“If a plant gets nothing but sunlight, it's very harmful. It must have darkness too.” – Robert Pirsig
Did you know that if a plant gets nothing but sunlight, it's extremely harmful and even deadly? It must have darkness as well. In the sun, it converts carbon dioxide to oxygen, but in the dark, it takes some oxygen and converts it back into carbon dioxide.
People, as it turns out, are the same. We need periods of darkness – essentially doing nothing – to develop ideas and/or internalize new ones. We often refer to it as “soak time” – the time where you let your mind just soak stuff in, subconsciously thinking about things. This, inevitably, helps your understanding and allows your creative juices to work.
Turns out many creative folks embrace the concept of soak time.
The film director Quentin Tarantino outlines his creative process and the role of soak time. This is his approach. He basically writes during the daytime. Then after a while, he stops writing. Now comes the key part of his process, he says. “I have a pool, and I keep it heated. And I jump in my pool and just float around in the water…and then, boom, a lot of shit will come to me. Literally, a ton of ideas. Then I get out of the pool and make notes on that. But not do it. That will be tomorrow's work. Or the day after. Or the day after that.” Another filmmaker, Darren Aronofsky, said, “procrastination is a critical part of the process. Your brain needs a break…so that even when you're not working, you're working. Your brain is putting shit together.”
In his excellent book, Deep Work, Cal Newport teaches the benefits of downtime. One study by Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis showed that when working on a complex problem or decision, you should let your unconscious mind work on it as much as possible. Anders Ericsson wrote a seminal paper, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” which showed that our brains have a limited window for cognitively demanding efforts. “Decades of study from multiple fields within psychology,” Newport writes, “all conclude that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your work.”
For us, soak time is a core component of our approach to help people change and embrace new technologies and ideas like flowcasting. It's why we start the education process very early – so people have time to soak in the new thinking, ponder it and slowly accept it (hopefully).
Designing new processes and work methods also benefits from regular and ongoing doses of soak time. Instead of plowing through a design phase, grinding your way through session after session, a far better approach is to work on some aspect of the design, then let it sit, or go dark for a while. Subconsciously though, that beautiful brain of yours can't turn off the tap – and will be thinking and pondering even when you've gone dark on that topic. The result? Better designs and solutions, guaranteed.
When I consult with retail clients, I'm aghast at how little soak time is built into people's calendars, especially for folks that work in Home Office or Support Centres. Everybody seems to be busy doing busywork, and there's barely time to schedule a 30-minute session, let alone have some soak time. The organization would be far better off by scheduling 20-50% of slack time for all these folks – essentially blocking off time for them to daydream, read, walk, or just do nothing at all. Let the mind wander and subconsciously connect things.
In both my Canadian and UK home offices I have a couch. When I need to let things soak, I sometimes go for a walk, or most of the time, I just lay down and do nothing. Just rest and relax and let the mind soak for a while. I do it often, almost every day and for some period.
Does it help? Yes, I think it does. Sure, over time, most of my ideas have been shit, but the odd decent one slips through. I'm convinced it's because of nurturing it with soak time.
If you're delivering projects or have a job that requires you to develop new ideas and initiatives, then my advice is simple: plan and schedule lots of soak time.
Maybe also get a couch so when you need to, you can just lie down and relax, breath slowly and let your mind wander and connect stuff, all while converting oxygen to carbon dioxide.
Sorta like a plant does.