"Where do you come up with your best ideas?" - it's a question I love posing to people in leadership workshops. Why not take a moment to answer it yourself?Of the many hundreds of responses I've heard, not one person has ever said "at my desk". In fact, most people tell me they have come up with their best ideas when they're not at work.
People often say their best ideas come when they're "in the shower", "going for a walk", "taking a lunch break", "drifting off to sleep", and "on holidays". What do all of these activities have in common? They're all low-stress activities with few distractions. When people come up with their best ideas they're typically in a relaxed state, not stressing about coming up with an answer or distracted by other work that requires high levels of focus. They're free to think in a different way - free to explore new ideas and approaches.
The 19th century German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé pioneered our understanding of the chemical structure of benzene. He had been working with benzene for years, but the way the structure formed eluded him. Later in his life he recounted having a day dream where he pictured carbon atoms dancing, then forming into snakes that bit each other's tails, forming a ring. He woke from that day dream with the answer that had occupied him for so many years - the carbon atoms in benzene form a ring. Would he have come up with this solution with more time in the lab or at his desk? Maybe, or maybe not. But what a great example of how a relaxed mind can produce amazing insights where 'hard work' had failed.
Chronic stress largely destroys our ability to develop genuinely new and creative ideas. The very stress hormones that are great for focusing our minds on the 'emergency' at hand reduce our ability to take a broader perspective beyond the immediate. We end up suffering from tunnel vision.
As leaders, our emotional state is contagious. If we're constantly stressed and fire-fighting through our day, it's likely that our teams are doing exactly the same. We end up cursed to repeat the patterns of activity and thought that we've already established, missing opportunities for continuous improvement and breakthrough thinking.
This isn't to say that stress is a bad thing. In fact, stress plays a very important role in stretching us beyond our comfort zones and focusing our attention. But if these moments of stress aren't balanced by moments of recovery and relaxation, we're likely to see negative impacts - not just on the way we think, but also on our health. Chronic stress is a killer, but the combination of stress and recovery is the key to long-term effectiveness.
Here are some ideas to help you to work more effectively and come up with new ideas:
- Build some down-time into your schedule: Make sure you take annual leave and opportunities to work from home. Start work a little later every so often, or finish earlier. Change up your routine. Take a longer lunch break and go for a walk.
- Use a notepad or the notes app on your phone to capture new ideas or thoughts: Given these ideas will come up when we least expect them, it's worth planning ahead to capture them.
- Work in 90 minute cycles followed by 10/15 minute breaks to exercise, refuel and rehydrate: Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz describe this in their book "The Power of Full Engagement". Start your day with the most important work, and take frequent breaks. This will help to keep you focused, energised and far more productive. And the best bet is that you end your day with the energy needed to be successful outside work.
- Encourage your team to do the same: As a leader, share these ideas with your team. Encourage them to experiment with their routine and day. Maybe a mid-afternoon gym session works for a team member - great! Maybe working in one hour cycles followed by a 10 minute walk works - brilliant! It requires you as the leader to get over our typical obsession with 'presenteeism' where we measure performance by the hours spent at work, to a more healthy focus on productivity.