Does Your Brain Need a Vacation?

It was nearly 80 degrees in the city of San Francisco yesterday.

As one person mentioned in our phone call, “it’s one of about 5 days a year where you want air conditioning in San Francisco”. I worked from my home office all-day and felt the warmth come in through the window. Ah… summer is on its way. Then the thought that followed it closely was:  Wait, what happened to Spring?  When did we even shift to Spring?

As a kid growing up in Minnesota, the first signs of spring were a big deal! We wore shorts on the first 50-degree day when there was practically still snow on the ground and were barefoot faster than our sensitive and cold feet could handle it. We were eager to get out, explore, play, run, and unbundle ourselves from the 5 or so months of multi-layered clothing. To this day I can feel the burst of energy and freedom that came with the long anticipated weather shift. (Special compassion to my fellow Midwesterners who have just seen a big dump of snowfall – today!).

What does this have to do with your brain needing a vacation? In a way, that’s what needs to happen to for insight to occur.  It occurred to me that the birthplace of new ideas or “ah ha’s” often seem to occur in an environment somewhat like the fresh appearance of spring. We may have been hunkered down, bundled, inside and reflective during the early part of the year and then one day – BOOM – we shift, we get out, we move, we create. People seem to come out of the woodwork. We see things from a new and fresh perspective. Possibilities reveal themselves in multitudes of ways. And we begin to create from this new place.

We move from a place of insight into action.

But what environment was necessary to create that space for insight?  “Where are you when you have your best ideas?” This is a question that I often ask in my course“Maximizing Productivity:  Creating the Time and Space for What’s Really Important to You”.    The answers are always the same:  in nature, in the shower, when I wake up, exercising.  No one ever says, “When I was trying really hard and thinking intensely about it.”

Why is that? It’s because of the way that the conditions of the brain function best to create insight.

I use many of the newest discoveries of neuroscience in the coaching and training with clients, I am not “sciency” enough to share the specifics. So that I leave to the experts. (Truth be told: I took a class in college called “Physics for Poets”).

One of my favorite thought leaders who coined the term”Neuro-leadership” is David Rock.   I’ve read his books and seen him speak on this fascinating topic several times.  Last week, I joined a newly formed group of people, Blue Stocking Salon, in an interactive format great for exchanging ideas, connecting and learning.  During the conversation, David shared some of the work that’s happening in neuro-leadership in the world.  On the topic of insight, he illustrated 4 key states that are necessary in the brain to generate insight.  So here’s my Physics-for-poets-like-interpretation of each state and a quick to-do to help the brain create the state for insight:

  • Quiet:  We have insights all the time, but there’s often too much noise to notice them. When the overall activity of the brain is low or quiet, we’re more apt to notice them.  Shift to:  Repetitive activities or a relaxed state.  Action: Find quiet space.  Take a quick walk or circulate.
  • Internal focus of reflection.  When we have insights we are more in “mind wandering” or internal deep reflection mode vs focused on the external problem.  Shift to: Shut out or remove the external focus.  Take a breath; be aware of your internal state.
  • Slightly positive. Whenwe re happy we tendto notice a wider range of informationthan when we are even a wee bit anxious or narrowly focused. Shift to: Be open, curious and interested.  Action: Be curious about anything going on around you.  What’s the energy in the office?  Who’s around?  What have you not noticed before?  Curiosity is your and the brain’s friend.
  • Less Effort. Stop trying to solve the problem. Often when we are thinking too hard, we’ve reached or created a roadblock. Yet the more we focus on the same type of solutions, the harder it is to think of new ideas.  Shift to: Not thinking about the problem.  Action:  Take a break.  Pose the question to yourself, then take a break from it – and notice new solutions as they arise in the future.

And what’s important about insight? Well, everything. Insight is the catalyst that often inspires the new vision, process, idea, solution, or business we’ve been craving. It’s the place where we connect to our dreams and the space of what “can be” in the future. It connects us to new ways of solving problems. It helps us think differently. From our “ah ha’s” we can begin to express to others the novelty of our unique and creative thought processes.

Then it’s up to us to take action! Just one small step that’s aligned with our new revelation can shift our future – at least long enough until we have another one.

What are you willing to do this week to create the space for insight? Or…what can you do to give your brain a mini-vacation?

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