Generally, our minds have no problem with coming up with lots of ideas — it’s fairly easy for us to think about creating something new. And with perseverance, we can often turn our ideas into reality.
But too frequently, we don’t recognize which ideas should have just stayed in our minds until we’ve already expended our time, our energy and our resources — just think about New Coke, Qwikster or M. Night Shyamalan.
So is there way for us to better determine which ideas are worth pursuing in the first place, and which are not?
It turns out that there is. While hard work is the way ideas get actualized, rest is an effective way for us to evaluate our ideas.
In a recent article for Wired, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment which shows the value of a mental break. In this study, 112 students were given two minutes to create as many solutions as possible to the problem of how to improve the experience of waiting on line for the cash register. Half the group was then told to go straight to work with no break, while the other half played a unrelated video game for two minutes, giving their brains a short respite.
While both groups came up with the same number of ideas, there was a huge difference in terms of how well they recognized good ideas. As Lehrer explains:
[G]iving the unconscious a few minutes…proved to be a big advantage, as those who had been distracted were much better at identifying their best ideas. (An independent panel of experts scored all of the ideas.) While those in the conscious condition only picked their most innovative concepts about 20 percent of the time — they confused their genius with their mediocrity — those who had been distracted located their best ideas about 55 percent of the time. In other words, they were twice as good at figuring out which concepts deserved more attention.
And yet it’s not simply taking a break that helps us evaluate our ideas — it’s also about using that rest to engender positive feelings. As Lehrer tells us, “Taking a break is important. But make sure you do something that makes you happy, as positive moods make us even better at diagnosing the value of our creative work.”
So rest and joy are two things that can help us assess our ideas before we try to transform them into reality. And those two aspects are what define one of Judaism’s signature contributions to the world — Shabbat.
Judaism recognizes that unbridled creativity isn’t all that constructive. And so Jewish tradition has even set up guidelines to help us deliberately stop creating. According to the Mishnah, there are thirty-nine specific activities that are prohibited on Shabbat, which include lighting fires, writing, and cooking. The common theme among those thirty-nine items (called melakhot) is that they were the specific actions that the Israelites undertook when the were building the mishkan, the dwelling-place for God.
So even though building the mishkan was sacred work, the Torah reminds us that even sacred work needs to stop for one day a week. And to the Rabbis, that meant that no matter how important our work may be, on Shabbat, anything we want to make, anything we want to do, anything we want to design — it has to wait.
And yet taking a break is only part of Shabbat. While we are supposed to be intentionally non-creative on that day, the Rabbis also outline certain things we should do to help make Shabbat a day of joy and peace. Not only are we supposed to shamor, “guard” Shabbat by avoiding certain tasks, we are also supposed to zachor, “remember” Shabbat by elevating our sense of holiness and delight.
So on Shabbat, we’re supposed to have a festive meal, with special food and a celebratory atmosphere. We’re supposed to be with friends and family — and to truly be with them. We’re supposed to read, to reflect, and to rediscover the blessings in our lives.
Ultimately, Shabbat is there to remind us that it’s far too easy for us to fall into the trap of constant business and constant busyness. And as Lehrer argues, constant creativity prevents us from distinguishing mediocrity from excellence.
So if we want to invest our precious resources in developing only our best ideas, then we need to structure our time so that we have an opportunity to stop creating, and give our brains a rest.
(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses.)