Break Through By Taking Breaks

This post, from Matthew E. May (In Pursuit of Elegance), originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum. While it was originally aimed at small business owners, the advice here is equally applicable to writers struggling with writers’ block, or who are feeling creatively "stuck".

Ever wonder why our best ideas come when we’re in the shower, driving, daydreaming, or sleeping? Most people know the story of Archimedes’ shouting “Eureka!” upon suddenly discovering volume displacement while taking a bath and of Einstein’s theory of special relativity coming to him in a daydream. But there are many others:

  • Friedrich von Stradonitz’s discovered the round shape of the benzene ring after dreaming about a snake biting its tail.
  • Philo Farnsworth was plowing a field gazing at the even rows when the idea for projecting moving images line by line came to him, leading him to invent the first electronic television.
  • Richard Feynman was watching someone throw a plate in the air in Cornell University’s cafeteria when the wobbling plate with its red school medallion spinning sparked the Nobel Prize-winning idea for quantum electrodynamics.
  • Kary Mullis, another Nobel winner, was driving along a California highway when the chemistry behind the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) came to him, stopping him in the middle of the road.
  • Car designer Irwin Liu sketched the innovative new lines of what became the shape of the first Toyota Prius after helping his child with an elementary school science project involving the manipulation of hard-boiled eggs.
  • Author J. K. Rowling was traveling on a train between Manchester and London, thinking about the plot of an adult novel, when the character of child wizard Harry Potter flashed in her mind.
  • Shell Oil engineer Jaap Van Ballegooijen’s idea for a snake oil drill came as he watched his son turn his bendy straw upside down to better sip around the sides and bottom of his malt glass.

When you look deeper into these ingeniously elegant solutions and brilliant flashes of insight you can see that they came at strange times and in random locations. They didn’t occur while actually working on the problem but after an intense, prolonged struggle with it followed by a break. A change of scene and time away seems to have played a part.

Read the rest of the post on the American Express OPEN Forum.