You know the feeling: You’re at an impasse with a character or plot point and you can’t seem to dissolve it. You’re frustrated, perhaps desperate. It’s going nowhere, but you’re on a deadline. You’ve run out of ways to spur your muse.
Consider this: Don’t work so hard. The less you push, the better your chances of getting what you need. Your brain requires some space to do its best work.
Isaac Asimov realized this. Whenever he experienced writer’s block, he knew it was useless to force the issue. So, he’d go to a movie. He let his subconscious process the material in its own way. Once he returned, he invariably had new ideas. (I’ve done this — it works!)
Many writers, inventors, scientists, artists, and mathematicians have discovered the same thing. The solution arrives – aha! –seemingly from nowhere. But these inspirational moments seem so random. Those people just got lucky.
The truth is that you – any of you — can harness your resources to produce them. According to recent neuroscience research, with a little work you can prime your brain for “aha! moments,” and you can get them on a regular basis. They’re a direct result of balancing work and play in a way that becomes a pattern.
I call them “snaps,” because the flash of genius that really counts is more than just a shift of consciousness. Snaps are insights plus momentum—they snap you toward action. They make you drop everything and run to your desk (or naked into the streets, like Archimedes) and even get you out of bed. Sound exciting?
What shoves a snap insight from the tip-of-the-tongue to the top-of-the-mind is the combining and triggering of certain stimuli. For example, you’re doing a crossword puzzle. You stall. But at some point prior to this, you had read an article or walked through a market that contained the correct answer. You’d packed stuff into your brain during unrelated activities that can now converge, and bang! You have the answer.
My formula is Scan, Sift, Solve:
So, first, you scan: you do your research. Be diverse. Gather lots of different types of data. Immerse in your field of expertise, but also read something new to you. This “idea stew” forms your knowledge base.
Now, for the fun! Read through the material on which you’re blocked and then go do something else. Relaxing your left brain releases your eager right brain to reshape the data into new patterns. Your brain does the sifting. It will mix and match and shove out a new idea or the solution to an impasse. There’s actually a physical spark in your brain during an aha! experience. That’s the “solve” part.
So, stop clenching. Give your brain room to play. Then, when you least expect it, an idea will pop.
Consider these examples:
- Jonas Salk was working on a cure for polio in a dark basement in Pittsburgh. He failed time and again, so he traveled to Italy to wander in a monastery. There, he experienced a rush of ideas, including the one that resulted in the polio vaccine.
- Friedrich Nietzsche was out for a walk in the mountains when his famous Zarathustra tale tumbled forth.
- Martin Cooper was watching Star Trek when he first envisioned the cell phone.
- Art Fry, an employee of 3M, had spotted a weak type of glue in the course of his work, but only when he was singing in church did he see how to use it. He wanted a bookmark that would stay in place without damaging the hymnal. Snap! The weak glue. Fry then invented the Post-it note.
- J. K. Rowling was on a stalled train pondering the plot of an adult novel when she snapped on a child wizard. “I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed) hours,” she said, “and all the details bubbled up in my brain.”
Start now to learn your personal rhythms for when to stop fussing and go play. Walk, take a shower, throw a stick for your dog: do something that relaxes the cognitive load. This gives your brain the energy it needs to merge data you’ve supplied and switch on your inner light bulb.