I had an inspiration in the shower today. That happens fairly often, and not just because I’m a compulsive bather (I shower almost every day – my mom would be so proud!). I think it’s because the shower is one of the very few places in my life when I am not at all in a hurry. When I drive I’m usually spending half of my time cursing at the slow people in front of me, because I have places to be and why doesn’t anyone else?!?!?! But I never hurry in the shower. I could probably get done in half the time, but I don’t try to – and wouldn’t you know it, that’s where a lot of my best ideas come.
We spend a lot of time talking about how to come up with great ideas, but lately I’ve been far more interested in where they come to us. I don’t even understand my own mental process for thinking up intriguing new thoughts, so I can’t really hope to figure it out for anyone else. But the more I talk to people about where their ideas come to them, the more I’m realizing that there’s something of a pattern to it. The shower is a popular one, as are long walks, exercising, the drive to and from work, and all those random moments in the middle of the night when we can’t get to sleep. (Those moments are also good for watching shows that your spouse thinks are dumb, but that’s a different subject entirely.)
If you’ll notice, all of these locations have something in common – specifically, they occur in places where we are very unlikely to be doing any other mental activity. Few of us take spreadsheets into the shower, virtually no one conducts business in the middle of a long bike ride, and most of us refrain from texting or surfing the Internet while we’re driving. In short, these are places where our brains are comparatively free to do whatever magic they do that leads to the generation of ideas.
We spend an enormous amount of time mentally occupied with tasks, busywork, activities, and distractions. Most of us have trained ourselves to be virtually incapable of sitting motionless for two minutes without reaching for our phones. And yet most of us seem to be saying that our best ideas, inspirations, innovations, and aha moments come when we’re not doing any other mental activity. It may seem counterintuitive that we have amazing thoughts while we’re not consciously trying to have them, but that’s the way our brains seem to work. And it shouldn’t be counterintuitive to realize that most of us don’t have breakthroughs while we’re engaged in something else that occupies our mental energy.
So do me a favor, and pay attention to where your best ideas come to you. If you’re like me, then you’ll find that a little peace and quiet will go a long way. You may have heard the saying, “Idleness is the devil’s plaything.” And there’s some truth to that. But idleness may also be the key ingredient in helping you come up with your next big idea.
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