How many times have you struggled to come up with the solution to a problem, recall something from distant memory or think of a new idea only to be struck by a flash of brilliance the moment you stop trying..? Many of us have our most creative ideas at the most unexpected moment; in the shower, going for a walk, or just before we drop off to sleep (which is a very good reason to keep a note-book and pen beside your bed). This is because our brain is trained to think in patterns and the creative process can get hijacked by the patterns we already know. When we stop trying or allow ourselves to be bored, our mind wanders, our brain becomes more receptive to new thoughts and suddenly we start seeing new patterns…
I’ve had some of my best ideas swimming laps in the local pool or pounding on a treadmill in the gym where there’s nothing else to do but allow my mind to take over the repetitive process and wander a little. I’m following in great footsteps; remember Archimedes who figured out how to prove whether the king’s new crown was really made of solid gold while he was sitting in the bath? He realised that he could compare the amount of water displaced by a piece of pure gold the same weight as the crown to determine whether the crown was also made of pure gold. Eureka…!! This story of Archimedes illustrates what psychologists are only now discovering about the power of letting your mind wander. When you’re stuck on a problem that needs a creative solution it turns out that letting your mind wander, or thinking about something that requires just a little attention is a better way to jump start the creative process than by focusing intently on the original task.
Daniel Khaneman, the research psychologist who in 2002 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics, describes the state whereby we’re focusing just a little as “cognitive ease”. The opposite, “cognitive strain”, occurs when we focus intently on any one thing and when we’re in this state we concentrate more and make fewer mistakes but we’re also far less creative.
Khaneman describes two very different operating “systems” utilised by our brains depending on the nature of the task at hand. System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control; it helps us to be intuitive and creative. System 2 on the other hand engages when we really need to concentrate, expend mental effort or solve complex problems. System 2 shuts out anything that isn’t clearly related to the task at hand and by doing this it constrains our ability to be creative.
So although it might seem counter-intuitive, the best thing you can do when the pressure’s on and you have to come up with a killer idea NOW is to stop trying to be creative; go for a walk and allow your mind to wander. Avoid anything like reading or watching television though because these activities require a measure of concentration and that can lead to cognitive strain. Simply RELAX and do something which requires little mental effort and allow your brain’s system 1 to get creative for you..!