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Try ‘mind wandering’ – it’s a no-brainer

Now you’ve got the time, you just might have your best ideas in the shower. Here’s why.

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Having escaped strict demands, deadlines, and solving family and corporate problems, retirees are well placed to experience the creative benefits of letting their minds wander.

Some call it daydreaming but there’s more to it than that.

The sad fact is that many of us put creativity aside during our working lives. The good news is that creativity does not decline as we age.

Scientists have found we can have some of our best eureka moments, and most creative ideas, in the shower. Or walking in the forest or doing some moderate activity that’s been derogatively labelled as a “mindless task”.

Zac Irving, a University of Virginia assistant professor of philosophy, says the secret is that the task isn’t truly mindless. A moderate level of engagement is required.

“Say you’re stuck on a problem,” Dr Irving said. “What do you do? Probably not something mind-numbingly boring like watching paint dry.

“Instead, you do something to occupy yourself, like going for a walk, gardening, or taking a shower. All these activities are moderately engaging.”

When we perform an “undemanding” task, our brains tend to wander; and when our brains wander, creativity flows.

Dr Irving pointed to research in 2012 that showed “mind-wandering seems to benefit creativity and creative incubation”.

Types of thinking

It seems our brains have different modes of thinking that influence our creativity:

Convergent thinking is the decision-making process that results in choosing the most logical or correct solution to a problem.

Divergent thinking is the creative process that produces multiple ideas that may follow many lines of thought, tending to generate new and original solutions to problems.

It’s divergent thinking that leads to our brilliant shower thoughts, according to the University of Queensland’s Dr Alan Pegna.

We’re at our most creative when we think outside the box — for example, by connecting things that that we wouldn’t normally think of.

"When you are in a situation, such as having a shower or going for a walk in the forest, you essentially stop being focused on a goal [and] your mind starts to wander,” Dr Pegna told the ABC.

"It’s this positive, constructive aspect of mind wandering – of positive daydreaming, if you like – that brings up ideas, and then suddenly associating things randomly and coming up with stuff that you haven’t thought of before.”

So, the best advice is to nurture your abilities to think outside the square. That could mean ruminating over a tricky problem in the shower, or letting your mind roam free during a walk.

Tips for creativity

Just letting the mind wander can be rewarding enough, but if you want to turn that into something a little more permanent then here are some tips:

  • Keep a journal or diary – where you record your wandering thoughts and ideas. What you’ve written could be even more useful later on.
  • Spark creativity by doodling. Just casually draw, don’t place a high expectation on yourself to produce great art.

  • Create growth experiences for yourself. Experience something new, exciting, and meaningful. And nurture those times, activities, and settings that produce mind wandering.

  • Express yourself through writing. Just as you can create beautiful paintings with a brush, you can paint amazing stories with words, expressing your deepest emotions, feelings, or concerns. Did you know poetry writing lowers stress and anxiety, wards off depression, and even improves memory among seniors? Alternatively, try writing short stories or even a memoir, and surprise yourself and others with your creative ideas.

  • Photography. Instead of just spending time on family photos and selfies, try to concentrate on more artistic photos by zooming in on small details like flower petals or insects. There are lots of books, videos, and other resources for inspiration.

Related reading: University of Virginia, Psycnet, ABC, Second Wind Movement

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