I used to hate my commute. Now I miss it. Looking back, it was the only time in the day I didn’t have to listen or speak or do anything in particular. And yet I arrived at work or at home with a whole bunch of problems well on their way to being solved.
But since WFH became everyone’s office, my commuting time has significantly shrunk. And now, there is only one other place where I feel the same sense of detachment and freedom to just be, to mutter to myself or stare blanky out the window.
However, there seems to be one little phrase which has worked its way into conversations and threatens to annihilate even this final, sacred creative sanctum.
It sounds a little bit like this.
“Don’t worry about that today. Maybe just have a think about it in the shower and we can discuss it next week.”
In. The. Shower.
This suggestion, undoubtedly positioned as a benefit to the recipient, and excuse not to have to sit through another 60 minute Google Hangout, will actually have quite the opposite effect.
Because "having a think" in the shower doesn’t happen on demand.
That’s not how showers work.
In fact, that very suggestion could kill any mind mojo that was about to go down.
You see, the rule about having good ideas in the shower is that you don’t go in with a to-do list.
Not your own. And certainly not someone else’s.
Showers work only if the outside world stays outside your door.
Showers are a safe place where we relax, thus providing a dopamine high. And dopamine is critical to creativity. But, on top of dopamine, showers provide a chance to be distracted. Giving you, as Harvard researcher Shelly H Carson puts it, the “break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution”.
When we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the specifics of the problems we’re trying to solve. While this pattern of attention is necessary when solving problems analytically, it actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights.
But when our minds are at ease, and those alpha waves are rippling through the brain, we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the brain’s right hemisphere. We’re able to hear those quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about an insight. The answers have been there all along; we just weren’t listening.
Back in 265 BC, Archimedes and the Golden Crown are a powerful testament to the types of problems you can solve when your mind and body are immersed in water.
Hiero II, King of Syracuse, came to Archimedes for advice following rumours that a goldsmith he had commissioned to make a pure gold laurel wreath had cheated him. The goldsmith stood accused of mixing the pure gold King Hiero had given him with silver, and pocketing the difference. Could Archimedes help him prove or disprove this rumour?
A little while later, Archimedes walked to the public baths for his cleansing rituals. He went through the motions of washing and scrubbing and stepped into a tub of water for his final dip. As he did so, the water in the tub began to spill out over the sides. Curious, Archimedes continued to lower himself slowly into the water, and he noticed that the more his body sank into the water, the more water ran out over the sides of the tub. Eureka moment! He realised he had found the solution to Hiero’s problem. If the goldsmith had replaced some of the gold with silver, then the volume of the mixed metal crown would be greater than the volume of the pure and less dense gold, displacing more water than gold. The test was set up and it was concluded that the goldsmith had indeed cheated the King.
Had Archimedes entered the bath house consciously trying to solve the conundrum, he may well have been too preoccupied to notice the water spilling out of the tub.
So, the moral of the story is ditch that to-do list. And install a lock on your proverbial bathroom door.
For now, the shower is our final frontier of creativity. Protect it.
Anna Vogt is chief strategy officer at TBWA/London