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May 22, 2007
On thinking big
Where are you when your best ideas come to mind? For me, it's in the shower. I hope that isn't too much information.
Numerous details I've been unconsciously processing for hours or days often sharpen into new-found clarity while squeezing my eyes shut from the shampoo. Sometimes they're big ideas. Or at least big to me.
One reason why? My bathroom has a tall ceiling, and ceiling height seems to affect thinking. The taller the ceiling, the greater the permission for abstract and free-form thought. The lower the ceiling, the more likely your brain confines concepts and ideas. That's according to a study to be published this summer by the Journal of Consumer Research.
What this may indicate is that a room with a tall ceiling gives your brain permission to concoct or accept big ideas. Little wonder, then, that churches typically have very tall ceilings. Conversely, hospital operating rooms with low ceilings tend to concentrate attention to detail. Of course you want that.
Rooms matter. For people who are responsible for team brainstorming, or managing the details of a project, this research means a lot. Want your co-workers to free themselves from regimented, analytical thinking and come up with some big ideas for customer evangelism, word of mouth or social media? Don't use the cramped conference room with the jarring fluorescent lights. Get them into a room with a tall ceiling. Or maybe a shower.
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ironically, it seems that for me, the shower is also prime real estate for ideation. Although I suspect it has nothing to do with bathroom design - it's an "early morning thing"!
I think creative ideas come to us in the shower because it is one of the few times in our day that we shut up and shut out outside noise. It is one of the few times our brain can just go to autopilot because the task at hand is so mundane. Our imagination is free to wander.
I blogged about that concept here: http://www.themergeblog.com/2006/12/laughter-is-best-medicineand-more.html
My best time for thinking about the day is when I'm sitting in the chair, putting the baby to sleep. Read her books, sing a song, lights out, and snuggle for 15-20 minutes. I get to spend quality time with my daughter, plus think about the day's activities. I always do a quick email check just before "wind-down", so that I can process up-to-date. Eyes closed, lights out, quiet time.
How often during the day can we turn out the lights in the office, close eyes, and just think? Never. In a large company, you would get a reputation for being a slacker.
Employees need to know its OK to just think, and don't have to always be writing, typing, emailing, conferencing, meeting.
assuming showers first thing in the morning, our subconsciouses have also been spinning on things for the last 6-8 hours while we've been sleeping, so the shower is where those answers surface, before we get into the minutia and distractions of the day.
If a large room is better than a small room, would it be even better to provide a controlled working environment outside? Or would this take us beyond the tipping point of benefits and start detracting from idea creation?
My most powerful moments of clarity usually take place at 35,000 feet, at night, while flying home. (The cabin's ceiling may only be a foot or two above my head, but maybe the context of the endless void of the night sky just outside the fuselage works in the same way that a tall ceiling might.
Showers are pretty good places for me to come up with creative ideas - and I've had some consistently great ones while running or cycling - but nothing compares to the night flights home. ;)
Great post, as always.
It's the negative ions of the water...documented several places. That's why a lot of writers suddenly become un-blocked at the ocean and why we think so darn good in the shower. Proving one more reason why the bathroom is the most important place in the home. I wish you many a shower epiphany ;-).
And I thought it was the red shoes, Ben. My ideas come while running, the sky's the limit there, and I tend to do that *before* I shower. At home: I have cathedral ceiling everywhere.
Which leaves the uninspiring office buildings and spaces.
The next big idea - collecive shower rooms for team brainstorming. Hey, we could also sell accessories — waterproof whiteboard with markers, waterproof coats for laptops...
Where do I go for fundraising? :)
I hope you're wrong about the ceiling, Ben. I'm writing my book in the basement which has a beautiful window, a fireplace, and an 8-foot ceiling!
I did find that new lighting helped.
I get my best ideas at 5am when I should be sleeping but I'm thinking instead.
Steve and Christopher -- Not an early morning thing for me. My shower times are truly variable.
Eric -- That's a great explanation. I like it a lot.
George -- Spending time with a little one sounds like an ideal way to depressurize.
Jason -- Interesting idea. My hunch is that it has more to do with ceiling elevation than total volume of space. But one of my favorite activities is to sit on my patio with a fat stogie and ponder the world.
Olivier -- That's interesting, because inside airplane cabins is when I can get a lot of detail work done: answering emails, doing expenses, or catching up on reading. It's more of a GTD place than a big idea tube.
CK -- Negative ions, eh? That may very well explain some of the activities during spring break in Fort Lauderdale.
Valeria -- Heh! The red shoes are like wearing a nametag in public. People feel compelled to comment on them.. To me, they're just a pair of shoes.
Nikita -- You could on to something. Better write up the business plan now, or after your shower... heh!
Josh -- No, you're probably in exactly the right spot for writing. The smaller ceiling should help you maintain focus for what will seem like the longest term paper of your life.
All of y'all: thanks for all of the great comments.
The majority of my most creative thoughts come last thing at night, just as I am falling asleep - brain waves etc... This is somewhat unfortunate as if I don't write them down I tend to forget - I look forward to the future where I just plug in my apple notepod to the port on the back of my neck... I also get some funny looks at brainstorming sessions as I don my eyemask and earplugs.
Its interesting that several people have mentioned that best thoughts come with solitude. For me, its nighttime with the baby. For others, its morning, just before wakeup. Another said "endless void of the night sky".
The thread here is that these people have their best thoughts without external influence (other people, computers, TV, random noise), when we are left quiet and alone to (gasp!) think.
Perhaps there was a reason why we used to have "a moment of silence" or "a moment to reflect" or (as kids) "quiet time".
Now, I think I'll put my feet up, turns out the lights, and "reflect" (said with tongue in cheek!).
I read an explanation about why good ideas come to us in the shower several years ago that made good sense to me at the time. The theory is that it is the tactile and kinesthetic nature of showering which stimulates creative thought. Recently, I came across some similar ideas that tactile and kinesthetic stimulus can assist humans in thinking. Some of this thinking is based on paleo-anthropological inquiry. Have you ever noticed some of the strange gestures you go through when you are trying very hard to remember something blocked in your memory? It is something this post has made me decide I need to read into more. Is this yet one more example of the limitations the Cartesian dualism of our culture and philosophy?
This tactile stimulus might also explain why people often burst into song in the shower.
Now people will understand why I do my restaurant marketing thinking in a convention hall.
Great post, Ben. Creative ideas often have a way of coming together in the early morning for me, too.
And "the shower" was a common answer from several of my Twitter pals when I asked this question back in April: "When/where are you at your creative best?"
Here's the link to that post:http://www.bryper.com/2007/04/05/when-where-are-you-at-your-creative-best/
Ben, Interesting. Ironically the shower is a place where one is supposed to un-wind though my brain is in over drive mode usually. The other time when ideas come together is when i am doing the dishes. Both are low involvement tasks – A very simple example for trying to understand the conscious-subconscious dichotomy in the mind