Creating Room for Aha! Moments in a Time of Social Isolation
By Jeanne Blake
Clients often tell me their biggest challenge in working remotely is the lack of spontaneous interaction with co-workers – a particular sense of connection possible only in person.
One client, Tirtha, offered this analogy: “The Golden Gate Bridge is tons of steel and a million nuts and bolts. But it’s the Golden Gate Bridge! Our days in the office are made up of a million minor exchanges – a random hallway exchange or a laugh over spilled coffee. These tiny moments that bring us together are missing right now.”
As a result, Tirtha finds many days monotonous and exhausting.
We humans are wired to connect. We’re energized by touching base and sharing moments with colleagues. “You can sustain something longer when connected with other people,” says Dr. Paula Rauch, a psychiatrist at Mass General Hospital. “When these low-level, spontaneous points of connection are lost, you’ve removed bursts of positive energy.”
This is one reason many feel less productive and creative. While Zoom has its advantages, it squelches spontaneity. “We have multiple lines of thought in our head,” one client observes. “In-person spontaneous conversations helps ideas take shape.” Without the spark of these interactions, disparate thoughts often fail to coalesce into a cogent – maybe even marketable – idea.
Ellen, another client, hesitates to phone colleagues to bounce an idea off them. “Just because the timing is good for me, that doesn’t mean it is for someone else,” she says. “In the office I can see whether someone is free.”
So far, none of my clients have offered a satisfying work-around for the restriction on spontaneous interactions. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke to this in a Wall Street Journal article, “Social bond building, culture, creativity, whiteboarding and brainstorming … is more ad hoc,” he said.“ Videoconferencing is fairly transactional.”
But even when we’re contact-deprived, there’s evidence we can take steps to foster our own creative thinking – to make room for valuable “Aha!” moments.
Albert Einstein’s sister Maja once recounted how her brother would get stuck on a problem and step away to play the piano. Afterwards he’d get up and say, “Now I’ve got it!”
What happens in the brain to produce that “Aha!” moment? Psychologist Dan Goleman, author of the influential book Emotional Intelligence, says the way to maximize the chance for these moments is to concentrate intently on a goal or problem, and then to relax and let go. “The converse of letting go — trying to force an insight — can inadvertently stifle creative breakthrough,” he says.
Goleman explains that letting go is characterized by a high alpha rhythm. He says this “signals mental relaxation, a state of openness, of daydreaming and drifting, where we’re more receptive to new ideas.” This sets the stage for “Aha!” moments.
It can be difficult to pry ourselves away from our computers. When I read Goleman’s book a decade ago, I was writing a book. Deadlines loomed. When I stepped away, I initially felt I was squandering precious time. But I forced myself to close my computer and head to a nearby pool. Lap after lap, my brain quieted down and often an idea burst forth. Today, taking a break – for a walk or to meditate – is a well-formed habit.
When another client, Sadik, zones out during meetings, he knows it’s time to take a break. “I don’t want to be the person showing up to meetings just to check the box,” he says. “When I take time to play with my kids, ride my bike or feed our chickens, I have a better chance of making a contribution when I re-engage. It’s counter-intuitive to step away, which is why it’s so hard.”
So, amid our long, tightly scheduled, Zoom-filled days, we need to be intentional about taking and making time to step away. It’s not just the smart thing to do but vital to our creativity and productivity.