You are reading: Want More Aha! Moments? Try This

August | Personal Development | Read time: calculating...

Want More Aha! Moments? Try This

Powerful ideas often come to us when we’ve moved away from directly tackling a challenge, such as in the shower. But why, and how can organisations utilise this?

Key Insights

  • How to inspire more aha! moments in your life
  • What businesses can do to improve inspiration at work
  • The superpower of the subconscious mind

Best described as ‘a moment of sudden insight or discovery’, aha! moments can change the course of careers and companies. Some may put it down to divine inspiration, but we know there are many ways that individuals and businesses create more of these moments.

Naïvely, the “Aha! moment” was attributed by one author to Oprah Winfrey; in fact, it goes back to at least 1931. 

Under a different name, the idea dates even further back to the anecdote about Archimedes trying to find a method for determining the volume of an irregular object. Taking a break from the puzzle to take a bath, the story goes that he observed the displacement of the water and lept out into the city streets completely naked, yelling ‘Eureka!’ (Latin for, I found it!).

An issue with inspiration is that it can rarely be coerced. Actively focusing on working through a process (digesting, chunking, action) will usually limit the possibility of aha-innovation.

Powerful ideas often come to us when we’ve moved away from directly tackling a challenge, such as in the shower… or bath. But why, and how can organisations utilise this?

The power of the unconscious mind

Unconscious, subconscious, non-conscious – whatever you call it, we’re talking about parts of the mind that we are not actively aware of. These neural pathways are responsible for your heartbeat, hormonal systems, your equilibrium while walking down the street (and a whole lot more). They’re also emotionally reactive and not constricted by critical thinking.

We’ve all experienced those auto-pilot moments. Many of our daily actions or reactions require little input from our ego/consciousness/monkey mind. The conscious mind, with all its incredible reasoning abilities, has nowhere near the processing power of the subconscious. 

That’s the superpower we use to elicit an aha! moment.

Allow space for the mind to wander.

Much as we all like to think we’re fantastic at multitasking, in reality, we’re switching between tasks. If one of those tasks requires deep thinking, it’s horribly inefficient. It’s been proven time and again that no one can focus intently on more than one thing at a time. If you need a break, make it a silent one.

Findings published in Psychological Science showed that people made smarter decisions after just 15 minutes of undisturbed time because it made them more resistant to their own biases. 

In the study, they directed participants to meditate (highly recommended), although a quiet, minimally stimulating place may be just as beneficial. Take your shoes off at the local park, stake out some thinking time in a conference room.

We also need to quiet any guilt and worry about how we’ll solve the problem; these thoughts only cloud our judgement. There is a solution. Relax. You can’t make good decisions if you’re stressed, so why would you come up with good ideas in that state?

“Inspiration may be a form of superconsciousness, or perhaps subconsciousness–I wouldn’t know. But I am sure that it is the antithesis of self-consciousness.”

Aaron Copland

It’s time to do something else

Washing up. Going for a walk around the block. Making tea.

These sort of actions are somewhere between consciousness and the unconscious. Autopilot tasks are perfect to let the mind wander; like a radio-free drive to work, or a long cycle around your neighbourhood. Here is when you’ll notice that your internal dialogue might start meandering, reminiscing, predicting and doing its thing.

The last thing we or our employees should feel is that we’re chained to a desk when problem-solving or searching for an aha! moment.

Empty your brain each morning

Too much internal chatter to hear yourself think? Try morning pages. If you’re not familiar, that’s handwriting three full pages each morning, before the distractions of the day begin. 

Somewhere between automatic writing and journaling, the concept of morning pages was brought to popularity through Julia Cameron’s bestselling book The Artist’s Way. Morning pages can be a powerful way to empty your buzzing subconscious onto the page to make room for clear thinking and inspiration.

The rules: you can write whatever you like – throw in a drawing, whatever –  as you’ll never show these pages to anyone. Keep writing, even if you can only think of: “I have nothing to write.” As a regular habit each morning, many famous creatives, filmmakers etc. swear by morning pages as a powerful exercise in cleansing the clutter of the mind.

“A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.”

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

A good night’s sleep, of course

It might not be such a good idea to double dose espresso and burn the midnight oil trying to solve a problem. 

There’s solid reasoning in why we recommend people ‘sleep on it’. After the haze of a day’s decisions, waste matter builds up in the brain which affects cognitive processes. This matter is cleaned up through normal, natural sleep cycles. There’s also some evidence that a short midday nap can improve alertness, and has positive effects upon the maintenance of daytime vigilance level.

There are countless tales of visions and deeper understanding attained through sleep, for example, this fascinating story on how the periodic table eventually became the shape we know it today, as told by the late Oliver Sacks.

Looking over your key challenge or area of interest prior to sleep or a nap may well offer up the insight for which you’re searching.

How can businesses encourage more aha moments?

Many organisations have a pressure-cooker culture, aimed to maximise the outputs of workers for every hour they are in the office. But most businesses are not producing ‘products’ in the manner of a Henry Ford assembly line. We have a whole industry of knowledge workers. The antiquated 9-5 methodology leaves no time or room for innovation.

As a leader, are you paying your people for the length of a report or the quality of the information and insights contained within?

Organisations looking to innovate would do well to become less rigid about scheduled hours and working from home policies. On a cultural level, preventing back-to-back meetings and stress-inducing timeframes will afford your team the mental space to let good ideas flow. 

We’ve seen success in large organisations allowing employees to structure their own day/week (once outcomes have been set). Doing so lets them choose when to problem solve,  opening the door to the next major creative innovation. Many of the tech giants and some of our own partners have introduced modular break-out rooms, nap areas and places to connect with nature for this purpose.

Ultimately it comes down to leaders trusting their people, allowing space for inspiration, and knowing that they’ll act in the best interests of the company. When a leadership team holds this attitude, the results can be truly inspiring.

Jump to a section

1. Aha Moments
2. The power of the unconscious mind
3. Allow space for the mind to wander
4. It is time to do something else
5. Empty your brain each morning
6. How can businesses encourage more aha moments?