The best creative ideas form in a crucible of research-induced sweat, disconnected inspiration and (sometimes) awkward mental gymnastics. But there's an inflection point where overthinking starts to reverse engineer those ideas to entropy.
How do you know when to stop? And is there a way to apply some process to sidestep the inevitable brain freeze?
In the lives of creatives, entrepreneurs and business leaders there seem to be endless problems - a constant storm of conflicting needs in product development, design, marketing, and finance. It's so tempting to dive in on each little issue, but without active purpose, many leaders get lost in the weeds and forget the shape of the wider forest.
If stuck, taking a step back from your work to daydream productively may lead to interesting places you haven't yet allowed yourself to imagine.
Multiple studies have shown the power of daydreaming to organise the mind's thoughts, and many creative innovators and inventors, including Nicola Tesla, swore by daydreaming and visualisation to find new ideas. It's no coincidence that breakthrough moments come along while doing something completely unrelated.
Stepping back from the constant pressures of work slows things down and gives your mind a chance to run its' natural cycles, processing the minutiae of professional life. Then, with a clear mind, visualise your problems in their totality. Picture your new product, your business organization, your marketing strategy in its full form, and see how your mind works to fill in the details and observe problems.
Nicola Tesla's Visualisation Method
Like the entrepreneurs of today, the inventors of the Industrial Revolution dealt with disruptive advancement and tended to throw themselves at problems. That was good for incremental change, but Tesla had a different method. Instead of continually tinkering, he started each project by visualising its final form in his mind.
This helped him avoid the fate of innovators who get so caught up in minutiae and detail that they forget why they're doing things, what the point was, and how it all fits together. Tinkering is good, but it will only ever be incremental.
Tesla's one-time employer and longtime rival Thomas Edison was a tinkerer. He and his huge team attacked problems over and over again until they got to a working product. Even with a sizeable squad, Edison's lack of vision led to mistakes. His workable, but short-range DC electric system lost out in competition with Tesla's long-range AC system.
As a child, Tesla, plagued by tormenting images and flashes of light, visualised imaginary worlds to free himself from this menace, and by adulthood he claimed he could imagine entire inventions, even picking apart the detail of loose screws, and preventing unbalanced mechanisms just through the power of his visualisation. He argued that "It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in my thoughts or in my shop."
Tesla apparently had a few screws loose, and was a little unbalanced himself, despite (or because of) being one of the greatest inventors in history. The average person isn't going to match Tesla's ability to imagine every facet of their idea in detail, but visualisation can help you get a more precise image of any project, clearing the way for a more strategic approach.
Get out of the water, and remember the ocean again... :-)
The Power of Daydreams to Reorganise the Mind
The Eureka moment is the stuff of legends. Isaac Newton claimed to discover gravity when an apple fell on his head. Archimedes came up with the idea of water displacement while taking a bath. But this moment isn't magical. It doesn't appear out of thin air, but is the result of your subconscious mind sorting, organising, and connecting accumulated knowledge while the active mind is lightly distracted.
Researchers at the University of California found in a 2012 meta-analysis that daydreaming can increase creativity, as well as keep minutiae in perspective and allow the mind time to sort and genuinely understand the influx of information it is burdened with every day.
Daydreaming can be both controlled and uncontrolled, and both are useful, but neither should be used to excess. In 30 minutes of downtime, using half of it for controlled daydreaming and the other half for uncontrolled daydreaming can take advantage of both for a quick mind refresh.
Pure, uncontrolled daydreaming works best when you distract your active mind with a stimulating but uncomplicated task, such as doodling, showering, or walking in nature. That is where the Eureka moments come from - when your unconscious mind suddenly makes a connection in the background.
Controlled daydreaming is more like mindful meditation or Tesla's visualisation technique, where you give your mind some freedom to make its connections but keep it on-topic through light, unstressed prodding. Visualise your problems and projects in their entirety, zooming in and out from the whole to details and back again.
A software engineer having trouble might imagine the entire structure of their project, then zoom in to see the details of individual subsystems and then zoom out again to see how that affects the whole. That will help identify problems before writing any code, and it can help taking a step back from projects already in progress.
Creatively imagine the future, so you don't run into problems you haven't already foreseen.
Daydreaming with Knowledge
Tesla described his visualisation techniques almost as a form of magic - and it's clear his mind worked in interesting ways, but this doesn't mean he didn't spend years studying and experimenting to perfect his approach. Only through years of research and learning did Tesla know how to take what he knew and daydream it into new innovative productions.
Daydreaming can't replace practice and learning. And it can't take the place of good old fashioned blood, sweat and tears. Even Tesla eventually had to take his visualisations into the real world, and they didn't always work without some tinkering - but he made it to ideas that others couldn't with tinkering alone. Use your daydreaming and visualisation skills to actively imagine the whole of your problems. Picture in your mind a summary of your knowledge on the subject, and then bring it to the real world with a total understanding.
Imagine the final form of your product, your widget, your company. Cycle through it and note places where you don't yet have solutions or don't yet have the knowledge to create solutions.
These are the areas where you need to spend your time.
Use visualisation to focus your attention, not to escape. Use it to keep the structure of your project in mind. Or you'll find yourself mindlessly tinkering with easy stuff while avoiding significant problems.
About the writer: "I've always been inspired by ideas - what makes them happen, why some seem crazier than others and how humans manifest thoughts into reality. My career has been spent developing solutions to everyday problems across technology, education, design and integrated business systems. My wife and 3yr old son are my inspiration and drive to do bigger, better things while electronic music, art and great stories help keep me sane."