Aha! Moment on Steroids: Focus... Let Go... Repeat

Aha! Moment on Steroids: Focus... Let Go... Repeat

Create February 08, 2012 / By Ben Weinlick
Aha! Moment on Steroids: Focus... Let Go... Repeat

Alternating focusing on a challenge with scheduled time to let go will help to foster fresh insights and creativity

Okay, here is a counterintuitive idea…

When you are really working hard on a challenge… like right in the middle of it, pause and do something completely different. Alternating focusing on a challenge with letting go completely will help to foster fresh insights, creativity, and more relevant solutions (Knoblich and Oelinger, 2006).

Maybe stemming from the industrial revolution paradigm our western education system comes from, or from praise we received in the past for stick-to-itiveness behaviors, it is often thought that we will find the best, most creative solutions by sticking to our challenge, keeping busy, and carrying on till the end. With this thinking style we might think we just have to do our part, hunker down and the right solution will emerge sooner or later. Perseverance like this is great for following through on a chosen course of action, but not usually the case when trying to come up with fresh and relevant ideas for a challenge. Research is beginning to show that actually we don’t come up with relevant, creative solutions when we only get ‘serious’ about a challenge and don’t leave room for play, letting go and different modes of thinking (Knoblich and Oelinger, 2006, Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, Kraft, 2005).

Knoblich & Oelinger found that maximizing the conditions for creative thoughts requires two basic ingredients: focusing on the rules and norms accepted within the domain in which one is trying to be creative and taking time to relax, play, or do something unrelated to the problem for which one is trying to find creative ideas. Csikszentmihalyi and Kraft, also advised people to increase their creativity by consciously taking time after focusing on a problem to relax, daydream, and ponder, because, ironically, these are the times during which new insights and ideas often arise. There are many stories throughout history of people finding creative ideas, or aha moments when they least expect it or when they are not actually focusing all their attention on a challenge. For example, the word Eureka (I’ve found it) was expressed when Archimedes discovered a way to measure the volume of irregularly shaped objects as he stepped into his bathtub. Richard Feynman realized one of his Nobel winning physics insights while on a break and watching students spin plates in the Cornell University cafeteria. I’m sure we can all relate an experience or two where an insight or answer to a problem bubbled up at an unexpected moment.

One ‘aha’ moment about ‘aha’ moments came to me when I was helping my daughter learn how to ride her bike without training wheels (see video below). She was so intent on riding by herself, she would immediately jump up after falling down, get on the bike and try to pedal again as fast as she could… until she fell down again within a couple of feet. When this method didn’t really work, I gave unsolicited fatherly ‘advice’ to try getting up, sitting on the bike for a moment, taking a deep breath, and then calmly starting again. Being an annoying dad, she mostly just got mad at me for “not getting it”. When she finally tried what was counterintuitive, she found she could go farther and was better at riding through unexpected obstacles along the way. This style of focusing and then relaxing helped her to learn. What makes this kind of relaxing different is that it is consciously engaged and there is often a lot of energy ready to rock when you take a break when things are still fresh. It is a dynamic resting space, not dull or indifferent which often follows being burned out by rigidly carrying on in the same rut.

To practically apply focusing and letting go…

Too often we take breaks once we feel we are stuck or have completed certain aspects of a project. What might help to increase the quality of creative ideas is to schedule time to take breaks and do completely different activities. It could mean in a creative problem solving meeting everyone takes a pause and does something totally out of the ordinary…something fun is best. Taking time to play, relax, and engage in unrelated activities helps to temper a rigid focus that can keep a person or team stubbornly locked into assumptions about a subject (Knoblich and Oelinger).

Core principles

1. Get to know the domain of interest (learn the established rules and what rules can be broken)
2. Engage a creative process
3. Consciously take breaks when things are going really well and do something totally different
4. Repeat the process and surprising insights and fresh ideas to a challenge will emerge.

This is not some kind of advocacy for anarchy, it is more about understanding the natural rythyms of sucessful creativity so we can put that to good use.

Ben Weinlick, MA


Further Reading

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown, 2010

A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, Roger Von Oech, 2008


Knoblich, G., & Oelinger, M. (2006, October/November). The eureka moment. Scientific America: Mind, pp. 38 41.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity. New York: Harper Collins.

Kraft, U. (2005). Unleashing creativity. Scientific America: Mind, 16(1), 17 23.

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