Einstein’s theory of relativity came to him in a daydream. Friedrich von Stradonitz discovered the shape of the benzene ring after dreaming of a snake biting its tail. Richard Feynman was watching someone throw a plate in the air in Cornell University’s cafeteria in 1946 when he got the idea for quantum electrodynamics. Author J. K. Rowling was traveling on a train between Manchester and London in 1990 when the character of Harry Potter suddenly flashed in her mind.
The common element in all of these Eureka! moments is a quiet mind, severed for a time from the problem at hand. Most creative people instinctively know that the incubation of great ideas involves seemingly unproductive times, but that those idle time set the stage for immensely productive, creative periods.
The mysteries of the mind are many, but neuroscience now confirms that the ability to engineer creative breakthroughs indeed hinges on the capacity to synthesize and make connections between seemingly disparate things, and a key ingredient is time away from the problem.
To test the science of creativity in the business setting, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) ran a multi-year experiment in which members of a dozen four- or five-member consulting teams were required to take ‘predictable time off’ every week, defined as one uninterrupted evening free each week after 6 p.m.—no work contact whatsoever, and no Blackberrys.
The downtime was awkward for many, nerve-racking for some, and a few even fought the idea, fearful of poor performance ratings or more weekend work. The goal was to teach people that you can tune out completely for a time and still produce great work.
Within six months, internal surveys showed that these consultants were more satisfied with their jobs and work-life balance, and more likely to stay with the firm, compared to those who weren’t part of the study.
In addition, BCG’s clients reported that these teams turned out better work, in part due to more open dialogue, and that the improved communication also sparked new processes that enhanced the teams’ ability to work effectively.
The experiment worked so well that BCG has since instituted it firm-wide.
Lesson: doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing.