Several years ago, I heard a piece about the origin of creativity and where we get great ideas. (I’ll say it was 60 Minutes, maybe in 2004, but while the idea stuck, the source did not) The phrase from the piece that resonated was “Bed, bath and bus.” The concept being that we get terrific, truly innovative ideas in places like our beds, our baths, or buses…anywhere where we can be present and also drift. Our prefrontal cortices are relaxed, the rest of our brain is alert because we’re in a state somewhere between sleep and waking.(1) At the time, I was relatively young, in graduate school full-time, and single. I had absolutely no idea why it would be hard for anyone to be creative. (It’s fun to laugh at our younger selves, I think.)
Fast forward to 2013. I had two small children, a husband, a demanding job and a household to manage. The concept of leisure had long-since been forgotten. It was a typical occurrence for me to announce in meetings that, “this morning, in the shower, I had an idea…” While a bit awkward, it was true. I was getting my best ideas, my most productive solutions, while in that bed/bath/bus setting.
It’s not like this is a new concept, or a consequence of our cluttered, busy world. Newton famously worked out the idea of gravity while napping – they say sitting, but let’s be real – under a tree. Archimedes was bathing when he figured out hydrostatics. So what we do know is that what is perceived as “boredom” can actually be fertile ground for innovation.
Here’s our modern day challenge. We have now started immersing ourselves in stimulation constantly. Bluetooth speaker in the shower. Headphones teaching us via podcast in the bus. Audiobooks entertaining us in the car on that long drive. Reading or watching tv in bed until we drift off to a restless sleep. Where is the boredom? At work, we’re on calls and multitasking. Eating lunch over the keyboard while we shop online. Are we really getting more done? Do you still find yourself with big problems to solve and no reasonable ways to solve them? And at the same time, aren’t some of the challenges bigger?
Let me suggest a solution. Pick one place – bed, bath or bus – and make it a boredom friendly zone. Make it your safe, uncluttered mind space. I have two such places. My shower remains a trusty “unthinking” space…I still regularly get ideas there. I also like driving the car without any audible distraction. While I focus on driving, my brain can work on solutions in the background.
Give it a shot, I hope it works for you. In the meantime, consider this. Maybe you have too much to do to make that space for your mind. If that’s the case, and you need some project help, maybe I can help you.
- In looking up a source for this idea, there are many anecdotal mentions online. The earliest, most likely source appears to be Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher.