By Sam Harrison
When painting landscapes, Matisse would sometimes pause to study his subject matter and reflect on it. His peaceful pausing would arouse his subconscious mind and he could return to his canvas with clearer, fresher perspective.
Pausing is a powerful part of the creative process, whether it’s watching a distant sunset, strolling a nearby park, or taking a long shower.
Our brains need time to reflect and recharge. The act of pausing facilitates creative cognition and brings about those “aha” and “eureka” solutions.
“Sometimes this happens when you didn’t even know you were thinking about the problem,” says Mark Beeman, a professor at Northwestern University’s cognitive neuroscience program. “It’s as if a light turns on and you suddenly see an answer to a problem that had stumped you.”
Here are six ways to use pausing for more potent creativity:
1. Space out.
There’s much talk these days about mindfulness, which emphasizes attentiveness to the present. Mindfulness has strong mental and physical values, especially for primary tasks such as reading. However, recent studies show that not allowing the mind to also frequently wander can hinder creativity.
“Mind wandering seems to be very useful for planning and creative thought,” said Dr. Jonathan Schooler, a researcher at the University of Santa Barbara in California’s department of psychological and brain sciences, during a CNN interview.
“It seems that allowing people an incubation period in which to let their mind wander really helps the creative process.”
2. Hide out.
Seventy percent of offices now have open floor plans. These open workspaces are conducive to interacting and collaborating, but disruptive to pausing and pondering.
If you work in an open office, stake out a possible hideaway, a place you can dash to now and then for a few quiet minutes. Maybe it’s an empty conference room or unused office. A restroom stall or unused basement. Any secret space you can scamper to when you need to space out.
After I mentioned hideaways during a talk to an in-house creative group, one designer showed me a folding chair he had stashed away in the far corner of the building’s air conditioning and electrical room. “It can be loud, but I can be alone,” he said.
3. Look up.
Next time you’re in an airport or coffee shop, check out people sitting around you–at least 75% will be looking down at smartphones or tablets. Just a few years ago, many of those same folks would have been gazing around or daydreaming. But the gravitational pull of screens now steals time from reflection and zoning out.
While few are likely to give up their devices, reminding yourself to occasionally pause and look up can help. Stare into space. Look out windows. Study ceilings. Leonardo encouraged his young followers to focus on random stains on walls. Maybe just close eyes and breathe. Ideas are in flight patterns around our brains, just waiting for clearance to land.
4. Walk around.
Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s most creative presidents, was a huge advocate of walking. “The object of walking is to relax the mind,” he said. “You should not permit yourself even to think when you walk.”
Walking provides a clear path for pausing. It’s a great way to free the mind, assuming our hands also remain free of cell phones and printed materials.
Author Robert MacFarlane describes walking as a full-body experience. “Mind and body function inseparably,” he says, “such that thought becomes both site-specific and motion-sensitive.”
And a persuasive endorsement for walking comes from poet Wallace Stevens, who wrote: “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”
5. Mulch down.
Pausing can be analogous to a fallow field–a calm, silent place of restoration, with imminent growth just below the surface.
“I am a compost heap,” writes author Ann Patchett in The Getaway Car, “and everything I interact with, every experience I’ve had, gets shoveled onto the heap where it eventually mulches down…It’s from that rich, dark humus that ideas can start to grow.”
6. Write down.
Pausing is fruitless if you don’t capture what pops up. Keep a notebook or pad handy for fleeting insights and ideas. When ideas come to legendary singer and songwriter Neil Young, he stops whatever he’s doing and writes them down.
“Those ideas are a gift,” Young told interviewer Charlie Rose, “and you aren’t being respectful to the gift if you don’t pay attention and write it down.”
Fast Company / Dialed / Published: February 19, 2014