It happens at moments when you least expect it: in the shower, while out for a run or, for me, right before falling asleep. A solution to an obstacle or problem that may have been plaguing you for days all of a sudden becomes clear and eureka, the worry ebbs away.
Running a technology startup comes with a unique set of pain points. Reaching out to a network of other tech founders sometimes helps in terms of finding a solution but often you're stuck figuring it out yourself. Despite my better judgment, I often waste time searching for solutions, which often translates to mindlessly Googling related topics. It almost never helps. Truth be told, when was the last time anyone came up with an epiphany at his or her desk?
Cultivating these "a-ha" moments seems about as likely as forcing a pot to boil water faster, but there are tactics you can use to encourage them.
For years now, scientists have been aware of the activity that takes place in the brain when you reach an epiphany. In research published in 2009, John Kounios, a professor of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia and Mark Beeman, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., discovered that a spark of high gamma activity occurred in the right hemisphere of the brains of their subjects a third of a second before arriving at an answer. This gamma activity signals the birth of a new idea -- the physical result of an a-ha moment. But before this spark, the activity in the area of the brain that controls sight slowed down -- a "brain blink" -- suggesting that the brain needs quiet before processing this revelation.
In other words, we need quiet time to think. It's something we tell our children, when they want to watch YouTube videos while doing their homework, but for some reason as adults we don't want to give ourselves the permission, despite the incredible benefits.
Toronto-based author and blogger Maya Chendke said she needs a "physical disconnect" to think creatively and often travels outside the city to do so. Ms. Chendke recently took a trip to Cape Cod to kick-start her next novel and it did the trick.
"I have had a story percolating for some time now, but found it increasingly hard to find time and brain space to start it back here in Toronto. Maybe it is the decompression of being 'away' that sparks this 'a-ha' moment. It's literally like a switch turns on," she said.
Barbara Stewart, partner and portfolio manager at Cumberland Private Wealth Management, also arrived at her a-ha moment while visiting the Canadian Rockies five years ago. It was an epiphany, which changed the course of her career.
"The financial crisis of 2008-09 was not a fun time to be a portfolio manager," Ms. Stewart said. "Despite my years of study and experience, it was difficult to feel that I was adding any value, and I began to feel like my work was without meaning," she said.
To lift her mood, Ms. Stewart went on the vacation in the Canadian Rockies with her husband. After six hours hiking in the wilderness, she said her "brain had entered that blissful state where all thinking has shut off." Then out of the blue, she was hit with her a-ha moment.
For Ms. Stewart, this meant conducting her own independent research into the subject of women and finance. In addition to her role at Cumberland Private Wealth Management, she wanted to travel the world, meet successful and fascinating women, and "make a lasting contribution to the planet." She's currently working on her fifth research paper.
"I fell back in love with my job," said Ms. Stewart, who believes her breadth of travel and experience made her an even better portfolio manager. New clients seek her out because of her research, which she attributes to an aha moment in the Rockies.
Reaching a workplace epiphany because of a short jaunt through nature is certainly nothing new, yet some of us need to be reminded of its benefits.
Career coach Sarah Vermunt, founder of Careergasm in Toronto, said she's noticed the trend with her clients, who come back to work after a short time in the wilderness with creative solutions to work problems. One client said that after just four days of camping, he was able to see his business challenges more clearly than he had in years.
"There's something about being immersed in nature that facilitates clarity. You're away from the clutter and noise, and suddenly space opens up so you can connect the dots," Ms. Vermunt said.
"I have always noticed this on a personal level, but it's interesting to see just how pervasive the phenomenon is with most people," she added.
Don't have time -- or money -- for a trip outside the city? Rest assured, aha moments can be arrived at for less. For Ms. Vermunt, a 20-minute nap provides the perfect escape.
"It's counterintuitive, but for me, napping is one of the most productive things I can do," she said.
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A stroll alongside nature is like playtime for adults -- in the same way that children experience some of their most imaginative moments on a playground or in a sandbox, adults can utilize the physical space to let their minds wander freely and stumble across any idea that arrives organically. And keeping moving proves far more productive than the alternative. Researchers at Stanford University recently found that walking helps boost creative inspiration by 60 percent when compared to sitting.
Set those recipe cards aside and see what new cuisine combinations you come up with by just using what’s in your pantry and refrigerator. Creating meals for different times of the day or for different occasions can really open your mind to the infinite possibilities within the culinary world and beyond. "Just like making music or poetry, cooking requires understanding interconnectedness and harmonies," said Faisal Hoque, author of "Everything Connects: How To Transform And Lead In The Age Of Creativity, Innovation And Sustainability," in a recent Business Insider article. "Understanding the relationships between the ingredients and their interactions is crucial to creating a successful dish. This conscious openness is precisely what is at the heart of any creative process regardless of what we do and the medium we use."
Go ahead -- dive head-first into that novel that's been waiting on your bookshelf the past few months! Immersing yourself in the story will require active engagement and concentration, taking you away from the frustration you're feeling from your creativity block. As the story absorbs your attention, you'll visualize its plot line, absorb its message and develop new insights of your own that just might help you find what you've been searching for.
One of the best way to get those creative juices flowing again is to get your blood pumping. Our minds naturally relax when we are physically active, allowing for less stress and more wandering. A recent study found that people who were more active were also more successful creatively, thanks to their ability to solve problems and come up with new ideas.
Surprise, surprise -- we do some of our best creative thinking when we are in a positive mood. According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a happy mood has the ability to help us free our minds, thus opening us up to thinking more imaginatively. "Having a positive mood affects your attention -- it can broaden your visual field, literally," said Dr. Adam Anderson, the lead author of the study. "A negative mood results in tunnel vision, making you focus on just the things you are anxious about -- everything else falls out of this focus and doesn't matter."
If you need a creativity boost in the short term, asking yourself questions that require a little counterfactual thinking could help open your mind to new perspectives. Simply take completed events from the past and imagine different outcomes, deleting existing details while adding some of your own. Re-painting that mental picture can also erase other thoughts currently blocking your mind from where you're trying to go.
Pushing yourself to solve a problem can sometimes drive the solution further away. Instead, let your mind wander. Research has shown not only that the brain continues to work on problem-solving during a daydream, but also that creative solutions may be discovered through general, unconscious thought. So take a break from that aggravating question coursing through your mind -- the answer will come to you soon enough
Psychologist Rollo May once said, “In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude." Often times a lack of inspiration isn't the culprit of a creativity rut, but rather overstimulation in general. Allowing yourself space physically, mentally and emotionally for reflection can create a new sense of clarity as well as a dose of inspiration. Embrace solitude and focus on the thoughts you can suddenly hear among the silence.
Sometimes one of the best ways to sort though a mind racing with thoughts is to put pen to paper and write it all down. Journaling not only provides emotional relief, but also allows for you to see your thoughts in a tangible space and make sense of them from a new perspective. Giving them room to breathe will also allow for new thoughts and ideas to trickle in and fill that newfound space.
For those who are naturally creative minds, it's imperative that you continually challenge yourself with new tasks in order to grow. Novelty can be one of the best sparks for creativity, whether than means testing out a new hobby or avoiding the use of patterns or solutions from the past. Take on each day and project with a new view, and don't be afraid to push those boundaries and see what happens.
The benefits of meditation are far from limited to stress relief and relaxation. A study published in Frontiers in Cognition found that open monitoring meditation (where the individual is receptive to all thoughts and sensations without focusing on any particular one) improved participants' divergent thinking, a key component of the creative process. Not only are college students using meditation to channel their creative power, but many businesses are now jumping on the meditation bandwagon as well, encouraging their employees to use the technique as they search for new ideas.
There's a reason we love gazing up at the sky and out at the sea so much -- the pretty blue hues put us in a relaxed mood and help our minds wander to the most creative of places. A University of British Columbia study found that while the color red helps develop sharper memories, the color blue helps unlock your imagination.
Sometimes it takes a total change of pace and scenery to reset the mind. Whether you can afford to take a few days off or simply enjoy the weekend, make a point to surround yourself with a culture different from your own. A study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that multicultural experiences share a direct connection with creative cognition. So explore a new country, a new state or simply a new neighborhood to open your eyes as well as your mind.
You might find that dull roar in the coffee shop too distracting most days, but that distraction might be just what you need to break free of that persistent mental block. A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that a moderate level of ambient noise actually enhances one's performance on creative tasks. So the next time you sit down with your cup of coffee, welcome the little distractions. You never know where they'll lead you.
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