Creativity is a fickle little beast. Sometimes the harder you try to boost creativity, the farther away you push it.
Some of my best ideas happen when I’m not trying to think about anything at all. Like during a commute. In fact, that’s what I miss most about working in an office: driving home in the afternoon. It was relaxing, and somehow it helped boost creativity. Some people feel the same way in the shower or while they’re cleaning the house. Either way, the idea is the same: your actions become automatic and your mind wanders. It’s an unintentional break. And breaks are powerful.
The Internet refers to the creative autopilot phenomenon as “shower thoughts,” but psychologists use a more scientific term: The Default Mode Network.
Accessing Your Brain’s “Default Mode Network”
The Default Mode Network (DMN) is made up of the parts of your brain that work quietly in the background, sort of like your subconscious. It’s all the stuff that goes on in your head while you go about your day: you miss your mom, you have a great story idea, you wonder how an old friend is doing. When we activate the DMN, we go into default mode (also known as “autopilot”) and tap into those thoughts.
When I’m driving home on a familiar route, I’m in default mode. You’ve probably been there, right? You hit the road after work and next thing you know you’re at your destination. You have no real memory of the trip because you were on autopilot. During that time, you tapped into your network, and that’s when the magic happens. Your mind is free to wander, and that’s when you really tap into your creativity.
Here’s how one psychologist sums it up over at Wired:
You become less aware of your environment and more aware of your internal thoughts.
It’s probably not the safest thing while you’re behind the wheel, to be honest, but when you make the same drive every day, it’s only natural to go through the motions while your mind logs into the Default Mode Network.
Overall, scientists seem to think you need two main components to access the DMN: relaxation and distraction.
When you’re relaxed, your brain releases dopamine, which is also linked to creativity. This explains why, even though I was on autopilot, I didn’t get much of a creative boost out of my morning commute–only my evening one. In the morning, I was wired, caffeinated, and anxious about the day. After work, I was relaxed.
Second, you need distraction from your conscious mind. This is why endlessly browsing Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter does not boost my creativity. As mindless as it may seem, my conscious mind is still at work, processing all of the photos and status updates. It can’t just be a habit; the task has to distract you from your conscious thought and allow your mind to go wherever it wants, unobstructed by photos of people’s lunches, in order to boost creativity.
Embrace Monotony and Relaxation
In other words, if you want to tap into the DMN, you have to embrace two things:
• Relaxing environments
• Monotonous tasks
(Friendly PSA: Even though I’m using my commute as an example here, it’s probably NOT a good idea to get too relaxed and stop paying attention to your environment when you drive. It happens, I know. But it’s not safe.)
You can’t have one or the other. You need both.
For example, meditation is relaxing, but it doesn’t really work, because you’re supposed to focus. It’s the opposite of mindless monotony, which is the other thing you need. Similarly, I once went to the beach to brainstorm a creative idea for a project. It didn’t work. I was relaxed, but I wasn’t distracted. My conscious mind was taking in the beautiful horizon, the glistening water, and all of the people around me. It was the opposite of monotony–I wasn’t distracted from my conscious thought at all. Plus, relaxing for the purpose of coming up with a good idea is counterproductive.
These days, I log into my default networking by cleaning. It sounds boring, but that’s exactly the point. It’s a boring task that I don’t have to think about at all, and it’s so routine, my subconscious mind is free to wander. I work from home, so I’m fortunate that I can kind of do this whenever I want. So I usually tackle some cleaning project during my lunch break and set a timer for 40 minutes or so. I zone out, and more times than not, I come up with a great idea for something. My subconscious will get to a place where I think, “That’s interesting.” And then I’m jolted back to my conscious, where I think, “Oh, yeah! And that would make for a great article. Let me find a pen and write this down.”
During that time, I’m not focused on a solution. There’s no pressure, the bulk of my work is done for the day, and I’m calm. It’s a lot safer than zoning out during a commute and bonus: I’ve got clean floors.