🛁 Why you have your best ideas in the shower

Avthar’s Weekly Wisdom #24 (10/10/2020)

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Onto today’s letter...

🛁 Why you have your best ideas in the shower

😣Does this struggle sound familiar to you?

I sit down at my desk and resolve to focus on writing. Despite having my research and notes handy, I still can’t quite make everything click. I force sentences and re-arrange paragraphs in the hopes of creating better flow and structure. I’m left feeling unsatisfied, but I soldier on in the hopes of a breakthrough. Maybe if I keep working on it, then it’ll click...

The struggle isn’t unique to writing essays, it also happens when I write code. Rather than messy structure and sentences that don't flow, the struggle takes the form of seemingly inexplicable bugs and weird behaviour in my programs.

After many years of frustration, I’ve found a practice that consistently helps me overcome the struggle by generating an “AHA” moment: a moment where everything clicks and I find a breakthrough to the problem I was wrestling with.

That moment happens when I take a shower.

More precisely, after I step away from the desk, do a workout and take a shower.

After I take a shower, I go back to my desk and, like magic, I find a structure that makes my writing flow better or spot the bug I was missing in my code.

Now this phenomenon isn’t unique to me. Some of the most renowned writers, scientists and businessmen say that they have their best ideas when they’re away from their desk.

The explanation for why this happens is both simple and powerful. It’s a secret that will transform the way you’ll think about learning. Who’s the hero of the story? 

Your subconscious mind. 

🧠 The Subconscious Mind

When you take a shower, you step away from the problem you were focusing on. Instead, you go into auto-pilot mode, not focusing on anything, as you perform an activity you’ve done thousands of times in your life. 

During this auto-pilot mode, you stop actively thinking about the problem at hand and your subconscious mind starts connecting ideas and breaking through the complexity that you were wrestling with. This is how “AHA” moments naturally take place - by stepping away from input and allowing your mind time to process complexity and create new patterns.

Your subconscious mind generates “AHA” moments thanks to oscillations between two modes of thinking: focused and diffuse modes.

🔬 Focused vs 🦋 Diffuse Modes of Thinking

One of my favorite authors on learning, Dr Barbara Oakley, explains the magic of the subconscious mind using the terms “🔬 focused” and “🦋 diffuse” modes of thinking.

In the 🔬focused mode of thinking, you’re actively concentrating using your conscious mind. You’re like a microscope focusing all your energy on the task at hand. You’re in focused mode when you’re trying to learn or study a concept, trying to write an essay, solve a math problem or debug a program. All these scenarios have a clear task which requires your full attention that you’re actively focused on.

In the 🦋diffuse mode of thinking, you’re in a passive, more relaxed state of thought. You’re like a butterfly, just flapping its wings and floating along. You’re not actively focused on taking in new information, making sense of complexity or trying to problem solve. You’re not trying to think of anything, you’re just letting your mind wonder. You’re often in diffuse mode when doing things that require very little mental energy to perform, like taking a shower, taking a walk, or just sitting down and focusing on breathing. New conceptual connections and new neural patterns are forged when in diffuse mode. 

To the best of our scientific knowledge, you can’t be in both focused and diffuse modes at the same time. To make creative breakthroughs in our work, we need to oscillate between focused and diffuse mode, like a tennis ball getting rallied back and forth over a net. If I spent all day trying to actively focus on solving a problem, I’m just loading my mind with complexity and not giving it time to process it. Similarly, if I spent all day in the shower, I would lack novel complexity to tackle. We need both modes to solve problems and be creative.

I’ve noticed that as a society, we are dreadfully deprived of diffuse mode thinking in our daily routines. Part of the reason why most of us have our best thoughts in shower is because that’s the only diffuse time we get (sleep aside). We’re always in focused mode, even when we’re not trying to be. Our enemy is constant input.

🚨 The Enemy of Creativity: Constant Input

We live in a society where everyone is addicted to their phones and social media. I’m not exempt from this struggle, despite my best efforts to fight against it. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being on social media, but as creatives, entrepreneurs and top performers, it negatively affects us by leaving us less creative and less able to solve complex problems.

Mindless scrolling is actually taxing on the mind: with each scroll you’re taking in inputs which trigger thoughts that put you into focus mode and affect your mood. By constantly taking in input from the latest tweet, Instagram post or Facebook post, you’re disrupting your brain's ability to go into diffuse mode and create patterns, connections and breakthroughs. 

“But Avthar, I work so hard, I just take a break by checking my phone /  email / scrolling Twitter/ Instagram / Facebook / HackerNews”.

The reality is that “relaxing” by checking email or browsing our news feeds or even watching TV is not relaxation at all. It’s actually taking in low-intensity input. During these activities, while you’re not intently focusing, you’re still taking in input. As a result, you never allow yourself to fully rest, let go and go into diffuse mode. That’s the cost of being constantly connected.

Thankfully, there is a way to fight back against constant input. We can begin by constructing daily architectures and routines around bursts of focused and diffuse modes of thinking. I call it the practice of Stress and Recovery.

⚔️ Your secret weapon: Stress and Recovery

Your secret weapon in the fight against constant input is to embrace true recovery and relaxation. A lifestyle which oscillates between stress and recovery, allows you to spend enough time in focused mode (stress) and diffuse mode (recovery). This helps you become more creative and more able to solve complex problems.

Stress and recovery were core themes in the lives of many creators and entrepreneurs, like world class painter Salvador Dali and inventor Thomas Edison. Dali, for example, made time for diffuse mode thinking by relaxing on his chair with his keys dangling on his finger. Once he was sufficiently relaxed enough, his keys would fall to the floor and snap him fully alert. He would then take the connections and ideas he had in diffuse mode and go apply them in another burst of focus. Edison had a similar routine, except he used ball bearings rather than keys.

I first learned about the power of oscillating between stress and recovery from Josh Waitzkin. Josh is a former chess and tai chi push hands world champion and a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. Nowadays, he consults and coaches the world’s top performers in the world of sports and finance.

Josh is a proponent of learning to relax fully and letting our diffuse mode of thinking take over. He believes learning to let go just as important as learning to focus intently: 

In order to perform at peak intensity, we cannot burn ourselves out by training as hard as we can 24/7. Learning to let go and turn it off is just as important as learning to turn it on. Recovery allows us to turn it on with greater intensity. 

The better we are at recovering, the greater potential we have to endure/perform under stress.

- Josh Waitzkin

While Josh’s original point applied to physical pursuits, it’s just as applicable to mental and creative pursuits:

In order to perform at peak creativity, we cannot burn ourselves out by focusing as hard as we can 24/7.

Learning to let go and turn it off is just as important as learning to turn it on.

Recovery allows us to turn it on with greater intensity. 

Josh also shares the belief that we must fight back against constant input, by creating rhythms of feeding our subconscious mind during focus mode, letting connections and breakthroughs take place during diffuse mode and then tapping those breakthroughs during focus mode again:

So what you see is whenever people are coming back from something after a break, they're soaking in inputs [e.g by checking their phone]. So they live this reactive lifestyle. Their creative processes are dominated by external noise as opposed to internal music.

...a lot of what I work on with guys is creating rhythms in their life that really are based on feeding the subconscious mind, which is the wellspring of creativity information and then tapping it.

- Josh Waitzkin

The most complete explanation of how to integrate stress and recovery oscillations into your life can be found in the “Power of Full Engagement”, a wonderful book on performance and creativity by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The sections on Mental energy are a must read for any problem solver or creative. The book helped me create a daily architecture designed around stress and recovery as well as focused and diffuse modes of thinking.

For example, I now explicitly schedule time for diffuse mode thinking into my day, in the same way that I would schedule focused work. The diffuse mode sessions can be micro-pauses, like going to the bathroom without checking my phone or closing my eyes and taking a 10 deep breaths. Longer diffuse mode sessions might be taking a 15 minute walk, sleeping or taking a nap, exercising or...you guessed it...taking a shower!

📚Learn More

I hope this essay has left you with a clear understanding of the role the subconscious mind plays in creativity and problem solving. I also hope you’re inspired to go out and create your own routine around stress and recovery and focused and diffuse modes of thinking, remembering the danger of constantly taking in input and how that harms your creativity.

To help you on your quest, here are resources that I’ve personally found the most helpful for your to explore further:


I wish you successful and peaceful week ahead.

Thank you for reading!

- Avthar

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