A Foolproof 3-Step Process for Creative Breakthroughs - THINKERS Notebook

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A Foolproof 3-Step Process for Creative Breakthroughs

Blink. Blink. Blink.

I was having trouble coming up with what to write for this week's newsletter.

As the cursor blinked on the screen in front of me, I sat stationary in front of my computer as my mind tried to wade through a muddy, foggy marshland of incoherent thoughts.

You've been there, right?

We can try our best to practice good thinking habits, but some days will always just be more difficult and distracting than others.

For me, it was the combination of a subpar night of sleep, my daughter's frequent interruptions (adorable as they may be), and my wife's steady stream of work calls ten feet away in our shared office.

Plus, I hadn't yet decided what this week's newsletter topic would be. So I didn't have a clear path forward to help me find focus.

Now look, I'm not complaining. I'm not making excuses. This was simply yesterday's obstacle that needed to be navigated on the path to creative breakthrough. 

Blink. Blink. Blink.


Finally, enough was enough. I needed to do something, anything to get my thinking redirected and refocused in a more productive direction.

So I made the easiest of choices: I got up and walked out. 

And it made all the difference.

Here's why:

1) I experienced the "doorway effect" on my way outside.

Wait, what? The simple act of walking through a doorway can matter?

Yes, apparently it can.

There is research by a team at Notre Dame led by Gabriel Radvansky showing that walking through doorways helps us forget. This is commonly referred to as the "doorway effect." 

As Charles Brenner summarizes in Scientific American:

"The doorway effect suggests that there's more to the remembering than just what you paid attention to, when it happened, and how hard you tried. Instead, some forms of memory seem to be optimized to keep information ready-to-hand until its shelf life expires, and then purge that information in favor of new stuff. Radvansky and colleagues call this sort of memory representation an “event model,” and propose that walking through a doorway is a good time to purge your event models because whatever happened in the old room is likely to become less relevant now that you have changed venues."

In other words: we seem to be hard-wired to forget the stuff we had previously been thinking about once we walk through a doorway.

Writer Molly Beauchemin takes it a step further, surmising that "if doorways can help you forget, they might also offer a fresh start."

She refers to her untested hypothesis as the "threshold effect." And to be fair, she stops well short of suggesting that it has any type of profound effect on our thinking. It's more subtle than that.

"Walking through doorways will not save you nor will it magically offer a solution to whatever is bothering you. It does, however, work rather effectively at breaking patterns of cyclical thinking.


"However you approach it, what’s clear is that the answers to your problems might not be looming on the other side of the door, but taking the time to pass through it at least orients you in the right direction. Perspective comes, at least in part, when you decide to make the effort."

So the next time you need a change in perspective or a shift in focus, just get up and walk through a doorway. It may seem silly, but it may be exactly what you need.

But the doorway effect alone is not going to help you experience a breakthrough. It's what you do next, with your focus shifted, that will make the difference.

2. Going for a walk stimulated my brain and body.

You don't need this newsletter to tell you about the importance of exercise.

And this importance is especially acute for those of us with jobs that require being in front of a computer for extended periods of time during the day.

But just because exercise is so obviously good for us doesn't mean it's always easy to incorporate into our days.

Or is it?

Think about some of the primary reasons why people avoid exercise:

  • It's strenuous.
  • It's expensive.
  • It's inconvenient.

What if there was a form of exercise that cut through all of those excuses and still offered proven mental and physical health benefits?

There is: walking.

This article summarizes six cognitive benefits of walking, including the release of endorphins and the important protein BDNF.

And Ferris Jabr of The New Yorker provided one of the most thorough summaries you'll ever find for why walking can be particularly helpful when writing:

"What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing?

The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention.

Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.

The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa."

So while you probably don't want to do your actual writing while walking, going for a walk to discover, collect, and organize your thoughts might just be the best thing you can do to prepare yourself for a productive writing or thinking session.

But it's only going to work out this way if you actually free your mind so it can wander. Which means you need to leave a certain something at home.

3. My thinking was neither distracted nor directed by my phone.

Usually when I go for a walk by myself, I use it as a time to catch up on a podcast.

It might be a silly sports podcast that is just fun to unwind with and half-listen to, or it might be a serious discussion about an important topic that I am interested in learning more about. 

The point is that I rarely, if ever, walk alone without some disembodied voice talking to me through a pair of headphones. And whatever that voice is talking about is going to pull my thinking in that direction.

And while that is not necessarily bad all the time, in this specific case -- when going for a walk specifically to help spur a creative breakthrough -- bringing my phone would have done nothing to help me work toward this goal.

And I don't mean just leaving it in my pocket but not having headphones on; I mean not bringing it at all. 

You know as well as I do that just having your phone in your pocket creates a constant, quiet desire to pull it out and find some kind of stimulation. And this creates a cognitive load that impairs thinking.

Not to mention, when you do look at your phone while walking it can lead to a reduction in the health benefits of the walk

Instead, next time, try ... just walking.

I walked for roughly 12 minutes yesterday. Just one loop around my street.

Without my phone to distract me, I was amazed at how many little details I noticed about the houses on my street, about the weather, about the trees, even about how my body felt as I walked. 

More importantly for our purposes here, I was amazed at how quickly the idea for this newsletter came together.

Keep this simple, reliable path toward creative breakthroughs in your back pocket

I went from almost literally banging my head against my desk while struggling to formulate a coherent idea and outline for this newsletter to having the whole thing laid out in my head ... within about five minutes of walking.

That's a powerful shift.

Would it have happened if I had sat stubbornly at my desk and tried to brute-force think my way through the mental fog? Highly doubtful. 

But by walking through a doorway to shift my focus, going for a walk to stimulate my mind and body, and leaving my phone at home to give my mind the space it needed to wander, I quickly experienced the exact creative breakthrough I was seeking.

Solutions to thinking problems don't get a whole lot more simple, scientifically backed, and even foolproof than that.

Try it the next time you are struggling to achieve a creative breakthrough. You might find that you're actually a lot closer than you think.


This Week in the THINKERS Workshop
There are two notable links from the THINKERS Workshop to direct your attention toward.

First, I just scheduled our next virtual happy hour, and all Workshop members are invited.

There is a twist with this one. We're calling it a virtual appy hour because we're going to give you a behind-the-scenes sneak peek at the next version of the THINKERS App.

And it's not going to be just a few tweaks here and there; it's going to be a complete overhaul that is going to make the THINKERS App one of the most advanced and intuitive note-taking apps ever built. So we're excited to show you our progress and get your feedback.

Second, Sean Jackson posted his latest Thursday essay. It's called The 5 Things Every Great Idea Must Have.

Yes, it starts with identifying and understanding a problem. And then there is so much more that must follow after that. Sean lays it all out in this short, insightful piece.


The THINKERS Workshop costs $499.99 per year to be a member. If you own a THINKERS Notebook, then you get a special discount. Just reply to this email and let me know you have a notebook, and I'll pass along the discount code.

Quote of the week

“Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” 

-- Henry David Thoreau