"I had this idea while I was in the shower..." How many times have you used that sentence to introduce your new idea that was so novel, so compelling, you knew it couldn't fail? Or maybe you weren't in the shower—maybe you were weeding the garden, chopping wood, or simply stepping away from your desk for a fresh cup of tea, when suddenly the puzzle you'd been trying to untangle for hours, days, or weeks is solved in an instant?
This is the power of thinking without thinking, the knowledge you can suddenly access when you turn your conscious brain off. It's the spontaneous understanding that arises when you've fully internalized a problem, but haven't fully formulated a solution. It's the idea you get when you stop thinking so hard.
Malcolm Gladwell gets at some of this in Blink, but there he's mostly talking about applying deeply cultivated expertise to new situations. I'm talking about another predicament, and one that's probably more common: the insight we can access when we pause, step back, and let our minds work on the problem while our hands work on something else. It's the idea we get when we remove ourselves from deliberation, and let ourselves sink into ideation.
Sometimes an idea comes during reverie—staring out the window, perhaps—but often it comes when we simply stop paying direct attention to an idea and start up a physical process. The process might be weeding or washing or driving, but it's likely one that uses our motor skills more than our intellect. I find that natural and repetitive actions let me work without a lot of conscious thinking, letting my mind explore freely. These are some of my most synthetic moments; the moments when I have good ideas.
It happened one morning this week while commuting in to work. I had the radio on, and was thinking about and noticing a lot of things along the way: the crows by the side of the road, my husband's trip this week to Chicago, my deadline at work. I wasn't thinking about anything in particular; I was paying attention, in a very inattentive way, to the road in front of me, and to the stories in my head. Suddenly I had an idea for a marketing promo to try at work, an idea that synthesized a story on the radio with the time of the year with my client's current marketing goals. When I got to work I tried my new idea, and it worked, famously. I don't believe I could have arrived at that idea while sitting at my desk trying to think it up. I needed to be away from the demands of focused thinking, steeped in a fluid near-trance of mechanical activity, to arrive at my good idea.
Knowledge workers—those of us who make our living by our subject matter expertise rather than by our manual labor—need to remember this important phenomenon. In spite of everything, we need, sometimes, to stop paying attention, to stop trying so hard. This might be the best way to produce our best ideas.