With one simple change to my everyday routine, I suddenly feel more creative, able to generate ideas more quickly, and with greater clarity. You can achieve the same thing with one simple trick that won’t cost you a penny.
A few years ago, I prided myself on how busy I kept myself. “I can’t remember the last time I was bored,” I would proudly proclaim, managing to fill my downtime with books, movies, climbing, and friends. On long train journeys, I would glance with confusion at anyone who sat staring out the window for hours at a time. While I was busy watching a movie, reading a book, or browsing the headlines, they were just sat silently, gazing at nothing. It mystified me. “Their brains must be empty,” I thought to myself, not realizing how I was undermining my own brain by constantly bombarding it with information.
Suddenly I’ve stopped. Constant stimulation is a disease of the 21st century. Giving my brain a break on a daily basis has had a big impact. In short, doing nothing is wonderful.
The Power of the Shower
Writing my master’s thesis a few years ago was one of the best experiences of my life. I managed to achieve a routine of climbing in the morning and then shutting myself in my room in the afternoon, surrounded by notes, slowly converting months of research and thousands of photographs into one long essay. It was glorious. At one point, however, I couldn’t find a means of tying together three or four threads. For hours, I stared at the screen, writing and then deleting the same sentence countless times, and achieving nothing.
And then I had a shower. It’s something of a cliche, but that is when inspiration hit. The threads of my chapter suddenly converged and I dashed back to my desk and quickly achieved what had previously seemed impossible. What is it about having a shower that so often allows us to summon a mental breakthrough from nothing but soap, steam, and slippery surfaces?
Firstly, there is physical stimulation. Our brains do not exist in isolation from our bodies, and shifting from sitting and staring to standing and performing a physical routine is one of the factors that can allow the brain to switch modes. While there’s much to be said for periods of deeply immersed focus, engaging in a monotonous task can be revelatory.
Physical activity is incredibly beneficial for creative mental processes. Stravinsky is said to have stood on his head for fifteen minutes after waking, while Beethoven would sit and count exactly sixty beans for his morning cup of coffee by hand. Those who jog each day are benefiting their brains as much as their bodies — but, as will become clear, only if you leave the podcast at home.
The Cosy Cubicle of Equanimity
In the shower, we enter a window of near isolation. We are closed off from the world, contained in our cubicle, almost unable to communicate but, more importantly, not expected to communicate. We have no obligations to respond and therefore we’re able to switch off momentarily from the world beyond the bathroom and become immersed in the simple task of cleaning ourselves. This window is glorious. Because we don’t expect interruptions and can happily and justifiably ignore everything else that’s going on, the brain wanders freely.
This distracted state is critical. With the hint of dopamine that comes from the pleasant physical sensations, we have the perfect cocktail for creativity. Trying to focus too hard on a particular problem can be productive, but it can quickly become restrictive. Switching to a completely different mode liberates the brain, allowing you to harness the power of letting your mind wander freely.
Creative people are more likely to become distracted, but this does not mean that browsing cat memes, news cycles, hilarious GIFs, and Instagram notifications is beneficial. There is a very specific type of distraction, one that allows the brain to roam of its own accord — something that a screen does not permit.
Freedom From the Phone
One final element is critical: in the shower, you are not holding your phone. It’s not in your pocket. Ideally, it’s not even in the bathroom. You are cut off, not bound to its vibrations, enjoying a brief moment of freedom from a device that otherwise enslaves your existence. Phones kill creativity and modernity’s “always on” mentality is turning us into idiots. As we stand in line at the store, we scroll; as we wait for friends to arrive at the bar, we check our notifications; as we commute, we comment on Brian’s new haircut. It’s not just that this debilitating device takes us away from our moments of deep focus, it also destroys our boredom. Not only does it constantly interrupt any moments of mental freedom, but it also prevents them from happening in the first place.
What’s terrifying is that even if we’re not staring at our phone, it inhibits our minds. Right now, my phone is on Do Not Disturb on the other side of the room and despite that, I still feel its power. Just switching it off is not enough to stop it tickling our subconscious with its constant nagging, whether it’s FOMO (fear of missing out), wondering when Alan is going to reply to your email, or plotting which hashtags to use in your next Instagram post. This is an addiction that blights us even when we take small steps to try and free ourselves. The solution? Put the phone somewhere else, ideally in a completely different building.
The Power of the Pooch
So despite the power of the shower, washing is not my breakthrough; right now I live in a building site of a house with leaking pipes and a broken boiler, so showering is not a frequent occurrence, to say the least. My new trick? Each day, when I walk the dog, I very deliberately leave my phone at home. This gives me a window where I simply cannot be contacted, freeing myself from the pull of everyday concerns — virtual and otherwise — and giving my brain the space to wander, ponder, and roam.
It doesn’t have to be walking the dog. For NY Times columnist Kevin Roose, it was pottery. For you, it could be a long bath, origami or building some shelves. What’s crucial is that you should be alone in your thoughts on a regular basis, far away from a screen, and enjoying some sort of physical stimulation that allows your brain to just be. If you work creatively, I can guarantee that you will feel the benefits.
If this resonates with you, I'd be grateful for your comments below.