Conference Notes

Sleeping On It

Our brains are a marvellous creation, offering resources for retaining memories, making connections between ideas, and coordinating both gross and fine motor movements across our bodies. We put our brains into focused mode when we want to get something done, and with the right energy sources and stimulation, we can crank it out and achieve the tasks we’ve set ourselves. But our brains also have a wandering mode called the default mode network, which is about memory, thinking and envisioning. It’s a place where creativity happens, as previously unrelated ideas are brought together to create something new / different / surprising. Knowledge workers, thinkers, writers and inventors need space to let the default mode network in their brain help in their work, and it usually doesn’t happen when you are on-task and under-the-hammer to reach a deadline. Going for an easy walk in the countryside – yes (doesn’t really work in New York City, unfortunately, as tremendous cognitive focus is required just to stay alive while crossing the street). Sleeping – yes. Having a shower – yes, as long as it’s long and slow and not a rushed performance for exterior cleanliness as part of the morning madness to get out the door.

This happened to me the other day. I was racing to finish my slide deck for DEX 2019 next week, and true to the imposed deadline, got it done, uploaded it to the right shared folder, and ticked it off my list. My brain let it go – or at least the focused task-performance parts of my brain let it go – because it was finished. And with the pressure gone, the default mode network in my head started its own analysis: this isn’t right. It doesn’t flow properly there. You haven’t got the conclusion right yet. Without moving into focused mode, I accepted the critique and let myself think it through. I was thinking about it overnight while I slept. I was thinking about it in the early morning when I went for a walk in the dark stillness. And I was thinking about it while I was getting ready to head to the office. And once at the office, I deleted the slide deck from the shared folder, opened it to go through it again, and turned into focused mode. An hour later I was much happier with the entire deck: the inconsistencies were banished, the flow was greatly improved, and the conclusion was almost perfect. A discussion over Zoom with James crystallised the final necessary changes, and the deck was really completed this time.

There’s a time for focused task-performance, and if you care properly for your brain, it will deliver the necessary task capabilities. But there must also be time for just being, letting your mind wander, and thinking in a different way. Delivering breakthroughs requires both.

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