Working Without Working: The Creative Night Shift
Work doesn't just happen when you're trying to. — Paul Graham
It’s noon and I am climbing the Cirjoch, a mountain pass in the rugged Dolomite Alps of Italian Südtirol. This is my treat, or re-treat, after trekking all over Germany to visit my family. It’s a gift to spend this time alone in nature. Paradoxically, it is also a productive time.
I make my way past jagged rock formations, exhausted elderly hikers, and families feeding their children. Occasionally I draw a concerned look because I wear my orange running shoes. I will just relax in the mountains, I thought and left the hiking boots at home. Naturally, once I saw the striking peaks in person, I had to get closer.
As I navigate the trail, my mind starts wandering. Fragments of memories and ideas trail through my consciousness against a backdrop of weather-beaten trees and endless sky. Suddenly, I stop and pull out my phone to record a voice note. The walk has yielded a first creative spark. Ideas start flowing. I didn’t plan it this way, but I’m not surprised either. Walking without distractions (no music, no podcasts, no audio books, no calls) has become one of my staple practices in surfacing answers and ideas. It’s part of my rhythm of input, processing, and output.
The Night Shift
Reframing time away from the desk has profoundly shifted my perspective on work. In the words of one of my favorite scenes from Curb Your Enthusiasm, there is a time to be ‘working without working’. In a culture obsessed with the grind and the number of hours spent at the keyboard, it’s invaluable to have practices that stir catalyze creativity, unlock answers to problems, and get you unstuck.
Artists, scientists, and other creatives have long known about the connection between creativity and activities like walking, sleeping, showering, or driving. I previously wrote about the issue of ‘reading FOMO’ in Cranking The Learning Machine Up To 11, and emphasized the need to put things down and allow time for processing. The framework for Strategic Intuition calls the moment before a creative spark a state of ‘presence of mind’, a moment in which diffuse-mode thinking connects the dots. Research suggests this is a pretty common occurrence:
In a 2019 study, 98 professional writers and 87 physicists recorded their most creative idea each day, as well as what they were doing and thinking when it struck them. … 20 percent of their most meaningful ideas came while doing something else — washing dishes or taking a shower. …
One study of more than 1,100 respondents reported that their moments of insight came during mind-wandering in the shower (30 percent), in transit (13 percent) or during exercise (11 percent). — Washington Post
Poincaré was stuck on a problem one time and he finally said he went off on vacation with some friends. As he was getting on the trolley car in this distant city, the equation suddenly appeared in the air over the head of the conductor. … It was just there.
The idea of nuclear chain reaction appeared on a walk at an otherwise unremarkable stop light. Examples of dream-induced eureka moments include the discovery of Benzene (whose ring structure appeared to chemist August Kekulé as a snake) and the periodic table.
The idea for The Terminator came to [James Cameron] in a dream. So did the pivotal scene in his second film, Aliens. “I have my own private streaming service that's better than any of that shit that's out there, and it runs every night for free,” he said. — founders podcast on James Cameron
The unconscious, McCarthy mused, “is capable of doing some pretty puzzling problems.” Adam Robinson compared it to free access to a supercomputer.
Here’s how I think about the process now:
Ask: begin by making your important questions explicit. What are you truly interested in or trying to accomplish?
Input: collect any dot relevant and related to your question.
Processing: let your unconscious start making connections. Give your night shift room to come up with creative answers.
Output: execute on your idea or insight. Use any new knowledge gained to refine or iterate on your set of questions.
Like Richard Feynman, you want to be clear and explicit about which big questions you are pursuing:
You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”
Paul Graham wrote about the process in his recent masterpiece How to do great work. “By letting your mind wander a little,” he noted, “you'll often solve problems you were unable to solve by frontal attack.” However, he acknowledged that the process still requires hard work:
You can't just walk around daydreaming. The daydreaming has to be interleaved with deliberate work that feeds it questions.
You have to collect the stone from which to cut the slabs that will eventually form your pyramid. Read history and research, collect data and case studies, master relevant tools and methods, and connect with people in the field.2 This is followed by an incubation period during which you step away from the problem and your library of dots. Close your laptop and make time for activities that don’t look or feel like work.
Bed, Bath, Bus, and Beyond
When you have a problem that your conscious mind has thoroughly exhausted, you give it over to your unconscious. You consciously pose a question to your mind, and you allow your unconscious to percolate on it. — Adam Robinson
Adam Robinson called bed, bath, and bus the “three Bs of creativity” and proven ways of “getting in touch with your unconscious.” I would recommend this excellent episode of the Huberman podcast to further learn about the creative process. Recurring elements in triggering creativity seem to be movement, relaxation, and removing stimuli and distractions (particularly closing eyes or gazing).
Bed: sleep and naps. Salvado Dalí and Albert Einstein cultivated naps to trigger creativity. Huberman is a big proponent of non-sleep deep rest (aka Yoga Nidra). I like short Yoga Nidra scripts like this one but there’s tons of free ones to choose from on Youtube, Spotify, and apps like Insight Timer.
Bus: as a metaphor for travel or change of location. I find airports and trains to be very creative places (unless you have to shepherd a family or wrestle with delays). Nothing like opening a fresh notebook while waiting for boarding. Remember that Druckenmiller recovered from his dotcom bubble blow-up while on vacation in Florida. With the benefit of distance he regained his mojo. He regained his energy and spotted the trade that allowed him to recover and close out the year positively (in his Duquesne funds).
Movement: walking, biking, driving, and other relaxed activities like washing dishes.
Lastly, I’ve found creative space in good conversation (flow state without a specific aim) and the deep relaxation following exercise, yoga, dance, or breathwork.
A Short Meditation to Try
Huberman suggested a short mindfulness meditation combining two elements: open awareness (observing your internal state) and focused awareness (directing and holding attention). I highly recommend the full episode but you can also find a brief description in this Nature article:
Mindfulness meditation consists of focused attention meditation (FAM) and open monitoring meditation (OMM), both of which reduce activation of the default mode network (DMN) and mind-wandering.
In OMM, meditators keep a non-reactive and non-judgmental awareness of anything that occurs in their experience of the present moment. While maintaining this awareness, the contents of experience such as bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts are not distractors but simply contents for observation.
In FAM, meditators focus their attention on a target object, such as the physical sensations caused by breathing. Having a target object enables meditators to keep their attention away from distractors and to disengage their attention from these distractors more easily.
He recommends 5-10 minutes, first open, then focused. I started doing this with Insight Timer: 11 minutes total with intermittent bells at 5 minutes (switch from open to focused) and 10 minutes (time to wrap it up, check in with myself, and close out with a mantra)
The Most Important Question
I return from my hike to my Garni and spend the evening staring at the dreamy landscape and its fading colors. Time to crack open the laptop. Before going to bed, I pull out a separate sheet of paper and start brainstorming for a different practice, what Josh Waitzkin called “asking the Most Important Question” or MIQ:
One of the things that I’ve been doing my whole life is ending my day thinking about the most important question in what I do. Then waking up in the morning, first thing, brainstorming on it. This is an incredibly powerful tool that I learned from my dad — who’s a great writer — in his creative process. Hemingway wrote about it in his writing process.
The MIQ process is straightforward.
In the evening,
Identify your current MIQ: what question feels important, interesting, pressing right now?
Write it down and ask yourself the question.
Release and let go. Stop thinking, stressing, and worrying about it.
Wake up and free-write, similar to morning pages. I like writing by hand but Waitzkin has switched to Evernote to stay organized (I’ve started using a Google Doc as well). He advises to do this “first in the morning pre-input, not after checking the news or checking Bloomberg or checking Twitter, pre-input brainstorming on it”. Write down whatever thoughts arise related to the question. Also generally pay attention for 1-2 days. Sometimes ideas and answers seem to bubble up more subtly and with some delay.
Waitzkin advises to make the practice part of one’s daily rhythm, “the evening-morning rhythm, and then three or four reps of it throughout the day.”
I think that MIQ training is one of the most important things that a decision-maker can do because the best way to train an analyst in a discipline is to train them in knowing where to look, what matters the most.
Ending the day strong and focusing on what matters most … You’re systematically opening the channel between the conscious and the unconscious mind.
Over time, you can revisit your old questions and see how your life and thinking have evolved. It’s worth checking whether you are executing — have you taken action on the answers you received?
Waitzkin uses the MIQ for both “big, thematic meta questions” and sometimes “tactical questions” such as accessing his intuition:
I’ll use it sometimes to get a clear read on how I intuitively feel about somebody. I can ask myself, “Do I intuitively feel that this is an ethical person?” Or if someone is interviewing a leader of a company, “What’s my intuition about the quality of his or her thinking?”
Or it can be a much more tactical question. I study video of a surf or a foil session I had, then it might leave the whole question in my mind and just sleep on it and then emerge, “What’s the biggest lesson to be taken out of this?” Or I might look at one thing and drill in a very specific, technical idea and try to refine it.
Frankly, I haven’t been using this tool enough. I encourage you to try and keep track of your questions and answers for a few weeks. Let me know how it goes!
Also please share any other favorite practices that help you tap into your unconscious or unlock and catalyze creativity. When stuck on a problem, Einstein pulled out his violin. What is your go-to move?
Whenever I feel stuck, it’s like, let’s go for a walk. … 90% of the “writing” takes place on walks. I don’t think that well when I’m sitting in front of a Google Doc. But when I get up and move, I’m like, “Oh, here’s how I can write that.” That takes place when I’m walking, never when sitting. — Morgan Housel with Tim Ferriss
It may sound counter-intuitive, but when anxiety tells you to grind even harder, it might be time to get up, stretch, and go for a walk.
Thank you for reading and sharing,
He also wrote an excellent essay about why this tended to happen in images, symbols, and metaphors, rather than explicitly in language. The answer appeared to him during his own night shift:
So the question is, well, if the unconscious figured that out, why couldn't it just say, ‘it's a ring.’ … One day I was dumping the trash and I thought, ‘oh I know the answer.’ … The answer is simply language is very recent, a hundred thousand years maybe. It's a blink. But the unconscious has been there instructing you and helping you along for a million years or more. It's just not used to it. … it had to show you pictures.
Your location and environment can play a big part during the input process. As a general rule, you want to be close to the nexus of your industry. However, sometimes the opposite seems to be true. Taylor Sheridan left LA and claims to get more input for his writing while being around people outside the entertainment world.
“When I lived in Los Angeles, everything I saw was the same and I didn’t learn anything in my day-to-day life,” Sheridan says. “Here, I get to experience so much. I heard 25 iconic pieces of dialogue today. Most of my great lines I heard someone else say, or some version of it. I’m banking story all the time.