James Prudhomme was camping on a beach in Nassau when he made a major career decision. Faced with a choice between an offer of a secure job at a large firm and a chance to join tiny Montreal tech start-up Recoset as its CEO, he took a month-long yoga and meditation retreat in the Bahamas. And it was there that he decided on joining Recoset—a tectonic career shift for the longtime AOL executive.
It may seem counterintuitive, but managers who spend time doing absolutely nothing are often quicker to come up with bold new products, business strategies or even career changes. A growing chorus of business leaders and psychologists suggest that great bosses carve out time for themselves to think. Strangely enough, it’s the execs with open-door policies who meet with a constant stream of people each day who may be closed to new ideas. It’s only when distractions are minimized that inspiration has a chance to strike.
When he headed Microsoft, Bill Gates took twice-yearly “think weeks” from which friends, family and employees were banned. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos goes on three-day solo retreats four times a year and writes a short memo summarizing his insights upon his return. Not all of them contain strokes of genius, but one of those breaks resulted in the Kindle book reader.
“It gives you a chance to explore the longer-term opportunities,” says Prudhomme, “to visualize and manifest what you want things to look like.”
Psychologists who research what makes people creative say innovative thinking isn’t just something a lucky few are born with. It can be engineered, to some extent, in anyone. One way to do that is by unshackling yourself from your to-do list. When overscheduled execs are focused on a never-ending list of tasks, they are limited to short-term, linear thinking, explains Beth Altringer, a psychologist at Harvard’s experimental idea generation program, the Laboratory. There, she teaches courses with names like How to Create Things and Have Them Matter.
“Creative thinking is a much more exploratory process,” she says. Taking a break allows the mind to shift into what is known as associative thinking, in which new connections are forged between old ideas.
Jonah Lehrer, author of the new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, says slacking off from time to time is important. In a recent article in the U.K. edition of Wired, he describes a study by Simone Ritter, a PhD student at Radboud University, Nijmegen, where two groups of students were asked to consider the problem of long grocery-store lineups, and then to choose from a series of possible solutions. The teams’ brainstorming processes were much the same, but while one of the groups set straight to work, the other was encouraged to play video games first. The procrastinators proved better at picking the best solutions.
The explanation for why procrastinating might be good for us lies in the brain’s right hemisphere, writes Lehrer, where relaxation stimulates what neuroscientists call alpha-wave radiation. Studies show that without these waves, people have trouble solving insight puzzles—riddle-like brain teasers in which solutions presents themselves when approached from different angles.
A long to-do list can also lead to stress, which leads to decision fatigue, says Altringer. That’s a phenomenon psychologists have just discovered where the more choices you make in a day, the worse those choices get as the hours tick by—and the more the brain takes easy, unimaginative shortcuts.
That said, how many managers feel comfortable ignoring their smartphones for a day, let alone for months or week? Dominic Barton, the global managing director of management consulting firm McKinsey, believes it’s as easy as finding two hours a week to be alone with one’s thoughts. “It’s like a board meeting, but it’s with yourself,” he explains. “You block that off, and you can do whatever you want in that time. I tell everyone, ‘Don’t bother me.’ I just close the door.”
Kick-starting the brain’s creative engine can be easier still. Altringer says taking a different route to the office can break the brain out of tired thinking patterns. Barton recommends picking up a brainy bestseller—such as Robert A. Caro’s recent tome on U.S. president Lyndon Johnson—to peruse on a long-haul flight. Even a round of golf has restorative value, says Prudhomme. “For me, it works well to get downtime from a retreat, but other people like to coach kids’ hockey.” So there you have it: a great excuse to play more golf.