I Figured Out Why Long Showers Make You Creative

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If you’ve lived with me in the past, or know somebody who has, you may know that I’m famous for taking extraordinarily long showers. We’re talking 45 minutes of depleting the house’s supply of hot water, making all my roommates late for something, and sparking countless jokes about what it is I’m doing in there for so long...

All the meanwhile, I have been completely and totally unapologetic about this quirk. I’ve always told my roommates, “If I’m in there and you need the bathroom, just tell me, and I’ll get out!” To which they would reply, “why can’t you just take shorter showers?!”

When I lived with 9 other people in one house, I even took it so far as to develop a knock-on-the-door code to let me know your level of urgency:

 

1 knock: “Hey, just letting you know I’m waiting to get in there.”
2 knocks: “Yo actually I’m running late please hurry a bit”
3 knocks: “I really need the toilet and am actually concerned that I might not make it”
4 knocks: - “DUDE GTFO I'M GONNA MISS AN EXAM”
5+ knocks: - "MAYDAY, EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY"

This worked beautifully! Any time I was in the shower and I heard a knock, I would promptly wrap it up and move along. This especially helped my roommate relationships, as it prevented them from sitting outside the bathroom and hating me more and more every second that went by, all while I had no clue I was holding them up. Protip: if your roommate is doing anything at all that bothers you and you haven’t EXPLICITLY  and DIRECTLY voiced the concern, it’s 100% your fault. Not theirs.

Anyway, why the heck did I go so far as inventing a language just so that I can stay in the shower for so long?! For a long time, I didn’t really know. I just said, "I’m an adult, eff off."

More recently, as more and more insights came to me while showering, I realized that it was because it was the only time of the day that I could truly be alone and free with my thoughts. No screens, no distractions, no demands for my attention. Just thinking.

Many of my biggest life conundrums have been solved in the shower, from software architecture, to musical arrangements, to interpersonal conflicts. More importantly, I simply come up with more ideas and think more creatively while in the shower. Wtf? This made no sense to me. The worst part is that once I get out, get dressed, and am ready to do something, the idea has often fluttered away. There must be a way for me to achieve this level of creativity in a way that doesn’t greatly inconvenience those who live with me, that doesn’t waste so much water, and that allows me to actually capture these thoughts.

So, I took to Google, and it turns out that this is a known scientific phenomenon.

As Mentalfloss explains:

Research shows you’re more likely to have a creative epiphany when you’re doing something monotonous, like fishing, exercising, or showering. Since these routines don’t require much thought, you flip to autopilot. This frees up your unconscious to work on something else. Your mind goes wandering, leaving your brain to quietly play a no-holds-barred game of free association.

This kind of daydreaming relaxes the prefrontal cortex—the brain’s command center for decisions, goals, and behavior. It also switches on the rest of your brain’s “default mode network” (DMN) clearing the pathways that connect different regions of your noggin. With your cortex loosened up and your DMN switched on, you can make new, creative connections that your conscious mind would have dismissed.
— Mentalfloss

This makes sense! Come to mention it, my greatest inspirations have come to me in this state outside of the shower:

  • My best a cappella arrangement, Blue Ridge Mountains, was entirely mapped out in my head by listening to the original song on repeat for an entire two-hour, highly caffeinated train ride.
  • My biggest architecture breakthrough in building Enye came to me in the squat rack at City Fitness.
  • The inspiration - and name - for Leavit, my simple solution to package loss and theft, came to me while walking my dog Dublin around Fishtown.

All this time, my biggest creative and inspirational breakthroughs came in the Default Mode Network. Oh DMN!

So, how can I ensure that I enter DMN more often outside of the shower and increase my overall creative output?

It turns out, there are three ingredients to making it happen.

1: Don’t force it, but always Be Ready

This is one of the major things I’ve done wrong for so long. It's broken into two converse points:

  • When you sit down and think really hard to generate something creative, good ideas are nearly impossible to come by.

  • When you actually do get a novel idea, it's at a random time and place, and you’re not prepared to capture and build upon the idea, so it drifts away.

Sooo many times have I sat down in front of my midi instruments and said, “Ok stud, make a song!” Then, after 3 painstaking, pressure-laden, self-esteem-lowering hours of trying to come up with something, I give up, dejected and discouraged.

5 years later, I still don’t have a SoundCloud with original music. Mind you, I have had plenty of ideas for original songs at totally random times and places. Those ideas just never came when I was prepared for them, so they were lost.

To explain why you can’t just flip a switch to come up with creative ideas, Wired spoke to Dr. John Kounios, a Drexel psychologist studying creativity and distraction: 

When you are working on a problem your brain tends to fixate on one or a few different strategies. Kounios says these are like ruts that your mental wheels get stuck in. ‘If you take a break; however, those thought patterns no longer dominate your thinking,’ he said. The problem gets removed from the mental ruts and mingles with other ideas you’re carrying in your head. Eventually, it finds one—or several—that click together and rise up like Voltron into a solution. This is called ‘fixation forgetting.’
— Wired

So, you need to be okay with the fact that sometimes you simply won’t come up with something. When you sit down with pen in hand to come up with genius, it’s just not likely to strike. Then, of course, that brain blast moment will happen when you finally let your mind loose. (Very much unlike how Jimmy Neutron did it.)

 
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Eureka!

I’m not the only one who has fallen into the futile "ok brain, come up with something now!" mindset. In fact, Archimedes had the O.G. eureka moment.

He spent days trying to figure out how to test whether King Hieron II got ripped of by a smith who allegedly slipped silver into his gold crown.

Guess where he finally came up with the ultimate test? THE SHOWER. Ok, the bath - same thing. He figured out that you could compare the volume of the crown with a block of gold that weighed the same by dipping it in water, since silver is less dense than gold, and the difference in volume would mean different levels of water displacement. Eureka!

Btw, where can I get one of those dope bath hats? Maybe you have to be totally ripped to get one...

The key to this, though, is that you must be ready to capture creativity whenever it may strike. For me, this is achieved by carrying a notebook around in my backpack, which is almost always with me. But, admittedly, a pocket notebook would likely be more effective. And yes, I’m considering ordering this waterproof shower notepad.

So once you’re constantly ready to capture the creative fire, how to you start it?

 

2: Create Your Mind Oasis

This is best explained by revered British comedian John Cleese:

 
 

 

Sidebar: I want to call out how he calls creativity a “mood.” I LOVE THIS. I’ve heard so many bright people say to me, “I wish I was creative.” Creativity is not a skill or an attribute that you’re born with, it’s a state of mind. And, it’s not always about creating some form of art, or performance, or new app or product. Coming up with an alternative meeting cadence, a new way to make Mac and cheese, or even morse code to let your bathroom-occupying roommate know you have to poop. If you feel that you aren’t or haven’t been creative at all, maybe try to step back from the constant time-management and “hustle.”

 

For the lazy or those unable to watch, basically he’s saying that you need to create a creative space where you cannot be interrupted, and enter that space for a time-boxed period. Whether you tell your assistant to hold all calls for the next hour, or you go sit in the local park for 30 minutes without a phone or book, you’ll have that “tortoise shell.”

It’s important to note that there’s more to ‘creating an oasis’ than simply shutting out other people. If you’re listening to music, you should listen to music that you know very well and can “zone out” to while listening, rather than new-to-you music whose lyrics or melodies pique your interest. Wordpress founder Matt Mullenweg will even listen to one single song on repeat for an hour or more

If you go for a stroll, do it in a super familiar park where you’ve seen the scene a million times and can have that “woah I’ve been walking for 10 minutes and kinda can’t remember getting here” moment. It’s all about finding that daydream sweet spot right between boredom and engagement.

To get to that sweet spot, it’s best to utilize a dose of everybody's favorite brain candy.

3: A Dash of Dopamine

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This, for me, is the crux. If “aha!” moments are a brain-chemical explosion, dopamine is the catalyst. That’s why these insights never come to me while I’m doing the dishes, while I’m on long drives, or while I’m otherwise doing super boring monotonous tasks. I hate that stuff! That’s what podcasts are for.

No, there must be a little bit of dopamine flowing around my brain to really unlock the sweet spot of inspiration. The warmth of the shower, the caffeine buzz on the morning train ride, the endorphins released while working out, and the enjoyment of spending time with my pup have all been the spark that set off the best ideas.

Here’s an article with a deep dive into the brain science around what I’m talking about, complete with fun colorful brain pics.

But really, it just makes sense. If you’re bugging out over a work deadline or worrying too much about “adulting,” it’s just not gonna happen. Do something simple that you enjoy, and the ideas will flow.

For a couple other scientific examples of noticable “Aha!” precursors, here’s a 5 minute video from Dr. Kouinos himself. It's surprising to me that right before an idea strikes, you somewhat go blind, so I'm going to look for that now...

For more, check out Dr. K's book about these aha moments. I haven’t read it yet, but it is now officially on my list.

 

So Now I Can Stop Taking Hourlong Showers!

…don't hold me to that. Though I will try! I know it’s not the best thing for the environment, my roommates, or my water bill. But, despite the simple 3-step solution I’ve outlined above, these are fundamental habits to get into that take time to develop. I’ve been working on establishing my “oases” for a while now, and will continue to do so. I invite you to do the same. Let me know how it goes!

What about you - got any ideas for how and where we can find our mental oasis? Where have your brightest flashes of creativity occurred?

For now, I need to go knock on the bathroom door twice.

-Kevin