Have you experienced this creativity phenomenon? – You sit staring at your computer screen for hours without having any creative thoughts, then go out for a run and suddenly your head is full of ideas. This is not just a happy coincidence.
Mind-wandering or, more scientifically, “stimulus-independent thoughts”, refers to times when our minds stray from a state of full concentration, such as solving a problem, to completely unrelated thoughts. Mind-wandering actually consumes almost half of our waking hours and happens during nearly every daytime activity. This can be frustrating if you are trying to concentrate on completing a specific task, but quite surprisingly it can actually bring about the most productive way to work.
The key question is: what steps can we take to recreate these seemingly random creative splurges and use them to our advantage?
1. Stop working to start creating
Research on problem solving tells us that the best way to find solutions can be to take a break and distract yourself – concentrating too hard actually puts the brakes on your creativity. Tests have shown that to make yourself even more productive in this down-time try to occupy your mind with a physical task that occupies your mind without using too much brain-power. This could be yoga, a short workout, tidying the house or simply doing the washing up.
2. Pick your best creative window
We all have a time of day when we are most productive, but, confusingly, we should plan to generate ideas during our least productive periods. This might seem counterproductive because logically our brains would work better when we feel most awake and alert; however, this isn’t always the case.
If your performance is much better in the morning, consider thinking about ideas in the evening. If you are a night owl, meditate and brainstorm ideas over your first morning cup of coffee.
3. Create the illusion of space
Have you ever noticed that you have your best ideas come about when you’re sat on the sofa, in your pajamas or staring out of the window?
Psychology shows us that if we feel surrounded by space it can help foster a more creative state of mind. Not everyone has a massive home office to work in, but we can cheat our brains by finding the space that feels expansive: pick a room with high ceilings and sit in front of a window with a view. If neither of those are possible, then consider painting your walls blue. To our eyes, cool colors appear further away whereas hot colors – like red – seem closer.
4. Choose the ideal technique
The best way to increase your productive mind-wandering is through mindfulness meditation. In a successful state of meditation, your mind is occupied, but not taken over with analytical thoughts, thus allowing space for creativity.
Firstly, focus on your breathing, then open your mind to allow any thoughts or sensations to occur. The aim is to let these pass through your mind without analyzing or judging them, then to pick up on them later after the meditation has finished.
A wandering mind is our most natural mental state as humans – the trick is to harness these thoughts to help with your search for ideas or solutions.