Relaxing for success – how to use Edison’s proven technique to solve problems and become more innovative

Running a business means you always have plenty of problems to overcome and issues to deal with. It’s part of the fun of being in business, but when you’re busy it can be hard to be creative and to find innovative solutions.

Your brain is always coming up with solutions to problems and providing a constant stream of innovative ideas.  But if you aren’t tuned in and ready to receive them as they bubble up from the depths of your subconscious and surface in your conscious – they will quickly disappear again? If you need solutions, it is vital that you’re in the right state of mind to receive them.

When trying to be more creative, there is a technique called “dunking” you can try. It’s an approach inspired by the brilliant engineer Thomas Edison whose inventions truly changed the world.

‘Dunking’ to solve problems and generate inspirational ideas

Edison would sit in a comfy chair with his arms hanging over the sides whilst clutching two large ball bearings, one in each hand, strategically placed, dangling over a wooden floor. He would start dozing off, but as soon as he actually fell asleep his hands would release their contents and the noise of the ball bearings clattering on the hard floor would wake him up with a jolt.

By “dunking” in and out of sleep like this, he found he could seize any inspirational nuggets that popped into his head whilst in this semi sleep state.

Just like dunking biscuits into a hot cuppa, the secret is not to stay dunked too long otherwise you drop off completely into deep sleep and lose any ideas you may have had. You might well have already noticed that your best ideas come to you when you’re daydreaming in the bath, on the loo or commuting.

These scenarios provide great opportunities for cracking difficult problems because in each instance you might just doze a little without completely drifting off. The reason being, these are places where you remain conscious of the potential dangers around you, not to mention the possible embarrassment of nodding off completely!

You are at your most creative when you are asleep

Sleep is vitally important when it comes to being innovative, the very best brain state for creative thought being when you’re asleep. To be accurate, the most creative brain state occurs just at the moment you fall off to sleep when it enters the “hypnogogic” state.

Your brain doesn’t go into sleep mode all in one go, different parts of your brain enter sleep mode and disconnect at different times. As brain regions each power down one by one over the course of about twenty minutes, certain areas find that they are no longer able to send and receive messages to brain networks they are usually in intense communication with.

Effectively this means that parts of the brain that are not yet in sleep mode are ticking away in isolation – each doing its own thing without any of the normal coordination with other brain areas. This interim state between all of the brain being awake and all of the brain being asleep is extremely effective in catalysing creative thought.

Using hypnagogia to harness your creativity

If by any chance Edison’s ball bearings seem a bit low tech, logistically impractical or just not for you, then give this a go. The next time you have a tricky problem to solve, take a power nap.

Before you do, give a problem you’d like to solve a lot of serious thought and then, depending on how good you are at nodding off, set your mobile phone alarm to go off in 15 – 20 minutes time. You should, with a little practice, find yourself being able to enter the hypnagogic state and wake up just in time to find some useful ideas floating around in your head.

If you get in the habit of doing this once or twice a day you will find that within a week you start popping back up from hypnagogia automatically, just before the alarm goes off. But do continue to set your alarm for peace of mind.

Please note: never nap for longer than 20 minutes or you’ll shut too much of your brain down and you’ll have trouble waking back up again. When you do eventually wake, you’ll feel more sleepy than before you nodded off and, regrettably, any stunningly brilliant solutions will have slipped silently away.

Relaxing by doing something that’s completely novel and fun is also extremely useful when it comes to being more innovative – forcing your brain to process novel stimuli is the bedrock of creativity.

Organising yourself to solve problems

How often have you found yourself in the situation where you’ve got stuck on a particular problem and having reached a seemingly dead end, you cannot for the life of you see any feasible solution? Then, having walked away from it and done something completely different, you return only to find the answer is right there in front of you, staring you in the face!

It’s a struggle to understand why you weren’t able to see it in the first place now that it seems so glaringly obvious. This is why whenever you are trying to concentrate on something it’s best to do it in forty-five minute chunks with a fifteen minute break in between, doing something completely different. Working this way is, for most people, so much more productive. The key being that the fifteen minute break is only fifteen minutes!

People talk a lot these days about “thinking outside the box”, if you really do want to start thinking outside the box the best way is to actually physically get outside your box; in other words – get out of your office!

Get out and try Churchill’s ‘corkscrew thinking’

Some fresh air up the nostrils and a lack of walls and ceilings definitely induces some great “corkscrew thinking”. It’s a term that was originally coined by Winston Churchill and that is still used today to describe looking around obstacles and barriers to find solutions. Just like food tasting better when cooked outdoors, thinking also seems so much better when it’s done outdoors.

And, if you want the ultimate outdoor meeting, try and hold it beside water, especially noisy water e.g. near a fountain, waterfall, weir etc. or on a beach with the sound of waves crashing in the background.

The problem for brains is that modern life doesn’t allow people who work for a living much time for rest and play. The work bit, whether it’s actual work or commuting to and from work, or running around catching up with your personal affairs and keeping on top of day-to-day chores such as shopping, paying bills and so forth, really does get in the way of resting and playing.

Stimulate your brain

Unfortunately however, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you think that all your problems will be solved by doing some novel activity or taking a nap, then you’ve skipped one vital step in the process.

If you want to unleash your subconscious on something you must first put the work in. It’s down to you to input all the relevant data so that the novelty-processing, creative brain areas have all the materials they need to find a solution.

The more you research a problem – the more you read books and articles, scour the internet, discuss and bounce ideas around with friends, family or, ideally, an expert with a proven track record in the relevant field – the more your subconscious will have to work with.

Balance rest and play for maximum brain effectiveness

The key thing to remember is that brains benefit from rest and play in equal measure, both are very important to them. And, when you get the balance right, it makes them far more efficient and effective when it comes to the proper work bit.

The phrase, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is still as true today as when it was first ever uttered. Even more importantly, what might seem to the outside world to be procrastination might in fact be just the ticket when it comes to finding that elusive final piece of the puzzle.

A quick stroll or game of table tennis, flicking idly through a magazine on the sofa, chatting with a co-worker – all these activities might provide just the spark your subconscious needs to connect all the loose ends and send that Eureka! revelation bubbling up into your conscious awareness.

About the author

This article was written for ByteStart by Dr Jack Lewis and Adrian Webster, authors of Sort Your Brain Out, published by Capstone, April 2014.

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