Last week I was running a corporate program in Queenstown, New Zealand with a large insurance company. Day 1 was our signature Personal Best leadership program and day 2 was a fitness challenge with a bushwalk, helicopter ride and white-water rafting trip. Two hours into the bushwalk I had a breakthrough with a problem I've been trying to solve for nearly four weeks. After quietening my mind for a while, my decision-making muscles went into overdrive and everything suddenly made sense.
This got me thinking – why do we have our best ideas in the bath, or in the bush, or on a bike, or reading a book, or sitting on a bus or lying in bed (or doing anything else that starts with a 'b', it seems)?
NeuroLeadership Institute executive director David Rock recently surveyed 6000 people and only 10 per cent said they had their best ideas in the office. More people said they had their best ideas in the shower compared to anywhere else. In a recent interview with BRW, Rock said: “The problems leaders face are getting more and more complex and our ability to solve them consciously is fading. We need our unconscious problem-solving resources to get to work. Unless you leave time to shut everything out, you may not have the insights you need to solve complex problems.”
I then dug deeper into the research to see what other experts had to say about creativity and thinking.
Renowned neuroscientist Alice Flaherty is an expert on creativity and her research has shown a link to dopamine – the more dopamine we release, the more creative we are. Activities that help us relax and make us feel great provide our brains with an increased flow of dopamine (should we add 'bonking' to the 'b' list?). Flaherty says that is why triggers such as exercise, taking a warm shower and driving home increase our chances of having our best ideas.
But is increased dopamine enough? Shelley H. Carson, author of The Creative Brain and Harvard University researcher, believes distractions are not always a bad thing.
Carson believes that when you are stuck on a problem, a distraction could provide the break you need to disengage from fixating on an ineffective solution. Or, in other words, a “planned distraction” gives your brain a break long enough to have what scientists call an incubation period for your ideas. From a brain point of view this involves giving your pre-frontal cortex (the thinking part of your brain) a quick break. When your brain has been in overdrive and working hard on trying to solve problems in front of you, letting your mind drift for a while can allow the subconscious thoughts to bubble up into your conscious mind.
Annie Murphy Paul adds a third element to the mix – a relaxed mind. Referring to a recent study by Wieth and Zacks in Time.com, Murphy Paul describes how a relaxed state of mind is important for problem solving, insight and having those a-ha moments. “By not giving yourself time to tune in to your meandering mind, you're missing out on the surprising solutions it may offer,” she says. When our minds are relaxed and at ease, we are more likely to direct our focus inwards and improve our creativity.
Twenty-plus years ago if you mentioned the term “mindfulness” to an executive audience, after the giggling subsided it evoked images of hippies, group hugs and free love. Today, mindfulness is seen as providing business leaders with a competitive advantage. Practicing mindfulness (or, in simple terms, just switching off and relaxing the brain) improves the neuroplasticity of our brains and helps us to stay calm, focused and present. Buddha must have been right.
The paradox for people stuck on the busy-trap is that you might just need to slow down your thinking in order to speed up your great ideas.
So, back to my walk last week. Being outdoors in a magic place like Queenstown obviously gave me a healthy shot of dopamine. Trekking along the path to Ben Lomond, my conscious brain (the part that you are using reading this article) was focusing on making sure I stayed on the path (and not on my backside) and my sub-conscious brain started bubbling away beneath the surface. The distraction of snow-capped mountains and the occasional helicopter flying overhead built in a healthy amount of planned distraction and being in such a beautiful place, despite the track we were climbing, my mind was relaxed and very calm. I had the perfect trifecta.
But that was a very atypical week. The reality is, do what works for you – go for a swim, soak in the bath, take a shower, walk along the ocean. Experiment and find out the best ways for you to come up with great ideas and to have those a-ha moments in your life.
Over to you. How or where do you have your best ideas?