The Best Ideas Come From Stillness


My yoga instructor Alice, while distracting the class from the most painful hip opener — oops, we don’t have pain in yoga we have intense sensation — said  ” The greatest yoga masters are not those who can contort their bodies into pretzels or hold themselves up by one finger, the greatest yogis are those who practice in stillness.” At the moment I found little comfort in the comment, but I did take a deep breath and try to still myself. The sensation didn’t go away, but I did find something new in the pose. I still felt discomfort in my hip, but I found stillness in the rest of my body which I hadn’t even realized was tensely holding onto itself. My shoulders relaxed, my neck released and my breath steadied.

Since that class I have been paying attention to stillness around me. Or if you know me – a lack of stillness! I hang up the phone and without pause dial into another conference call. I finish writing an article and open my to-do list looking for the next task. I even get dressed while multi-tasking, reviewing my children’s daily schedule with my husband.

In a mini-experiment I started to document when new ideas came to me. What had I done right before? Wouldn’t you know it – my best ideas came in moments of quiet. In my busy world that meant usually at 4am when I couldn’t sleep  or in the bathroom.  Yes, I know in the bathroom sounds unpleasant; but ever since my children were babies the bathroom was my one place of escape. My upstairs bathroom has two doors which cut it off from the rest of the house and it always took the kids a few minutes to find me there.

Now that I convinced myself that creativity strikes in moments of stillness I wanted to create more opportunity for quiet. The trick was I needed to do this without dropping billable productivity. I started to take just a few minutes of transition between tasks and found a surprising amount of time to contemplate what I had just completed without  dropping things off the to-do list.

Here’s how I did it:

Find quiet spaces. I’m fortunate to spend a lot of time at local client offices. Some of which are open environments with music, lots of activity and complete transparency. I love the energy I get from visiting with them. Open spaces are great for collaboration. The close proximity encourages real-time coaching, idea sharing and over-hearing inspiration. But stillness is not a strength of the close proximity. So when I’m on-site in these environments I book meetings rooms for 10 minutes longer than I expect a meeting to run. The extra few minutes let’s me collect my thoughts about the meeting we just completed. I jot down follow-up to-dos, but more importantly I have a few minutes alone in the conference room to evaluate who seemed on-board and who still has unanswered questions. I also get to prepare for what task follows.

Keep an idea journal. Some people like formal leather-bound journal that they take everywhere. Personally, I use a combination of several tools. It might sound a bit disorganized but it works for me. I use a notebook that comes to most meetings, the notes feature on my phone for those times when I’m traveling light and sticky notes by my bed. When I have an idea, even an incomplete one, I take time to write it down – I’ll worry later about whether it is a good idea.

Control my schedule.  It is very tempting to squeeze in call after call, meeting after meeting, STOP. If you treat your schedule like changing classes at school you’ll find moments of stillness easily. Think back to when you were in high school and the bell rang. What’s the first thing that you did? Pack up your books and head out to find friends on your way to the next class. The transition in the schedule wasn’t just about walking to your next class- it was about reframing your thinking for the next session. During that time you talked to your friends “Can you believe Mr. Smith assigned us that homework?”, “What did you think of Jane’s presentation?” “Did Jack ask Jill out?” Or maybe you crammed for the pop quiz your friend said to expect. The point is – there was planned transition between tasks. Just because we’re out of school doesn’t mean we won’t benefit from some free space to think. Build 10 minutes of transition into your schedule between calls or meetings and you won’t regret it.

Take pause. At the end of longer meetings take 5 minutes to ask everyone one thing they learned? By forcing our brains to answer that simple question we take something away from the meeting we might otherwise have missed. And when we do this often we train ourselves to expect this question and retain the discussions being had – even when the question isn’t asked at the end.

Use my camera phone.  I take pictures of things around me all the time. Most of which I never publish – but all of which help me when I need a little inspiration. More  important than the ability to conjure up the image later, is that the act of taking a picture makes me pause to consider what’s happening around me. By putting my eye to my phone I am forced to look at my surroundings from a different perspective, to see things I might have missed before. That picture could be a butterfly sitting quietly in the window, or clouds rolling in with gusto, or a doodle someone drew on the whiteboard. The subject doesn’t matter so much as the act of noticing it.

Rest assured every moment of stillness will not result in greatness. However, after some practice you stop feeling like those moments are a waste of time and start recognizing them for what they are – an opportunity to think. And without the opportunity to freely think you can’t possibly innovate.