When I was writing my new book it occurred to me that I needed to conduct some research to understand first-hand where and when people did their best thinking. I had anecdotal material already but it wasn't enough. This research was not intended to prove anything one way or another but was simply meant to illuminate some of the thoughts that were already circulating inside my head. The answers that I received from people were fascinating, not least because of what was not said and not done.
Only one person from my entire study said "the office very early in the morning before anyone else arrives ... ." One other person mentioned brainstorms (possibly at the office—they didn't say) but that was it. In a year of talking to and corresponding with hundreds of people only one (maybe two) mentioned a workplace environment and one of these people was speaking about an office with nobody in it (i.e. when the office isn't really functioning as an office).
Considering that the workplace is where we spend most of our time this is staggering. We spend millions of dollars designing offices and spend hundreds of thousands more employing consultants to run idea generation and strategy sessions but for most people their best thinking is done away from the workplace. I will post more about this topic over the coming days and weeks but in the meantime here's the top ten most frequent answers to my question (ranked 1-10 in descending order)
1. When I'm alone
2. Last thing at night/in bed
3. In the shower
4. First thing in the morning
5. In the car /driving
6. When I'm reading a book/newspaper/magazine (Fast Company perhaps?)
7. In the bath
10. When I'm jogging/running
As I say, note the lack of office environments but also the lack of digital technology.
Here are a few specific answers from people you may have heard of ...
" Over the decades, I think that my best thinking has occurred when I am visiting a foreign country, have my obligations out of the way, and am sitting in a pleasant spot—in a café, near a lake—with a piece of paper in front of me." Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard University
"Usually when I am not working, and most often when I am traveling!" Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology, University of Oxford
"The most relevant (issue) for me is ideas needed for a piece of writing. As a drummer I am generally required to avoid deep thinking of any sort. So it's probably whilst driving on a motorway, or on the start of a transatlantic flight. I think it's to do with some distractions so that the thinking is a little freer—there is nothing worse than tidying the desk, sharpening a pencil and sensing the creative part of the brain creeping out the back door ... also there's a nice reward element that can be employed. No motorway fry up, or extra dry martini before there's an opening line invented." Nick Mason, musician and founding member of Pink Floyd.
"Lying in bed in the dark, with the white noise generator producing a soothing whoosh, I sometimes have a few seconds of modest insight." Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute, Mountain View, California
"I love doing household chores: loading the dishwasher, scrubbing the floors, scouring the pans; the polishing, the cleaning. All the time I am thinking of ways to improve upon the equipment; what would bring forward the technology." James Dyson, English inventor and entrepreneur
"I've had creative thoughts while walking down the street, in the shower, on the squash court, in the bathroom (of course), while shaving.... " Professor Arthur Miller, Emeritus Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at University College London (U.K.)
"I do my best thinking in bed—my dreams are often very close to real life. So sometimes I wake up having solved a problem." Roger Graef, Writer, filmmaker, and criminologist (U.K.)
"The most definitive answer I can give is "not sitting in front of a screen"—I tend to find that ideas come to me when I'm sitting on the ferry, in the shower, walking between meetings, listening to the radio or TED talks; I think it's something to do with having some mild diversions between you and the problem you're trying to solve. (I can more definitively answer the question 'when DON'T I do my best thinking?'—when I'm surrounded by kids who demand my undivided attention!" Wayde Bull, Planning Director, Principals (Australia)
Often the 'spark' comes when I am not supposed to be thinking. I'm afraid I am a smoker—now sentenced to pursue this awful habit outside. I think smoking is about relaxing (for me at least)—so I let my mind stop being boxed in by whatever I was doing before hand. That's when it gets to work on its own, and that's when it works most laterally—both in terms of what it 'chooses' to decide to mull on and in terms of connections it makes between things. I sometimes find it hard to retain the thoughts when having to get back to the day job of the next immediate challenge—usually have to write it down or say it to someone. This works particularly well late at night or when it's quiet. Or alternatively—in the bath ... ... a bit of a cliché but true ... I think the other time I think well is when I am stealing ideas from others! People say things, which lead you to make good, new connections—too see things in ways you had not previously. I've often said that the best ideas I have had came from someone else. This is where 'sparks' can be molded into something more concrete that you can really do something with. So at work I like to think with 1 or (no more than) 2 people through an iterative thought process. Two brains are often better than one for really good constructive thinking. Too many brains and the process gets tough. Charles Constable, Former director of Strategy. Channel Five Television (U.K.)
"My "best thinking" seems to occur when my mind is somewhat relaxed and I am not focussing hard on the issue I am actually concerned about. Initially I always have to go through a personal briefing phase with a new issue / problem / challenge - as being aware of all the facts is clearly essential. This could well involve discussions with others. But after that I don't usually just sit still and think hard—like Sherlock Holmes with his pipe. I find it very hard to do that. Rather the issue "simmers" in my mind and ideas occur, say, when I am walking the dog or driving the car..." Tony Craig, General Manager, Strategy, NFU Mutual (U.K.)
"Some of my best and most complicated thinking (thinking with numbers attached) happens late at night when it's quiet and I've had a few drinks. In can also happen in pubs when I'm oblivious to everyone and everything around me." Douglas Slater, Political advisor, playwright & founder of Stonewall UK
"On the running machine" Joe Ferry, Former Head of Design, Virgin Atlantic Airways (U.K.)
" I sit down (usually at home, in my study, in my grandmother's Welsh Oak chair) with a sharp pencil and a blank notebook and start to draw out the idea, almost graphically. Give it a shape, a name, some dimensions, some examples to bring it to life. Then I talk about it with people. Find its centre and my confidence in it" Adam Morgan, author of Eat Big Fish and The Pirate Inside
To be continued ...