When do you have your best ideas?

I don’t think I’ve ever come up with a good idea during a brainstorming session. I’ve known this for a while, but I still haven’t stopped trying. I think this issue is I don’t have a better solution. Yet.

I feel like a lot of people are in the same boat with me, recognizing that thinking really hard isn’t the best solution, but without a clear alternative, we try anyways. Some people come up with their best ideas in the shower, on a long walk, laying by the pool, or even in a dream.

Some research on creativity has shown that when people are engaged in creative acts (specifically improv), there is less activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. The DLPC is typically engaged when we do traditional decision-making whereas the mPFC is involved in associations, emotional reactions, and context. The mPFC is also important in our understanding of other people. As a result of all this, some people think that old ideas are combined to form new ideas in this part of our brains.

Interestingly, this type of brain activity is similar to the brain activity observed when we are sleeping. This article also suggests that we need dopamine to help us come up with creative ideas. This often happens when we engage in more relaxing activities like showering, which explains why we often have good ideas during passive activities, like the ones I mentioned above. The final component the article suggests may be helpful is a distraction, meaning we need a break from whatever idea or problem we have been focused on. This would explain why I never come up with my best idea while I’m brainstorming. However, this doesn’t fully explain when I do get my best ideas.

Because I’ve realized that I get my best ideas when I’m doing other challenging work???

It’s always when I’m working a hard assignment and I have been really focused or in flow, but I get stuck or bored, and then get distracted but don’t have my phone or anything to fill that distraction. Usually if I’m “working” on something I am trying, at least somewhat, to stay focused which means when I get stuck I just kind of sit there. I guess this could be seen as a moment of relaxation and also simultaneously a moment of distraction, so maybe it does fit the description above. But why when I’m working? Reading a little further into this article and another one suggest that mentally taxing your brain with a really challenging problem might actually push your brain into overdrive, thereby setting it up to reach farther and be more creative in finding solutions. This is all great but how do we use this information to figure out when we’re most creative?

Yoram Solomon proposes the following steps for coming up with creative ideas:

  1. Collect old ideas. Broaden your horizon beyond your immediate interests and field. Some of the best ideas would come from outside your industry.
  2. Let them incubate in your head. You cannot force combinations. You need to let them happen.
  3. Engage in a high-intensity activity that will elevate the executive functionality of your brain.
  4. Let your brain relax. That drop in executive functionality (much like the drop in sugar level) will allow your medial prefrontal cortex to merge old ideas into new ones. This would typically happen in the shower, or when you drive to the same place you drive every day. Such as the office.

I literally never thought about coming up with a process to encourage creative idea generation before but when I read this one it really resonated with me. And when I thought about it, getting distracted while working on a hard but boring problem is kind of a mini-cycle of steps 3 and 4. Because every time I go back to working on my actual work I’m “engaging my brain in a high-intensity activity” and every time I get stuck and let my mind daydream I’m letting my mind relax. And then this cycle repeats over and over and over again. And this really is how I’ve come up with my best ideas for a while now. I’ve always felt slightly guilty because I was cutting into my focused work. But at the same time, I’ve always advocated going with creative and/or powerful energy whenever you feel it, so I usually indulge these feelings and let my mind do it’s thing. But I’m still missing some steps…

I also need to focus on collecting ideas. I do find that I tend to stick within certain areas when I’m exploring ideas and I’ve only recently begun trying to expand my boundaries. Something that really helps, I’ve found, is that I actually enjoy the feeling and the process involved in being a beginner. Because for a beginner, there’s so much excitement, energy, and possibility and so returning to that place every time I look at a new subject is really fun.

Another thing I should start doing is finding hard problems to challenge my mind with. Gone are the days of using boring school assignments to help send me into that creative mind space. I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to go about looking for hard problems, but I guess I’ll try to work on more projects that I don’t feel like I’m ready for yet. So finding a way to “work” outside of my comfort zone.

But even with all of these tips, it still won’t really do anything for me unless my brain is in tip-top shape to put everything together. Solomon proposes some ways to practice strengthening your memory skills and most of them seem pretty straightforward: meditating, sleeping, exercising, but some surprised me: eating berries, drinking coffee, chewing gum? Regardless, this seemed to imply to me that generally just taking good care of my health is important in making sure that my brain is working as well as it can.

Although I’ve known for a while that brainstorming isn’t really the answer for me, now that I have a process that might actually work as a replacement, I feel ready to ditch brainstorming and start daydreaming.