Want to be more innovative? Go back to bed.

May 19, 2016

sleeping-1159279_1920My family watched the new Stephen Hawking show on PBS last night.

Called Genius, it’s a series in which volunteers attempt to solve some of the world’s most difficult questions by thinking like brilliant figures of the past and present.

During last night’s episode, the show told the story of how one of mankind’s greatest thinkers, René Descartes, dreamt up his Cartesian coordinate system while lying in bed watching a fly buzz about the ceiling.

Descartes spent a lot of time in bed, apparently, never rising before 11am.

At that point, my partner exclaimed, “Are you serious?! Who thinks like that anymore? Nobody thinks like that anymore.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if there weren’t some nugget of truth there.

But, why?

I don’t think people are any less curious today or any less intelligent. And, they’re certainly not less informed — today more information is created in a single day than was created between the birth of civilization and the year 2003.

What gives? Why is it seemingly harder to innovate these days?

The answer lies in bed…Descartes’ bed.

The kind of contemplation, reflection, and curious inquiry that leads to innovation requires us to sit still for a while, to stop moving, to stop consuming, to escape from the noise and just let our minds meander.

We have to give ourselves the space to travel down whichever rabbit hole presents itself without worrying about being “productive.”

And, yes, that’s really hard to do in an “always-on” world. Few of us have the freedom to luxuriate in bed until 11am.

Imagine, though, what might be possible if we all set aside one hour a day, where instead of “producing” things, we simply did nothing?

What if, instead of racing to cross more items off of your to-do list, you simply daydreamed at your desk, or gazed out the window, or sat in a park to watch the crowd go by, or took a walk on the beach, or enjoyed a cup of coffee by yourself at an outdoor café? All without furiously checking emails, texting, or surfing our phones. What might that feel like?

Relaxing activities stimulate the part of your brain responsible for abstract thinking — the kind of thinking that generally sparks creative solutions to thorny problems.

Now, let’s think bigger.

What if companies gave employees the room to “work less” and think more?

Some big brands are already doing it.

Long ago, 3M implemented its “15 percent time” program, where employees are allowed to spend 15 percent of their paid time on a hobby or project of their choosing. All 3M asks in return is that they share their ideas and findings with colleagues.

Google famously adopted it’s 20% rule which gave rise to Gmail, Google News, and other products. Though it’s since eliminated the formal program, it insists the opportunity still exists at the discretion of managers.

Apart from “pet project” programs, there are other ways to encourage deep thinking or daydreaming.

More and more companies, including these six innovators, are encouraging employees to take breaks and naps to re-energize.  Still others provide loyal employees the opportunity to take sabbaticals, in an effort to rejuvenate.

While many companies are focused on designing spaces that encourage collaboration, perhaps we should be thinking more about how to design spaces that encourage contemplation.

The bottom line is this: as anyone who’s ever had an “a-ha” moment in the shower knows, the best solutions often come to you when you’re calm and relaxed and not at all intently focused on problems.

Instead of this endless, frenzied, short-term-results-oriented quest we’re on to squeeze every morsel of “productivity” out of ourselves, maybe we should all just go back to bed.

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