By Eddie Pipkin
Finding yourself stuck on how to solve a thorny problem? Dipping into the well for your next imaginative endeavor and finding it bone dry? Checking the old brainbox for a new idea and finding the pantry empty? Well, science to the rescue, because there’s bona-fide new evidence out there that your best bet for stimulating those creative synapses might actually be taking a long, hot shower! That or any of a number of scientifically certified strategies for shifting gears, resetting the mind, and breaking the shackles of humdrummery to free up innovation and make fresh connections.
Most of you reading this blog regularly engage in creative challenges: writing sermons, teaching classes, posting up on social media, designing social get-togethers, and planning worship all require a regular infusion of interesting and stimulating ideas (or at least the people on the receiving end of your efforts are hoping desperately for an infusion of interesting and stimulating ideas). Even if you don’t feel like your job (or volunteer leadership position) requires you to be especially creative, your day-to-day obligations certainly involve routine problem solving. So, whether you are trying actively to find creative solutions or just trying to find practical solutions to thorny conundrums, you find yourself getting stuck.
Stuck is a difficult and frustrating place to be. I’ve written about it before in this space. Here’s a link to a blog from a couple of years ago called “Stuck, Stuck, Stuck,” and here’s a fun one from even further back called “Boredom, Frustration, and Grudges = Eureka!”
Those blogs and this one deal with getting unstuck, because if we keep plodding along with a sinking feeling, bogged down on an unending treadmill of ennui, nothing good is going to happen. (Plus you run the risk of being a living exemplar of Einstein’s infamous definition of insanity, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (which, of course, is a false attribution, because Einstein never said that, but that’s another blog for another day).
So, the simple, good news from scientists who have exhaustively studied your stuck-ness is to shake it up. Get out of your regular routine. Take a break from the task at hand and do something different for a bit. This advice, which seems intuitive for most of us based on our personal experience, has also always seemed like a self-serving cop out. “I’m gong to stop working on this time sensitive project and take a long walk.” Or a nap! It’s good to have the scientists reaffirm our instinct that taking a break and shifting gears can be beneficial to the creative process and our mental health, reducing performance anxiety and freeing up ideas. Here’s the article: “Scientists May Have Figured Out Why Your Best Ideas Come in the Shower.” It’s a scholarly exploration of an effect many of us have noted that some of our best thinking happens as we’re sudsing our cares away.
Researchers in the philosophy of cognitive science (that sounds fun!) at the University of Virginia reached this conclusion:
Instead of mulling over a problem until it is solved, the findings suggest you’re better off taking a break and partaking in a different task that is mildly engaging, such as showering. This environment may allow your mind to wander freely, without purpose or direction, albeit with some constraints.
As your thoughts drift about, researchers think you are more likely to come up with something clever.
Now, here’s an important caveat. The task you choose for your gear-shifting is important to the process. They are not advocating a Netflix binge session. It turns out that’s too hard a lean into the brain off-switch mode:
An entirely boring task, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to constrain your thoughts enough to generate creative ideas. You’re more likely to get distracted or keep thinking about the original problem.
“Say you’re stuck on a problem,” Irving [the lead research scientist] explains.
“What do you do? Probably not something mind-numbingly boring like watching paint dry. Instead, you do something to occupy yourself, like going for a walk, gardening, or taking a shower. All these activities are moderately engaging.”
So, by that definition, a walk wins out over a nap.
Prayer can be an interesting intersection of this ‘moderately engaging’ thinking. I’m not suggesting here that prayer itself is anything less than fully engaging (although there is a great case to be made for Paul’s “pray without ceasing” admonition to be a call for prayer in the background of tasks in addition to our hyper-focused ‘prayer closet’ sessions). What I am suggesting is that rather than an anxiety-laden prayer session which deals solely with the problem at hand, it can be very useful to take time out for prayer which is focused on other things—by focusing on gratitude or the needs of others or the great good glory of God for a while, we have, in effect, taken a refreshing spiritual shower which may well clear the cobwebs and unlock the solution to the problem that is vexing us. If nothing else, this healthy work will do us the favor of putting an apparently all-consuming crisis into context.
I wanted to include a couple of other links to things adjacent to this topic that I came across this week. One was an article from The NY Times which asked people to share the daily rituals which help them keep focused and centered and deal with the pressures of the day (of which, of course, “stuckness’ would be a great example). “The Little Rituals That Keep Us Going” is a delightful compendium of habits and performative tricks that folks employ to celebrate the day or kick-start their thought processes. One fellow stands on his head when he’s stuck: a literal shift in perspective! One lady counts things (whether dogs or yellow-colored doors) to gamify her errands. Another lady eats her simple breakfast on her finest china just to remind herself of her worth and the blessed potential of the day.
Meanwhile, my friends at Hidden Brain had another excellent podcast dealing with our perception of time and how we manage it (or how it manages us). “Taking Control of Your Time” offers more scientific insight into how we get caught up in time management traps that make us feel unhappy and ineffective. It challenges to think about time differently. One of the most interesting aspects of this conversation comes at the 25-minute mark when they focus on the way we process our answers to requests to make future commitments. We say “yes” to something that someone asks us to do a month from now (even though we wouldn’t say yes to it right now today in the current over-stressed moment) because we want to be polite and we think we can pawn dealing with this new commitment off on our future self. Psychologist Cassie Mogilner Holmes suggests that a better standard would be to think about if we would say yes to that commitment today. It’s not like we’re going to be any less busy in a month! If doing it today wouldn’t bring us joy (even if we squeeze out the time), doing it in a month probably won’t either. And being too busy, having too much stress from cramming in too many projects, turns out to be a recipe for stuckness, too. Some of you don’t even have time for an extra shower!
What do you do when you find yourself stuck? What are the strategies and techniques you use to cast off the gloom and work yourself to a creative solution? Do you think it’s something that is different for everyone in their own unique way, or do you think there are universal strategies that can be applied? How do you help the people you lead deal with this common issue? Share your own ideas in the comments section—and if you’re stuck for a good idea, try a shower!