Struggling to Come Up With Creative Ideas? Try Doing This. Allow your ideas to marinate. Your imagination runs free when you spend time doing nothing.
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For as long as I can remember, I've picked olives with my family in my native country of Turkey. Normally in late fall, we'll gather as a group and start working in a sea of olive trees. This task involves using our bodies and our powers of observation: plucking the small fruits from branches, carefully selecting the ripe olives while discarding the ones that are overly mushy and shriveled.
It's a tradition I've kept up each fall even as I've spent the past 16 years growing my business, Jotform. Call it a respite from the tech life, if you will, but I'll say it's much more than that to me: a mindfulness practice — one that allows for mind-wandering and reflection.
In her fascinating story for Fast Company, contributor, Natalie Nixon, speaks about the need for entrepreneurs to incorporate more "invisible work" into their schedules. In her definition, this involves "deep observation, listening, daydreaming, sitting with our intuition, pondering questions about a challenge or opportunity post meeting, and then reframing those questions."
"It's the feverish scribbling or typing out of new ideas that emerge in the moment," she adds.
But what struck me most about Nixon's article is that she also notes the power of the mind-body connection for achieving this kind of state. When she poses the following question: "How do we activate more opportunities to be in our body, wonder, and ponder more frequently?" I think about my home town, I think about being outdoors, the sunshine on my face — and just being present.
You see, most of my best and brightest ideas have come from my time doing this "invisible work" out in nature. Whether through my walks in the park or my time spent meditating in my garden — they're all moments when I've felt the most embodied in my imagination.
Why mind-wandering is essential for entrepreneurs
When I was a freshly minted CEO, being as productive as possible in the office was king. I'd hop from meeting to meeting and go from reviewing product bugs to dealing with client calls until the end of the day. All of my time was trackable — from morning to night.
This of course, didn't allow much for ideas to marinate.
"In a productivity-obsessed world, mind-wandering has a bad reputation," writes Clifton Mark for CBC Life. "The ideal is: focus like a laser beam, blasting to-dos off of your list."
With time and experience, I began doing things differently from when I first founded my startup. For one, I began taking more pauses throughout the day. I quit eating lunch in front of my screen and taking calls after working hours.
Below are just a few ways I've benefited from letting my mind wander more.
1. It helps cultivate my creativity
There's a quote by poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau that I'm particularly fond of: "Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth."
It's no surprise that allowing ourselves to spend more time in nature fosters more mind-wandering, which in turn, increases our "divergent thinking." Some researchers have even suggested it might "serve as a foundation for creative inspiration."
In simpler terms: When we're not knee-deep in tasks, and our bodies are free of constraint, our minds are also free to connect the dots in compelling new ways.
Flickers of ideas you might have had briefly thought of during a meeting become fully fleshed out. Perhaps Nixon explains it best when she says, "Opportunities to reconnect to our bodies in order to make sense of our work are ideal for activating creativity through intuition, curiosity and wonder."
2. It helps me find solutions more easily
In 2021, we launched our product Jotform Tables, which we'd spent three years working on and honing. That's a lot of time in the tech world — but it didn't matter to me. What did matter was creating something that solved our user's problems.
Aside from practicing a daily dosage of patience, it was giving myself the space for mind-wandering that helped me continually envision solutions and new ideas.
"When your thoughts are just jumping from one topic to the next without an overarching theme or goal, that can be very liberating," writes New York Times contributor Malia Wollan.
So, how can you start reaping these benefits for yourself?
According to Wollan, we can "facilitate unconstrained thinking by engaging in an easy, repetitive activity like walking." I've held a daily habit of going for outdoor walks for years now and can attribute my solutions-focused ability directly to this practice.
3. It helps me manage my own thoughts and feelings
I believe that as entrepreneurs, it's our responsibility to talk more openly about mental health. Startup culture is notorious for evading the topic altogether.
But here's the thing: The nature of our work can be deeply stressful — making us prone to depression and anxiety. That's because many of us often make the mistake of tying our self worth to our business' success.
There are many highs and lows in this industry, and it can be hard to acknowledge when we're teetering on the edge of burnout. But when I disconnect on weekends and take up a nature-based activity, I'm able to stop and reflect. I can process the week's ups and downs in a safe space. More than that, it allows me to check in with myself; I'm able to analyze frustrations and put things into perspective.
I believe that the only way to take care of our mental and physical well being is by taking the necessary pauses for our unfiltered thoughts and emotions to become visible. And I agree with Nixon when she suggests programming these out.
"Think about breaks scaled in multiple chunks of time," she writes. "Take breaks during the day, but also take micro-breaks throughout the year. Try planning one day of solitude every quarter, gradually increasing these to monthly solo days."
Every fall when I head back to Turkey, I know that I'll return renewed and ready to keep innovating — as long as I give myself that space to do absolutely nothing but pluck ripened olives from their branches.