Executives at GE, 3M, Google, Bloomberg Media, and Salesforce.com do it.
Ford chairman William Ford does it, as do former corporate chiefs Bill George of Medtronic and Bob Shapiro of Monsanto.
Phil Jackson, Tiger Woods, and Italy’s 2006 World Cup champion soccer team all do it.
The “it” is designating daily time to calm and quiet the mind using techniques like meditation and neurofeedback.
The question of course, is why? The short answer is that ‘break’ is a big part of breakthrough — literally, figuratively, and scientifically.
Researchers looking into how the human brain actually solves problems now confirm what many artists and scientists have instinctively known about the process of idea incubation: that seemingly unproductive times are a key ingredient of immensely productive and creative ones.
We’ve all heard of apparently serendipitous occurrences — Archimedes’ (“Eureka!”) flash of insight regarding displacement occurring during a bath, and Einstein’s theory of relativity coming to him in a daydream.
Neuroscientists now believe that the ability to engineer creative breakthroughs hinges on the capacity to synthesize and make connections between seemingly disparate things, and a key ingredient is time away from the problem. Experiments show that creative revelations come when the mind is engaged in an activity unrelated to the issue being addressed, and that pressure is not conducive to creative thought. Recent research demonstrates that the ultimate break — sleep — actually changes our mind’s perspective unconsciously. Information is consolidated by a process taking place in the hippocampus during sleep, enabling the brain to effectively clear itself and reboot, all the while forming new connections and associations. The result is new insight and the aha! feeling of the Eureka moment.
The catch is obvious: if the neural workings of the brain are hidden from our awareness, we can’t speed them up or artificially influence them to work harder or more intensely. We can only let go. Ironically, when we do — when we stop thinking and escape either physically or mentally, we actually speed up the transformational processes.
But here’s the thing: we’re reticent to take those breaks. Certainly we don’t include them or build them in as a formal part of our problem-solving efforts. The question is why we don’t, when without the break, there may just be no breakthrough.
Enter the irrational fear of failure.
Backing off is counterintuitive. It somehow feels wrong, like preemptive surrender. It’s scary to ease up, because we may lose our steam, or we may abandon hope. We get anxious when the answers aren’t so forthcoming, and we begin to doubt our creativity, abilities and intelligence, fearing that if we take our eye off the problem even for a moment, we may lose the energy we’ve invested.
The key is a quiet mind. We need to learn to rid ourselves from the potentially destructive negative self-talk: inevitable thoughts of failure, inner voices of self-criticism and judgment, and the ever-present temptations to compare ourselves to others whose circumstances have little to do with ours.
High performers know that the line between failure and success is very often drawn on the mental field of play. The good news is that turning down the chatterbox brain is something that can be learned.
Some prefer simply taking downtime to reflect and think, (or not think as the case may be). Think Week is the now-legendary solitary sabbatical taken twice yearly by Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates. In his tiny lakeside cottage hideaway, he ponders the past, present and future of his company, of technology, and of his industry. He takes long walks along the lake shore in contemplation to quiet his mind.
Others take a more technological approach. Neurofeedback training is becoming popular with athletes and executives. The aforementioned Italian soccer team regularly unwound before matches in the ultra-secretive Mind Room, a facility wired for the technique, which involves zero-gravity recliners, stereo headphones, and tiny electrodes placed on the player’s scalp that are linked to computers displaying various types of brainwave activity. Trainers monitor feedback and response to various stimuli, searching for unique triggers that improve the level of sensorimotor response (SMR) brainwaves that create the feeling of suspended focus athletes refer to as “the zone.” Neurofeedback centers are popping up everywhere.
Finally, meditation may be the most powerful tool known. Neuroscientists have since the 1990s been studying Tibetan monks in the hills above Dharamsala to understand how meditation affects brain activity. In the most experienced Buddhist practitioners, researchers using electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have discovered abnormally high levels of gamma brainwaves, which are believed to be associated with the brain’s ability to synthesize disparate bits of data, solve problems, heighten perception, and boost consciousness.
Scientists have now concluded that mental training of this sort can create an enduring brain trait. That means we may actually be able to rewire our brains to adopt different thinking circuits. In fact, in a reversal of conventional medical wisdom, which holds that mental experiences result from physical goings-on in the brain, startling new evidence suggests the reverse may also be true — that our mental machinations may actually alter the physical structure of our grey matter. Neuroscientists call the phenomenon neuroplasticity.
In other words, when you quiet your mind, you change your brain, thereby setting the stage for breakthrough ideas. And that leaves a whole new world of opportunity for the innovator.