It’s a question I love asking. I’m fascinated by the surroundings and situations that people create – whether consciously or not – in order to help them think clearly, solve problems and just really feel ‘themselves’. I’ve found that no matter what walk of life people come from, the answers that come back almost always fall into one or more of the following areas: nature, on the move, in social situations or (alone) in the bath or shower!
Nature has a profound impact on us as humans. Sunlight, fresh air and natural surroundings positively affect peoples’ sense of wellbeing and happiness. Even a view of nature is powerful. Research has shown hospital patients with a window overlooking trees to feel less pain and get better quicker than those with a view of a wall or no window at all.
And office workers have been shown to experience lower mental fatigue and stress when nature is present. During a typical working day, people can spend prolonged periods of focused attention on one thing, such as a computer screen. This strains the brain and can cause distraction, irritability, impatience and causes people to become less effective in performing tasks. In the 1980s, environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan developed Attention Restoration Theory, which showed that people can concentrate better after spending time in nature, where the brain engages in “effortless attention”, which relieves “directed attention fatigue”. Attention may be “restored” by changing to a different kind of task that uses different parts of the brain. So next time you find yourself stuck or need to crack a problem, take a walk in a park or gaze out of the window.
We all know that we should exercise more – that it keeps us physically healthy and fit. But when it comes to thinking, physical activity increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and also a specific protein that is known to promote the health of nerve cells and improve mental functioning. Moreover, repetitive action also moves the brain into ‘alpha’ – the best brain state for problem solving and lateral thinking. The alpha brainwave frequency is present when you’re relaxed but alert, and is at the base of your conscious awareness. It is in this mental state that you have access to your subconscious mind, when your imagination, visualisation, memory, learning and concentration is heightened. It’s not just physical exercise that can induce alpha; taking deep breaths, driving and other repetitive actions like knitting can also do the job! This may come as no surprise to you if you find your best thinking happens when you’re taking to dog out for a walk!
Some people find that ideas come to them better when they’re relaxing with friends and family or people-watching in places like bars, parks or cafes where there’s a ‘buzz’ of activity. The visual stimulation of public spaces and interaction with other people can be just the right tonic for getting some people’s brain juices flowing.
In recent years coffee shops have become unofficial offices of an army of flexible workers, and in just 5 years, the number of people teleworking in the US has increased by almost 80% and self-employed workers has risen by XX% in the same time period.
– Bouncing ideas off other people – stimulates thinking
– Background noise – helps to get you thinking more critically
In the bath or shower!
For some, it’s the sensation of running water and being relaxed and alone with one’s thoughts that enables real problem solving to occur. That twilight state between being awake and asleep can be a fantastic time for ideas. If you’ve ever wondered why you hear the expression ‘I’m so busy I can’t even think’ at work or why the name of that actress in that film-about-the-dog-and-the-old-guy suddenly comes to you in the shower, it’s all down to your brain’s state and its ability to access your subconscious. Most of us operate during the majority or our day in the 3-4% of our brain’s processing capacity that is conscious. This is where our mind usually operates in daily life. In such a state we have full conscious awareness and attention of everything around us and usually only one side of brain is operating. This is a good state for sequential thinking and processing – actioning things – getting through your to-do list, reminding the kids about their homework whilst driving them to football practice – that kind of thing. What it is not good for is thinking holistically or laterally, problem solving or the often sought after ‘aha’ moment.
Archimedes’ ‘Eureka!’ happened in the bath for a good reason. So the provision of showers at work not only encourage cyclists and gym goers to lead physically healthier lives, they also may contribute to better ideas.
Inspiring work environments
When I ask the “where do you have your best ideas” question, interestingly no one says ‘the office’. We expect our people to perform at their best; the future of work demands more creative thinking and problem solving, more social connectivity and agility, yet we still tend to force them into environments that do not support them. So spotting your own needs when it comes to inspiration and considering the needs of others can help when defining the environments that we provide for people.
(Incidentally, all of the images shown here are workplaces).