Why thinking at your desk never works

Where do you do your best thinking?

Winston Churchill liked a walk around the garden with a weak whiskey.

Charles Darwin gave himself a lot of time to recharge the grey matter (figures). CD, too walked - to his greenhouse and around his sandwalk - either alone or with his dog. He also favoured resting while listening to his wife read aloud.

Mr Breakfast at Tiffany's himself, Truman Capote divulged, “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and a coffee handy.”

Chaos is king in the world of queen singer-songwriter, Martha Wainwright, “Most of my songs are defined by a sense of loneliness, of isolation, that I probably get from spending a lot of time on my own. The little images that I get from sitting alone in my apartment – the way the light is falling through the window; the man I just saw walk by on the other side of the street – find their way into snatches of lyrics. I write in short spurts – for five, 10, 15 minutes – then I pace around the room, or go and get a snack.”

A key was key to the crazy arse concepts of Salvador Dali. He would power nap sitting in a chair with a metal key in his hand above a metal plate. The moment he would fall into sleep, the key would slip and clang onto the plate, waking him up from a brief moment away from consciousness. This is called hypnagogia and Dali would benefit from the transitional state between sleep and awake when ego boundaries are loosened and we are more receptive to a fluid association of ideas.

The South Park guys, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are true believers in the power of panic to inspire. They conduct the writing, animation, voice acting, sound and editing of each episode the week it is due to be aired. They believe the deadline panic is a significant part of their creative process – they can’t second guess themselves, resulting in more spontaneous brainstorming.

Don’t just sit there!

Big, audacious ideas never come to you at your desk. Neither does personal insight so profound you wonder how it wasn’t obvious to you before.

If you need to come up with something new, to create, or to appraise; don’t ever do it in one sitting. Sure, inspirational websites, your past work, background information and a red hot go at the foundation of what you want to do or say can be bashed out on the computer in a dedicated block of task and time. But once you’ve done that, step away from the keyboard.

Then what?

Go for a run or a walk, go to bed, pour a glass of wine, have a shower, think about something else (not all consequentially  … but ok if that works for you).

For me, the two most effective creation and clarity strategies are going for a run and going to bed. They both work in opposite ways. When I need mental resolve or reinvigoration and I run, every few minutes I make a concerted effort to think about the work or personal issue at hand and the rest of the time I enjoy the music on my headphones or focus on my running technique. During that time, something comes to me– sometimes it’s small, sometimes it’s insignificant but usually it’s an alternative way of thinking about the subject. And it's usually at least a litte bit valuable.

Conversely, the sleeping method means forgetting about the issue altogether. I don’t know why or how it works but so many professional and life challenges have been solved by me with crystal clear enlightenment simply by going to sleep and letting my subconscious figure out what has to be done and push it to the surface. You never know when this is going to work but when it actually does, it is undoubtedly one of life’s Awesome Little Moments.

And then there’s this.

This is my new go to.

My chiminea is my new obsession. At least once a week I go out there light and tend to a fire. No phone, no computer, no distractions (of course my family are around but they are usually intermittent presences – I’m in the fire for the long haul). …(Figuratively speaking). There’s just something about the minor, manual upkeep required to keep it going that keeps my brain a little bit engaged and the free form thought that just goes with the territory of staring at nuture’s TV to make it a nice Thinking Place

Shit's about to get creative

Science tells us that certain circumstances are more conducive to getting bright ideas than others: 

  • We think best when a lot of dopamine is released in our brains (during exercise, listening to music, enjoying warm water of a shower and other general feel-good scenarios)
  • When we are relaxed we’re more likely to turn our attention inwards and make insightful connections (hello third glass of wine in)
  • If we’re distracted, our subconscious gets a good crack at the problem

 The common thread here is they are times when we are physically or mentally active, but only mildly so. You need to be familiar or comfortable enough in your surroundings to keep you engaged, you are not bored and your stream of consciousness isn’t interrupted (much).
When ideas can flow unrestrained, the more likely you are to make useful connections between thoughts that you’ve never had before. Just make sure wherever you are when your Eureka moment is likely to strike, you’ve got a pen or a voice recording device handy.

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Ted Take

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