There is–and it might be as simple as doing the laundry.
In the new book, The Net and the Butterfly:The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking, Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack–former faculty members on Stanford’s Start X incubator program–explain how breakthrough insights come about. Or as the two describe it, “that feeling of sudden clarity when you feel the answer staring you in the face.”
“The biggest misconception about breakthroughs is that they’re accidental or that they’re spontaneous,” says Fox Cabane. “But in reality that ‘aha moment’ is just the tip of the iceberg. It is the single conscious moment you have at the end of a very long, complex, unconscious process.”
To understand how to prime the human brain for creative breakthroughs, one must first understand what parts of the brain help power them. As Fox Cabane and Pollack explain, the brain has two networks: the executive network , which is the “goal-oriented” part of your brain that you access to complete an action; and the default network, the part of your brain that’s home to what the authors call the “genius lounge,” or the place where creative insights lie. But, in order to access the genius lounge, your brain needs to tune out the executive network.
“If you find small, physical acts to do that are easy muscle memory–like doing the laundry or doing the dishes, that activates your executive network, it gives it a goal,” says Pollack. “And by occupying it, you’re able to turn on the default network. And the default network is the one that’s going to have the breakthrough.”
In The Net and the Butterfly, Fox Cabane and Pollack give a number of brainstorming exercises that you can try with your team to get better at thinking outside of the box. But even just making simple changes to your daily routine can be an important first step in becoming a better breakthrough thinker. The authors stress that there’s no “cookie cutter” routine for everyone to follow; the most important thing is to set aside time for activities that will activate the default network. Here’s one way to structure your day to do that:
- Wake up, and take notes. “Sleep is a very important form of using the genius lounge,” explains Pollack. The moment you fall asleep, you enter what’s called the hypnagogic state. Right when you wake up, you enter the hypnopompic state. Because you are “half-asleep” during the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, your default network is more active than it is when you are fully awake. Jot down any creative insights that come to you during this half-awake state, so you don’t forget them when your executive network is working again in full force.
- Get to work. It is important to begin working while your brain’s still fresh. But no matter how alert and awake your mind feels, don’t think that you are going to be able to solve any pressing problems by sitting at your desk for the next eight hours. “You don’t need to ‘crush’ it for the next 12 hours–that’s actually what’s going to get you in trouble,” says Pollack.
- Go for a walk. Yes, physical activity does help you grow new neurons. But walking is also a good physical activity because it’s one that your mind and body are accustomed to, meaning that your executive network will get a break.
- When you get back to your desk, don’t immediately start working. Rather, says Pollack, you want to start by taking in information that’s either completely unrelated or adjacent to what you’re trying to work on. You might watch a funny YouTube video or browse Reddit. Or, if you still want to feel productive, read about something that’s adjacent to what you’re working on. Trying to figure out which material to choose for a new product? Read about how Thomas Edison conducted tests for different materials for lightbulb filaments. “You just want to keep this new and varied information coming in–you don’t know what’s going to catalyze the breakthrough,” says Pollack.
- After work, leave time for mindless activities. The evening is a good time to set aside time for the “easy muscle memory” activities that will help you access your default. In addition to completing housework, some of the mindless activities Fox Cabane and Pollack suggest include completing a puzzle, playing video games, or watching a movie or a TV show that you’ve seen before.