So every so often, waste your time by doing absolutely nothing. Stare at one of those questions you’ve written down, then lean back and spend 5 or 10 minutes thinking about it. You might not find a perfect answer in 5 or 10 minutes, but a few sessions like that will get you a whole lot closer than playing endless rounds of Angry Crush or Candy Birds will.
Start Responding To Emails and Texts Less Frequently
Except for true emergencies (which are extremely rare), there is no need to respond to someone’s text or email immediately. What’s worse, doing so will train them to expect an immediate response whenever they contact you, and then they’ll get mad at you when you take 15 or 20 minutes to respond. Is that fair of them? No – but it’s natural. You probably have some friends that you expect to respond to you immediately because they always do, and you probably have some other friends you expect to get back to you in a few hours or even a couple days because that’s what they always do. If you slowly train people to expect longer and longer response times, you’ll find yourself getting interrupted less often – which will give you more time to get more work done or spend more time thinking about whatever great idea you’re pursuing.
This isn’t just random advice, by the way – this is what I do all the time. I had to come up with a topic for this article, so I sat in my chair and stared into the distance (hopefully looking smart and not slack-jawed, but nobody is around so I guess it doesn’t matter) until I came up with a topic. Then, while I was writing this, I ignored the few texts and emails that came in until I was done. I’ll probably go ahead and answer them now, or maybe I won’t. After all, it’s a beautiful summer day, and I deserve to waste some time for real. Kayaking sounds nice. Maybe I’ll even be able to do some thinking while I’m on the water, in which case it really isn’t even a break from work, right? After all, I can think anywhere.
Hmmm. I might be onto something.