Long, long ago when I was a graduate student, I was working late in the computer lab trying to solve a complex programming problem.
Though I had written most of the code I needed, I just couldn’t figure out how to code the crux of the problem. After several hours of hit-and-miss programming, I gave up and walked home.
During my 15-minute walk, the answer popped into my head. I made two observations: 1) I had a good idea while I was walking; 2) I’m not a very good programmer — the problem wasn’t so terribly difficult.
The second idea helped me re-plan my career. Maybe I shouldn’t be a programmer after all. The first idea helped me be successful in my career.
I don’t claim to be a very creative thinker. But I do have a good idea every now and again. When I do, I try to note and remember my circumstances. I figure that there’s something about the environment that promotes creative thinking. Conversely, there are some environments that seem to inhibit — perhaps prohibit — creative thinking. To stimulate my creative processes, I need to insert myself into more of the former environments and fewer of the latter.
Here’s what I’ve found. I have a lot of my good ideas — perhaps a majority — when I’m walking. I’m a visual thinker and there’s a lot to see when I’m out for a walk. It’s stimulating. Yet it doesn’t require so much attention that I can’t process things in the back of my mind. If I’m walking with my wife, she often points out things that I might have missed. Then I can ask myself, “why did I see X but not Y?” That can stimulate interesting thoughts as well.
Other activities that seem to stimulate creativity (for me, at least) include riding a bike, light exercise at the gym, flying in an airplane, riding a train, taking a shower, and cooking oatmeal. It’s an odd combination. The common thread seems to be that I’m doing something that takes part of my attention but not all of it.
Here are some places where I never have good ideas: airports, commuting in heavy traffic, watching TV, and sitting in business meetings. It’s ironic that good ideas don’t come to me in business meetings. Basically, I’m trying to keep up with the conversation. If I’m a good listener, then I’m paying attention to other people rather than processing interesting thoughts myself.
I find brainstorming sessions useful though I rarely have a good idea when I’m in one. It’s like thinking of a good joke. If you ask me to tell a good joke, my mind goes blank. If my mind is wandering, however, I can think of a dozen jokes. It’s the same in brainstorming sessions. I try to follow the conversation and the various social interactions. That means I’m not processing stray, random, and perhaps interesting thoughts. For me, brainstorming sessions are useful for enhancing group communication and building trust. That creates the conditions for creating ideas.
I’m not at all sure that my “creative” activities will work for you. So here’s a suggestion: keep an idea log. Don’t just jot down the idea. Jot down where you were and what you were doing when the idea occurred to you. Sooner or later, you’ll see a pattern. Then you can create more “creative” experiences. In the meantime, I’m going for a walk.