You’re at the market. The airport. Or, heaven forbid, the DMV.
You mumble, you grumble. You check email and Facebook. You sigh, you shuffle. Then back to the mumbling and grumbling.
Hey, we’re right there with you—maybe a few spots ahead of you, maybe a few behind. We all have to wait in line—but, fact is, we don’t have to waste our time. A few mental adjustments and those inevitable waits become generators of creative thinking.
Rather than stand and stew, surrender to the queue. Breathe. Exhale. Unplug. Give your brain a break.
"Like my laptop battery, which my computer guy says will last longer if I let it run down before recharging, my brain doesn’t benefit from being constantly plugged in," writes artist Carol Diehl, in her essay "On Fire and Not."
And according to Mark Beeman, a Northwestern University neuroscience researcher, a rest for the cortex after heavy brain activity leads to idea-sparking insights. "That is like the brain’s way of closing its eyes," he says.
Try this: Release tension with a 4-7-8 breathing exercise advocated by Dr. Andrew Weil and others: Inhale through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale though your mouth for a count of eight. Repeat four times.
Because our fellow creatures are endlessly entertaining, most of us are people watchers. As you gaze at those around you, search for insights to glide you toward fresh ideas.
Klennex was first introduced as a remover for cold cream. Only when Kimberly-Clark employees began noticing people wiping their noses with the tissues did the company market the product as a disposable handkerchief.
After watching parents bending low to gain eye contact with their kids, Ideo designers created strollers with higher seats for Evenflo.
Try this: Act as if your eyes are a camera and mentally capture the actions, mannerisms, and interactions of people. What problems are they having that you could solve with ideas? What are they doing that might provide insights for one of your projects?
Listen to what people around you are saying—their conversations may ignite your next idea.
About to check in at an L.A. hotel, filmmaker and actor Christopher Guest found himself in line behind a British heavy metal band. He listened as the band manager questioned the spaced-out bass player on the whereabouts of his guitar. "Where's your bass?" "Don't know." "You don't know where your bass is?" "May have left it at the airport." You left your bass at the airport?" "Don't know."
Hearing this mindless, circuitous conversation, Guest came up with the premise for his "Spinal Tap" mockumentary film. "I would describe myself as an observer before anything else," he says.
Try this: Imagine your ears are microphones. Direct them toward conversations in line and throughout the space. Pick up a conversation and convert it into a painting or story—how would the painting look or how would the story play out? Or try applying what’s being said to a project you’re working on.
"Designers are the best synthesizers in the world," says Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s curator for design. And I would expand her assessment to all highly creative people. Seeing patterns and making connections lead to insights and ideas.
Comedy writer Jack Handey’s classic Saturday Night Live sketch "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" combined two earlier ideas—a surplus of frozen Neanderthals and swamp-thing creatures who were stealing men’s girlfriends. "I guess my brain put these things in a blender," he told Slate editor Dan Kois in the New York Times, "and out came ‘Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.’ "
Try this: Let your mind connect any two objects in the room. What inventions can you come up with using this random association? Repeat the process with other objects.
Not aloud, or you’ll lose your place in line when they haul you away. Instead, carry on silent conversations with yourself about projects or problems.
"Nowadays, we’re on our iPhones all the time, and you don’t have time to talk with yourself, to analyze," Daniel Lubetzky, CEO of Kind Snacks, told the New York Times. "It’s hard to figure out things if you’re not connecting with yourself and taking the time to be introspective."
Try this: Ask yourself, if this situation were a film or book, what would be the plot? Or think about one of your projects and ask yourself a series of why, how, or what-if questions about the project. Keep digging deeper until you begin seeing the project from a fresh perspective.
—Sam Harrison is a speaker, workshop leader, and writer on creativity-related topics and presentation skills. His books include [i]IdeaSelling: Successfully pitch your creative ideas to bosses, clients, and other decision makers, IdeaSpotting: How to find your next great idea, and Zing! Five steps and 101 tips for creativity on command. Find him here. [/i]