Where do you have your flashes of genius? You know, those moments when a really clever answer to something you’ve been thinking about for the past few days (months? years?) pops up in your head out of the blue.
When you ask people this question, several answers keep cropping up: “in the shower”, “in the toilet”, “in bed”, “on vacation”. Why these places? Maybe because they’re among the few places where we are (1) not actively thinking about some problem, (2) not talking to anyone, (3) not consuming content. In other words, among the few places where we are idle.
Idleness is important. In order to have creative, out-of-the-box ideas, you have to be in a relaxed state. You know that state of mind when you’ve just woken up after a refreshing sleep and there is nothing in your brain yet, and your mind just wanders from topic to topic, bringing interesting ideas and insights? You can’t tell what your next thought is going to be about, but you know it will probably be really original. That’s the state I’m talking about.
The opposite of idleness is focus. By the time you start focusing your mind on tasks – your morning email, the morning news, or the meeting you’re going to have at your job – the relaxed, creative frame of mind is gone. If idleness is a hot-air balloon that takes you whichever way the wind blows, focus is a high-speed train that goes straight to your destination, with no sightseeing stops or other diversions. You’ll get from point A to point B, but don’t expect any exciting adventures.
Of course, most of the time, focus is what you want. It makes you complete tasks. It makes you efficient. But it always results in some degree of tunnel vision. The more focused you are, the less likely you are to have a brilliant idea that no one else has thought about.
Tim Schafer, the man behind some of the best videogames in the world, uses a technique he calls “freewriting” in early stages of his projects. You open a notebook and write down your every thought, non-stop, for a certain amount of time. According to Schafer, the best time for freewriting is in the morning:
it has to be first thing in the morning, when the brain is empty. You’re not allowed to check email, Twitter, Facebook—nothing. Talk to as few people as possible beforehand. Every input you allow into your brain is just distracting junk that will grow and swell and muck things up. You are allowed to use the bathroom, but no reading in there. No verbal input!
Why is Tim Schafer so adamant about avoiding input? Probably because he understands that an idle, unfocused state of mind is essential for true creativity. Exposure to other people’s thoughts, whether through conversation at breakfast, reading a newspaper or checking email, focuses your mind and narrows the range of ideas you can come up with.
Unfortunately, idleness is becoming a rarity in today’s digital world. We don’t want to be idle. We want to be connected. We want to be informed. We want to be entertained. And we’ve got the technology to achieve it. So we fill every idle second of our lives with content. We watch TV shows while exercising on a treadmill. We listen to the news while driving to work. Instead of simply walking somewhere, we walk and listen to a podcast. Instead of daydreaming on our morning commute, we read on the Kindle and congratulate ourselves on putting that time to good use.
By always consuming content on our electronic devices, we are, in essence, allowing other people to put their thoughts in our heads every waking minute of our day. What about our own thoughts?
The next time you have nothing to do, consider doing exactly that – nothing. Having a bowl of cereal in the kitchen? Don’t turn on the TV, don’t update your Facebook and don’t catch up on your favorite podcasts. Don’t think about that problem you’ve been thinking about all day. Just relax, chew your cereal, clear your mind, let your thoughts wander, and give your brain a chance to come up with something great.