Generating Creative Ideas With Inactivity

The seeds of Einstein’s incredible ideas were planted during the year he took off from high school in the 1890s, during which he contemplated the world with no pressure to pass exams or accomplish anything at all. Einstein “spent a year loafing aimlessly,” Rovelli writes in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. “You don’t get anywhere by not ‘wasting’ time.” Einstein knew that to do great work you sometimes have to do absolutely nothing.

Sedentary Behavior is often identified with lazy people, stoners, or nobody’s with zero ambition. But to be all work with no rest is just as ineffective. If you work relentlessly with no time for your mind and body to rest and wonder, then your ingenuity and quality of work will eventually diminish until an imminent burnout. As with everything in life, it is important to maintain a balance.

Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are both advocates for occasional inactivity and they claim that it actually benefits their work. With their $300 billion combined net worth, I’m pretty confident that they could afford to hire a dishwasher if they wanted. But Bill and Jeff insist on washing dishes themselves. Not because the have to, but because they want to. Science suggests that there are many benefits to performing mundane chores. It can be a way to meditate and boosts creativity.

“I do the dishes every night. I’m pretty convinced it’s the sexiest thing I do,”

Jeff Bezos 2014

Research shows that inactivity as meditation can provide a significant happiness boost if done in the right way. Everyday tasks such as loading the dishwasher, cleaning the house, and doing laundry can all be meditative.

A 2014 study taught volunteers to view doing the dishes as an opportunity to practice mindfulness. They were taught to focus on the present and the sensation of the soap, sponge, warm water, etc. After only six minutes of scrubbing, the meditative dishwashers reported feeling 27% less nervous and 25% more inspired.

This is nothing new. Meditation teachers have actually long insisted that doing monotonous tasks can help reveal your inner beauty and calm the mind. And if you think meditation teachers are too superficial, Wharton School professor and best-selling author Adam Grant has made a similar argument explaining why, despite much criticism from enthusiasts, he has never bothered to adopt a formal meditation practice. He hasn’t needed to sit on special pillows and listen to a guided meditation app because he can and does, practice mindfulness as part of his everyday life.

The founder of the Langer Mindfulness Institute, Ellen Langer, wrote that “Mindfulness, as my colleagues and I study it, does not depend on meditation; it is the very simple process of noticing new things, which puts us in the present.”

In addition to meditation and mindfulness, inactivity has been proven to be an effective creativity booster. High-caliber individuals such as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates deal with constant decisions, cognitive demands, jam-packed schedules, and endless worry about the future on a daily basis. Any brain, no matter how extraordinary, would require a break from those stresses. And doing the dishes provides a perfect opportunity to leave all that in the peripheral and to be fully present.

In addition to mindfulness, doing the dishes also allows for relaxation and gives us permission to daydream. It is a chance for your mind to wonder. Creativity experts say it’s this sort of loose mind-wandering that allows the brain to make some of its most innovative and unexpected leaps. (Ever wondered why so many good ideas come to us in the shower?)

“Why is it I always get my best ideas while shaving?” – Albert Einstein

Anecdotal accounts of creative individuals suggest that oftentimes, creative discoveries result from a process where an initial conscious thought is followed by a period of inactivity. A ton of studies have supported the notion that creativity comes with mind-wandering and states of unconscious processes such as doing mundane chores.

Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax”

Mark Black

If you’re searching for your next great idea or solution, maybe you need to go for a walk. Do something where your mind is at rest and welcomes wonder. You may hate folding laundry or cleaning the house, but the fact that the two wealthiest and possibly busiest entrepreneurs hold on to such chores is a reminder that if we too get in the right mindset, these mundane jobs can be valuable opportunities for mindfulness and creativity.

Wander fosters wonder.