Creating Mental Space for Innovation
In Bern, Switzerland, a young patent clerk changed the way we think about the universe; his name was Albert Einstein.
Albert Einstein stumbled upon his special theory of relativity by staring at a clock, known as the Zytglogge in Bern, Switzerland on his way home from work in a streetcar.
Describing the story when Albert Einstein found a moment of clarity on his decades-long quest to solve a scientific paradox isn’t the goal, instead, let’s meditate on the space that allowed clarity to present itself.
We’ll explore two hypotheses around the subject that you can test which aim to define what we can do to create the space for innovation, the hypotheses are called voiding and waves.
Each hypothesis is best suited for a particular personality. For example, if you are creative you’ll likely resonate with voiding if you are analytical waves will have a bigger influence on your perspective, skip to either. You can cultivate this in self or group.
The hypothesis of voiding is that an attempt to adjust an individual’s environment by overstimulating senses and engaging in a repetitive procedural task provides the ability for enhanced mental focus, creating the space for innovation.
Simply put: sit in a chair, listen to music, light a candle, drink a hot coffee, stare at the clouds, and fiddle with a paper clip.
Scott Barry Kaufman — a cognitive scientist did a study that showed 72% of people get creative ideas in the shower. Kaufman believes that it highlights the importance of relaxation for creative thinking.
I agree with Kaufman, but I believe his theory can be extended. I would suggest that creative ideas are a result of overstimulation of the faculties combined with a repetitive procedural task, that generates a voiding effect on the individual’s cognition in which the mind is more distracted and can reach an autopilot or monoidealistic state (focusing your attention on only one task) by distracting the hindbrain.
Another example of an environment that stimulates voiding would be driving, especially on a consistently driven route. Your hands are in use, you’ve music streaming, and you’re visually stimulated. Due to all of this, the mind easily wanders.
To test voiding, simply enter a safe environment in which a repetitive procedural task is taking place, without enhanced movement, attempt to engage as many of the senses in a dull flood of information such as touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. It is imperative that stimuli not require deep cognitive participation. It is important to engage at least 3 of the 5 senses described above and the desired combination will be unique to the individual participating based solely on their stimuli.
Consider meditation as a juxtaposition to voiding, mediation is to clear the mind, where voiding is to distract the hindbrain, engage the midbrain through stimuli, and force the forebrain to work.
Another way to make sense of voiding is motor unit recruitment, which is the bodies process of activating additional muscles to generate greater strength. If you attempt to move a weight that is impossible to move but attempt it nonetheless, your body will react to the strain by recruiting additional units of muscle from different body groups.
In a sense, we’re attempting to force the mind to engage all of its basal functions, leaving only higher order systems.
The voiding process should help you develop the mental space for innovation.
The hypothesis of waves is that by attempting to organize our work, we can smooth out our disruptive tasks and create the space to execute on innovative concepts, in turn developing a Fourier series (described later) for the individual optimization of one’s role. Essentially, the goal is to eliminate the cognitive switching penalty, which is the cost of switching tasks or multi-tasking.
Consider the following: I have a goal of arriving in New York City, NY leaving Vancouver, BC for a meeting. I have two options:
- Vancouver > Salt Lake > Denver > Chicago > Boston > New York
- Vancouver > New York
What option do I select? Well, if we are looking at our goal independently both options are equal as I arrive in New York.
Now, if we begin to consider additional variables it is simple to recognize that option one is a nightmare because we recognize that we’re losing momentum. Ascending and descending 10 times creates a high penalty in efficiency.
If this is an obvious answer in the physical, how do we optimize similar problems in our work?
A Fourier series is a very interesting mathematical equation that helps visualize the infinite sum of sine and cosine functions; a YouTube video on the topic sparked an idea; that a Fourier series can visually describe an individual’s pattern of work; thus, leading to the optimal organization of one’s effort to create space for both execution and ideation, ideally leading to innovation.
Understanding and participating in waves does not require any mathematics, only the movement of one’s effort in a schedule that is consistent and can be visualized for your brain to utilize its acute pattern matching skills.
The human mind is gifted at identifying patterns and the goal is to categorize work in groups very much the same as batching but on an aggregate level, looking at the macro instead of the micro.
Ironically, we continue to focus on smaller tasks believing that they will become easier to manage and more linear when chunked but I am quickly reminded of the coastline paradox. If you continue to zoom into a coastline, the measurements change due to what’s known as a fractal, a curve whose complexity changes with measurement scale, I believe our work is much the same. Your expectation is that as you zoom, you get to a point of zero curvature, but that’s not true.
The point of waves is to smooth your work pattern, instead of creating a hectic ascension and descension.
Below is a diagram that provides a 30-day timeline of an individual's work schedule split between maintenance work and new work. Maintenance work can be described as low cognitive participation and challenge, new work can be described as high cognitive participation and challenge.
The individual has 2.25 hours of evaporation in the maintenance work due to monotony and boredom, meaning lost output and effort. In the new work the individual has 2.25–5 hours of passion, this is when the work is fulfilling and captivates the mind and interest leading to more effort being expended beyond requirements.
Overall, the pattern is in a wave providing a clear ascension and descension, leading to improved performance and innovation space.
Alternatively, a non-optimized work schedule results in sharp ascension and descension leading to lost output and efficiency as seen below.
As you can see above, there is no pattern. The work is flowing reactively providing no time for proper preparation and organization of workflow, leading to burnout and a lack of challenge. It is nearly impossible to build innovation into that pattern as there isn’t a space for it.
The waves process can help a team or individual organize themselves to improve performance and create the space for innovation.
It was 1905 when Albert Einstein had his breakthrough, we often focus on the brilliance of a mind to create innovation, ignoring the environment that is present in those moments that spark a cascade of events to unfold.
Dr. Walter Mischel found a correlation between willpower and success in the 1960s and it turns out that each individual has a finite amount of willpower available each day and as we utilize it our willpower is depleted. Josh Kaufman in his book Personal MBA discusses how adjusting our environment can lead to successful change, rather than relying on willpower alone, we can change our environment to be an ally for rallying towards a cause.
Voiding and Waves are two ideas for changing your environment to better prepare yourself for the breakthrough moments we’re all looking for.
Creating mental space for innovation is the start.