- In The Shower — You’re standing there, water pouring off your head and body. And you know what you’re thinking about? Well, hopefully how clean you’re getting. But aside from that, probably not much. And that’s a great time for random thoughts to pop into your head. Engineers tend to think about engineering things; and maybe the way the water drips out of the edge of the shower makes you think about the thread design on the nozzle or ways to use teflon tape.
- While Running — Exercise tends to clear my head, unless I’m really tired or out of shape (hey, like now!). But on a good day, when my lungs aren’t screaming at me, I can use my running time to also run through scenarios from work or try and dream up solutions to problems I’m having.
- At the bench — I’m a firm believer that invention does not take place in a vacuum. If I’m working on electronics, it’s unlikely that I’ll have a worthwhile idea about airplane wing fluid dynamics that will have any substance in a real context. The expertise isn’t there. So being at the bench and having a stroke of inspiration, even a tangential bit of inspiration, can be very useful in brainstorming new ideas (i.e. working on precision electronics and think up a new use or application for them to be investigated later).
- At the computer? — I state this as a question because I’m not sure inspiration for a non-programming type of engineering will happen when sitting in front of a computer. Sure, there is lots of information at your fingertips, but does that help or hurt? My friend and former co-worker Dave Young recently wrote about this topic and how his former mentor advised him against dreaming and brainstorming at the computer; having the ease of use of that information will limit you.
- On the commode — Oh c’mon, like you’ve never come up with a brilliant idea while sitting there. Don’t lie to yourself! I can name 3 or 4 articles that were dreamt up (note: not inspired) while my mind wandered and my body did its thing. And no, I won’t name the articles.
- While Sleeping — This is tricky because you not only have to dream up an idea, you need to re-form it upon waking. I’ve never successfully translated an idea in a dream to a research topic, but I’m sure some people out there have. And there are stories of important processes and products being truly dreamed up and then developed during waking time. For example (though it’s a more science than engineering example): Friedrich Kekul von Stradonitz discovered the benzene ring structure in his dreams.
- In a Flotation/Isolation Tank — This is one I have tried and succeeded with before. You can read more about them on Wikipedia, but the basic idea is you remove all external stimulus and your brain utilizes all that excess brain power. For me, my mind went bonkers just thinking about idea after idea for a product I was working on at the time. The ideas didn’t pan out, but the sheer amount of seed ideas was unbelievable. If you’ve never tried a flotation tank, I highly recommend it. Doubly so if you have a mental block or need some inspiration and new ideas.
- While Driving — Though I highly recommend keeping your eyes on the road, I find my brain is more reactive than proactive. And when driving on long trips (and not listening to my favorite electronics podcast), my mind has drifted to aspects of work and how I might develop a new technology. It’s also important for me to remove stimulus such as music or talk radio. The rhythmic nature of the road can induce a sort of trance and your mind can easily wander (unless a truck decides to cut you off and hopefully your instinct kicks back in).
- While Sitting Idly — Scott Adams, author of the popular engineering cartoon Dilbert, also keeps a regular blog where he expounds upon engineering concepts and life in general. One of his recent posts was about the creative process and the necessity for being bored in order to come up with something truly creative. This is an extension of the flotation tank idea, but expanded into everyday life. If you consistently have stimulus from your phone, computer, TV, movies and other gadgets and gizmos, your brain will never have enough downtime to really crank on an idea.
One thing to note is that not all of these places are well-suited for capturing ideas. And perhaps that’s a future post for me or my other writers: How to capture ideas in a realistic and reliable way. Especially when you’re in the shower. Hmm…perhaps I’ve just been inspired to invent a waterproof pen! Do I need to “writing a blog post” as a place I dream up ideas?
Also of note, I don’t list items that are normally associated with work on this list: writing emails, attending meetings, talking to vendors, etc. Sure, all of these things might be necessary in the execution of creative ideas, but not the creation of the ideas. So I always find it interesting when a company encourages “innovation” and yet schedules no down time or time and place to tinker.
What about you? Where do you do your dreaming? Have you had inspiration strike in a consistent place? Do you do something repetitively in order to try and come up with that idea that will be “the next big thing”? Does your work ask you to perform in a creative capacity and if so, do they give you time to do so? Please let us know in the comments!
Thanks to v i p e z for the photo.