It's happened to all of us — you're in the shower and inspiration strikes. You struggle to remember when you get out. Sometimes, you're successful, other times, maybe not — but why is the shower such a prime place for inspiration? Let's take a look and see how you can harness that brilliance at other times too.
It wouldn't be an understatement if I said that many of my best article ideas came in the shower, and I know the same is true for many of my colleagues. We all deal with that in different ways (and we'll get to some of those methods later) but first, let's look into why inspiration seems to strike in the shower of all places. We've touched on the science of inspiration (and how to make it work for you) in the past, and some of that applies here. Let's explore how inspiration strikes, other places we tend to be inspired, and some ways to tap into that creativity and harness it whenever you need to.
Why Inspiration Seems to Strike in the Shower
So why do we always seem to have great ideas in the shower? The short answer is that it's all about meditation — or at least putting our minds in a semi-meditative state. In the shower, you have an established routine. Your mind is free to wander while your body goes through the motions. It's also a relaxing experience, and the combination of those two things — along with some brain chemistry that explains why taking a good shower feels so refreshing — are the perfect environment for ideas to spring forth.
There haven't been a lot of experiments on why we get random insights, but psychology does have a theory that describes a mental state that seems to foment these kinds of thoughts. It's called the default mode network.
"You become less aware of your environment and more aware of your internal thoughts," said John Kounios, a psychologist who studies creativity and distraction at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
The common thread in these activities is they are physically or mentally active, but only mildly so. They also need to be familiar or comfortable enough that you stay engaged but not bored, and last long enough to have an uninterrupted stream of thought.
Kounios explains that our brains typically catalogue things by their context: Windows are parts of buildings, and the stars belong in the night sky. Ideas will always mingle to some degree, but when we're focused on a specific task our thinking tends to be linear.
In short, even things that you see everyday can suddenly inspire you with a new and fresh idea when the time and atmosphere are right. We touched on this point briefly when referencing a piece by Leo Widrich over at the Buffer blog on the same topic.
Leo explains that it's a combination of brain chemistry, distraction and relaxation that's make our brains ripe for this kind of meditative inspiration:
Another crucial factor is a distraction, says Harvard researcher Carson:
"In other words, a distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution."
Especially if you have thought long and hard all day about a problem, jumping into the shower can turn into what scientist call the "incubation period" for your ideas. The subconscious mind has been working extremely hard to solve the problems you face and now that you let your mind wander, it can surface and plant those ideas into your conscious mind.
Lastly, after you have received an influx in dopamine, can be easily distracted by an extremely habitual task like showering or cooking, a relaxed state of mind is absolutely important to be creative, says Jonah Lehrer:
"Why is a relaxed state of mind so important for creative insights? When our minds are at ease — when those alpha waves are rippling through the brain — we're more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we're trying to solve. While this pattern of attention is necessary when solving problems analytically, it actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights. 'That's why so many insights happen during warm showers,' Bhattacharya says. 'For many people, it's the most relaxing part of the day.' It's not until we're being massaged by warm water, unable to check our email, that we're finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along — we just weren't listening."
Leo leads us to a point that's important to remember — it's not just showering where this kind of relaxed, inward-thinking brilliance happens. Any time you're both relaxed, distracted, and in a good mental place can be a great time for good ideas. Perhaps your meditative state comes from cooking or cleaning. Maybe inspiration comes to you on long drives to visit family or on plane trips where you have nothing else to do.
Whenever it is, recognising the conditions that make those ideas possible is the first step to harnessing them anytime you need them.
How You Can Tap Into That Inspiration at Other Times
Once you understand the semi-meditative state required, it's a little easier to create situations where you can let your mind wander a bit. Of course, you could always hop in the shower whenever you need to do a little brainstorming, but not all of us can do that in the middle of a workday. Instead, look for other things that you can do that offer a meditative break.
For example, maybe you can take a quick walk to clear your head. If you work from home, maybe a little tidying up can give you room to think. Even daydreaming is great for your brain. After all, regular, real breaks from your work are essential to staying motivated and creative. It's only when you get a chance to disconnect for a bit that your brain can take a fresh approach at the issues you're banging your head against.
... when you are working on a problem your brain tends to fixate on one or a few different strategies. Kounios says these are like ruts that your mental wheels get stuck in. "If you take a break however, those thought patterns no longer dominate your thinking," he said. The problem gets removed from the mental ruts and mingles with other ideas you're carrying in your head. Eventually, it finds one — or several — that click together and rise up like Voltron into a solution. This is called fixation forgetting.
Shower thoughts aren't always attached to a specific problem, but fixation forgetting still helps psychologists like Kounios understand those random cocktails of revelation.
It's not clear how your brain decides which are the right connections, but it's obvious that the farther your brain can roam, the better. Research has shown that your brain builds bigger creative webs when you're in a positive mood. This makes sense, because when you're anxious you're less likely to take a chance on creativity.
This is partially why mediation usually isn't the answer to your brainstorming quandaries. Sure, there are ways to quiet your mind when you need to, but part of the goal of meditation isn't to clear your mind so you can brainstorm, it's to clear your mind. Instead, you need to find activities that also provide a little activity, but not so much that you need to be mentally dedicated to them.
Showering is a good example of the kind of mental exercise we're talking about, but I find the same mental state comes from vacuuming the floors. Similarly, putting away the dishes or the laundry gives me the same mental break, even if they are chores. You can even schedule your semi-meditative times as opportunities to get things done that you've always wanted to do, like paint a room, cut the lawn, go for a hike, or just take a long drive around town. Anything that falls into that "doing something but not 100 per cent there while you do it" category is a great thing to try if you need to make room in your schedule for more "creative time."
Time of day matters as well. Mental Floss explains that the grogginess and mental fog of the early morning or late evening aren't conducive to ideas, largely because they're when we're most tired or rushed. Instead, try the evening, during a break or after work.
Find Ways to Capture Your Ideas, Whenever They Strike
The downside to seeking out those inspirational moments is that the act of setting them up often undermines your intentions. It's like your brain knows you're trying to turn otherwise mentally idle time into mentally active time, and as a result the ideas won't come. This is why you may find your walks less inspiring after you decide to take a notebook along. The trick to capturing ideas when they come is a bit more complicated than that. You should make it easy to record those ideas, but you also have to trick your brain into forgetting that notebook is there.
Keep your notebook out of sight, and don't focus on it when you go for your walk. If you don't normally take anything on your walks, don't take a bag just so you have a notebook — find one you can slip into your pocket and forget about. If your ideas come in the shower, get one of those great waterproof notepads we've mentioned before, but put it on a side of the shower you don't normally face. The key is to make the process easy — so easy that your brain doesn't feel like it has something to do when inspiration finally strikes. Remember, if the whole point is that ideas come when you're otherwise distracted or mentally idle, giving the brain a task — even if it's "find inspiration" — disrupts the process.
Finally, while it's important to make those moments as easily accessible as possible, don't forget that creativity is a process. It's not easy — you need experiences to inspire you, problems to solve, and even a little pressure to get the mental wheels turning. Sometimes, you just have to show up and start working, and let inspiration come when it comes.
With these suggestions, ideally you can coax your brain into creative thinking from time to time, and make the most of the moments when inspiration does strike. However, sometimes there's no excuse for just diving into a problem and sorting it out as you go along. Remember, the more you try to force it, the harder it will be. Take a break, or do something else, and you'll find inspiration just may strike — be ready for it when it does.