Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Judah Pollack of The Chaos Imperative
Recently in Edinburgh I sat down to enjoy a pot of afternoon tea. I had my pot-belly teapot, more than a splash of full fat cream, a scone, and across from me a series of pictures of J.K. Rowling. I had wandered into The Elephant House, the teashop where J.K. Rowling had begun writing the first Harry Potter book. To my left was the table where she wrote. As testament to how long ago it was, and how poor she was, there were pictures of her writing by hand in a notebook.
This image of J.K. Rowling working hard, writing everyday, is the one that has become famous. It is an image of the typical 20th Century work ethic. But how did Rowling come up with the idea in the first place? What did her moment of insight look like? She was stuck on a train.
Her train from Manchester to London got stuck on the tracks for four hours and the young woman who had been writing stories since she was six was too shy to ask to borrow a pen when hers ran out of ink. There was nothing to do but stare out the window.
“I really don’t know where the idea came from,” she has said, “It came. Just came.” And it arrived “fully formed.”
“I was on the train when I suddenly had this basic idea of a boy who didn’t know who he was. He was a young boy attending a school of wizardry. It started with Harry, then all these characters and situations came flooding into my head.” J.K. Rowling has described the experience as Harry just walked into my head. And it was so unexpected that she didn’t even have a working pen.
The key here is that for all the hard work she put in after the fact the moment of insight came during her downtime. It came when she was staring out the window. In the book The Chaos Imperative, which I wrote with Ori Brafman, we call this downtime white space and it is an essential ingredient to the 21st century workday.
Why, you may ask. Because as our economy shifts from the creation of goods to the creation of knowledge we are asking that all of our workers be more innovative. And what the neuroscience tells us is that to be more innovative we need to spend more time in the white space.
Examples abound. Einstein discovered the first concept of his General Theory of Relativity, equivalency, while leaning back in his chair, arms above his head, taking a break from his work at the patent office. Like J.K. Rowling the innovation came in the white space.
Importance of Dreaming
Dimitri Mendeleev discovered the structure of the periodic table in a dream. The brilliant Indian mathematcician Ramanujan said his discoveries came to him in dreams. He credited the goddess Namagiri with writing the equations on his tongue and every morning he had the ritual of awakening and writing down his discoveries. Thomas Edison was famous for taking catnaps.
Sleep, daydreaming, spacing out, all of these inefficient uses of time in a production economy are becoming important uses of time in a knowledge economy. The reason is because white space is essential for optimal brain performance.
Take the beloved but endangered practice of napping. Researchers have found that the effects after a short 5-15 minute nap are almost immediate, people were more alert and their brains are functioning faster. The effects last for 1-3 hours.
A longer nap of thirty minutes caused a period of sleep inertia upon first waking up. But then people showed improved cognitive awareness for a longer period of time, up to a few hours. Longer naps of an hour or more are not beneficial. You’ll be happy to know the best time to grab a 20 minute nap is right after lunch.
But why does white space make us more innovative? The answer is a little part of our brains called the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is a network of about ten brain regions that deal with things from autobiographical memory to error prediction to future forecasting to translation of sensory information. When these disparate brain regions start talking to each other novel connections start to be made.
The DMN is your insight factory. But it doesn’t work when you are busy and on task. It works best and presents its information to you when you are in white space. That is why Rowling, Einstein, Ramanujan and Mendeleev all had their insights while not focusing on their work. If you want to be more innovative or you want your employees to be more innovative you have to create the white space for the DMN to flourish.
This means the most efficient systems now must have built in inefficiencies. How can you do that? It’s all about giving yourself downtime and shifting your focus.
- Take a short nap after lunch. Sounds crazy but the research doesn’t lie
- Take a short walk when you feel your energy lag
- Watch a random YouTube video in the middle of the day
- Meditate for five minutes in the middle of a project or between meetings
- Help someone on a totally unrelated project to spark new connections
- Start a new book and read a few pages during your breaks and before bed
- Go to lunch with people and agree to not talk about anything work related
- Play. Keep toys at your desk. Create physical, tactile input to your brain
The sudden appearance of innovative ideas is a natural process. When asked if anything like Harry Potter popping into her head had ever happened before J.K. Rowling replied, “Yes. Truthfully,” and then she laughed. “I mean, other ideas have just come to me. Ideas do come to you.”
When I sat down to write this post I drew a blank. So I got up and made a cup of tea. I mindlessly dunked my tea bag up and down in the water. Tea took me back to Scotland and that took me to The Elephant House and Harry Potter and I knew how to begin.