In 1905 Albert Einstein had what is known as his ‘Miracle Year.’ In just twelve months the 26-year-old genius published a series of four papers that expounded special relativity, introduced E=mc2, and transformed scientists’ conception of light, time, and mass.
Where did he come up with this world-changing tsunami of ideas? Certainly not beavering away for long hours at work.
Loafing his way to world-changing ideas
At the time Einstein was a full-time patent clerk who, by all outside appearances, seemed to have failed out of a traditional academic career. According to theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli (quoted recently on Quartz by Ephrat Livni), the seeds of Einstein’s incredible series of breakthroughs can be found further back in his biography when the budding physicist took a year off high school and, essentially, slacked off.
Einstein “spent a year loafing aimlessly,” Rovelli writes in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
. “You don’t get anywhere by not ‘wasting’ time.'”
According to Livni, doing nothing was a lifelong habit of Einstein, who from his youth used sailing as an excuse to loaf. “He summed up his technique as follows, ‘Set sail, make it fast, no thoughts of energy or velocity, loll back, let boat drift,'” reports Livni.
The result was that Einstein often got lost — he “occasionally ended up wandering the beach, befuddled, and got picked up by police, as happened in the summer of 1939 in Long Island,” Livni relates — but he also often came up with incredibly creative ideas as he whiled away the hours doing basically nothing.
Where’s your sailboat?
Of course he did, you might respond. Einstein was one of the greatest minds of the century. He could sit around watching paint dry and his brain would still spit out ideas to put us mere mortals to shame. There’s some truth in this objection. Einstein was freakishly smart, but a heap of science suggests that he’s far from alone in requiring a hefty dose of down time and boredom to do his best work.
We’re all familiar with the experience of getting a sudden creative insight in the shower, and psychologists have studied the brain basis for why such enjoyable idling spurs creativity. The answer seems to be a combination of dopamine and distraction.
, “dopamine facilitates psychological plasticity, a tendency to explore and engage flexibly with new things, in both behavior and thinking. Plasticity leads us to engage with uncertainty–whether it is pondering a new app to meet a consumer demand or questioning the next step in our own life path–exploring the unknown and finding reward in seeking its positive potential.”
The second ingredient for breakthrough ideas is distraction. Inspiration often strikes when we make unexpected connections between previously unrelated ideas. Your unconscious mind is great at doing this, but your conscious mind can get in the way if it’s too focused on the same old solutions. A hot shower — or a leisurely sailboat ride — can occupy just enough of your attention to let your mind wander away from its roadblocks and hit on novel solutions. Walking is another great creativity booster for the same reason.
An office environment, where you are generally focused and not terribly relaxed, lacks both these ingredients. Which is why breakthroughs so rarely come while you’re trying to have breakthroughs. Instead, if you’re looking for flashes of creativity, steal Einstein’s approach and build in a low-key hobby or activity where you kick back and do pretty much nothing while letting your mind wander.
You might not rewrite our most fundamental understandings of the universe, but you will almost certainly be much more creative.
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