Christine L. Carter Ph.D.

Advice for Your Best Life

Want to Be Successful? Spend More Time Staring Into Space

Research shows that you won't be as productive until you stop being so busy.

Posted Aug 16, 2016

mimagephotography/Shutterstock
Source: mimagephotography/Shutterstock

Think about the last time and place you got a great idea, or solved a problem that had been plaguing you. Where were you? The answer is a cliché: You were probably in the shower.

Creativity doesn’t come from the bathroom, but it sure does seem highly correlated with it. What is it about the shower that leads to “aha” moments and bursts of creativity? In the shower we are simply staring into space, washing our hair on autopilot. We aren’t checking our messages or Twitter feed, or writing a report. We’re just daydreaming.

We may — mistakenly — think that nothing much is happening in our brain when we aren’t consciously doing something, certainly nothing much of importance. But our brain actually lights up like a Christmas tree when we’re daydreaming. Many brain regions become active in this situation, far more than when we are focusing.

Why?

When we daydream or relax our focus, our brain begins drawing connections between all the things that it previously didn’t see as being all that connected. Most important, the neural networks responsible for creative insight come online.

There’s a neurobiological story behind this: We have two primary attentional networks in our brain—task positive and task negative. These function like a see-saw—only one is active at a time.

When we are focused on something or using our willpower to do something, the task-positive attentional network is on. (And the task negative — mind wandering, daydreaming, “time wasting” — network is off.) We give credit to our task-positive attentional network for all the great work we do in the world. When we are focused, we write books. We build bridges. We raise children. Our culture tells us to focus because it's the only way to get anything done.

But when you’re staring out the window into space, relaxing, or driving (and not listening to the radio) and you let your mind wander, the task-negative brain becomes active. All of those neurons start making connections between things you didn’t see before, usually at an unconscious level. This is where our creative insight comes from. We can’t solve problems or do much of anything without the insights that come from that downtime. We certainly can’t fulfill our potential if we don't fill our need for creative insight without nurturing our ability to draw connections. This is why we often get our best ideas in the shower: It’s the only remaining place in the world where we let ourselves do nothing!

This explains other research that shows that conscious thinking does nothing to improve creativity or help people come up with innovative solutions to problems. For example, when researchers give people a task that requires creativity (such as instructions to come up with a list of ways to use a brick), people don’t generate longer or more creative lists if they have a few extra minutes to think before they start.

What helps is spending those extra few minutes not consciously thinking about the task by diverting the research subjects’ attention with an unrelated task. This gives the insight-generating part of the brain time to get to work making connections. Those new connections are, essentially, innovations that improve our performance on creative tasks.

Here’s what I want you to take away from this: Creative insight is at the very heart of the sweet spot, that place of power and ease where we humans hit our home runs. Nothing is easier than an “aha moment" that pops effortlessly into your awareness, and nothing is more powerful.

This means that you will not discover your sweet spot, find flow, or do your best work, without cultivating stillness in your life and without spending a good part of each day just staring into space.

That’s such a countercultural notion that many people feel guilty and anxious staring into space. We feel important and productive when we are busy, and insignificant and lazy daydreaming. But to be successful, we don’t just need to learn to tolerate stillness, we actually need to cultivate it.

If you need more time to just stare into space, I encourage you to join me for a free (short!) webinar: 5 Surprising Ways to Get More Done in Less Time. In this webinar, I share my top five science-based productivity tips — ones my coaching clients find really do-able — so that you have more time for the things that matter most to you. Sign up or learn more here.

LinkedIn Image Credit: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock