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How to prime your brain for those big, breakthrough ideas

To develop fresh, novel ideas that turn into amazing projects, you must make mental space.

How to prime your brain for those big, breakthrough ideas
[Photo: meo/Unsplash]

My client Amber, an entrepreneurial VP at a tech company, shared that she was feeling off her game at work. She told me she was working harder than ever, and while she used to have plenty of great ideas, they just weren’t flowing anymore.

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Amber, like most leaders and organizations today, grapples with complex and nonlinear problems at her job. Unlike simpler and more linear issues that can be solved through pure analysis alone, Amber needs to discern patterns, make new connections, and come up with novel ideas. To brainstorm these concepts, she needs insight. Understandably, she was troubled that one of her key “superpowers” had vanished.

What happened to the innovative and needle-moving ideas that had been personally fulfilling to Amber and a hallmark of her leadership? Why did she no longer stumble upon these insights?

Research offers an explanation and provides us all with a playbook for unleashing our best thinking.

When you have an insight, it likely feels as though the idea came out of thin air. But that insight is the result of a distinct process in the brain. And for this process to occur most easily—for that big idea or novel solution to bubble up and seemingly appear at random—your brain needs to be in a certain state. Specifically, your brain needs to be in a relaxed and positive state and not working directly on the problem.

Yes, you heard that right: In order to solve that difficult problem keeping you locked to your desk, stop working on it.

Naturally, when you have a complex problem to solve, you have to do the initial legwork to gather information and perspectives. After that, step away. For your brain to make new connections, you need to stop narrowly focusing on the problem.

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This is why your big ideas come to you at seemingly random times and places, such as while you’re in the shower or taking a walk. It’s because you’re relaxed, feeling positive, and not laser focused on the problem or situation. You have created the conditions that are conducive for insight.

With this basic understanding of the science of insight, you’re now in a position to unlock more creative thinking and the insights that will help you solve those thorny issues you’re facing. Put the science to work with the three steps below.

Identify and protect your “golden time” for insight

Amber recognized she used to have great ideas while commuting or after eating lunch with colleagues at the office, which she did religiously every day of the week. Similarly, it’s also quite common for people to experience sudden flashes of insight just before falling asleep, right after waking up, or while exercising.

Pinpoint when and where you tend to have your own “aha!” moments: those incredible moments of clarity when you suddenly solve a vexing problem, gain a new understanding of a complicated situation, or land upon a novel idea.

The times when you already do your best thinking are golden moments in this knowledge economy: cherish and protect them.

Build new insight-friendly habits

While working from home, many of us are spending more time tied to our computers and feeling the stress of working longer hours. Analysis by NordVPN of server activity on its network revealed that the average working day in the U.S. has increased by three hours since mid-March.

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This is problematic when it comes to insight, because you’re least likely to experience breakthrough thinking by effortfully trying to crack complex problems at your desk.

Amber recognized that with COVID-19, her mainstays for generating new and creative ideas had disappeared, replaced by heads-down work at her computer. So, with no end in sight to her work-from-home routine, Amber established a new habit to replace these golden times: a daily walk where she could unwind and let her mind wander.

Experiment with building other insight-conducive activities into your day where you, too, are able to relax and free associate. Perhaps, like Amber, working from home means you need to rethink your day and build in new ways to ensure that you keep the creative juices flowing.

If you wrestle with discomfort or resistance at the thought of taking time during your workday to do something that doesn’t seem like work—such as a social lunch or a walk—remember that you were hired to bring your best thinking to the table. And take inspiration from many anecdotes in business lore depicting how a single unexpected insight yielded great advances and profits.

Prepare to capture superior ideas

We often hear, “If it’s important enough, it will come back to you,” but I don’t subscribe to leaving your best thinking up to memory’s chance.

If you were to run across me while I’m taking a walk, one of my golden times for insight, you might see me dictating into my phone. Or while driving or on an exercise machine, shouting out, “Hey Siri, remind me. . .” I get a little excited when the ideas strike, and I’m not about to let them escape. I also keep a pad of paper by my bedside to capture the ideas that occasionally hit me in the middle of the night.

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By committing to a couple of small changes, Amber is back to experiencing both the joy and professional benefits of creative thinking and generating novel ideas.

Consider and put to work the science of insight yourself. Identify and protect the times you have your lightbulb moments, build new or additional insight-conducive habits into your day, and ensure you’re ready to capture your best thinking. In a world that promises only more complex and nonlinear problems to solve, you’ll be glad you did.


Dina Smith is the owner of Cognitas, a leadership development firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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