Why thinking in the shower may be an ideal model for “creative pause”

~ 12 November 2008 ~

Let’s be honest: Who doesn’t profit from thinking in the shower?

I imagine we’d be hard-pressed to find anyone reading these words who hasn’t had an epiphany, big or small, under the cadence of falling water.

There’s something about showering that tends to spawn new ideas which may not occur otherwise. And the frequency with which this occurs seems to suggest that perhaps the occurrence isn’t merely happenstance, but instead a decent model for what has been called “creative pause” — the shift from being fully engaged in a creative activity to being passively engaged, or the shift to being disengaged altogether.

Edward de Bono, who may have first coined the phrase, describes creative pause as a deliberate, self-imposed pause to consider alternative solutions to a problem — even when things are going perfectly fine — for “some of the best results come when people stop to think about things that no one else has stopped to think about” (Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas). He suggests these pauses can be as short as 30 seconds.

In his paper for International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Professor Lajos Székely describes creative pause as follows:

The ‘creative pause’ is defined as the time interval which begins when the thinker interrupts conscious preoccupation with an unsolved problem, and ends when the solution to the problem unexpectedly appears in consciousness. (“The Creative Pause”, 1967)

These two descriptions of creative pause suggest that deliberate interruptions, whether short or an unknown period of time, may be helpful to problem-solving.

While showering is often a daily, scheduled interruption, it’s an interruption nonetheless, and it’s deliberate in the sense that it’s self-imposed. But aside from the obvious that showering is a pause to another activity, following are some additional observations about why showering often yields unexpected ideas and creative thinking, and why it may be an ideal model for creative pause in general.

  • There’s little opportunity for distraction. The confinement produced by the physical environment of a shower results in isolation from work materials, digital devices, and social interaction. You have no choice but to allow yourself to become engaged in a new activity in solitude, while either thinking freely about something entirely different or continuing previous thought without distraction.
  • Minimal mental engagement is required for the the task at hand. The monotony and nearly subconscious nature of scrubbing, rinsing, and washing frees the mind to focus on things other than the physical activity of showering. You become preoccupied with entertaining yourself mentally.
  • Showering creates a “white noise” effect. Though Suzanne and I never chose to use a white noise machine with any of our infant children, some parents swear by them. This is because white noise “can aid concentration by blocking out irritating or distracting noises in a person’s environment” (Wikipedia). In the case of an infant, the goal is typically sleep. In adults, however, the goal may be to better focus on the problem and its solutions. Water that is sprayed from a nozzle and falls to the ground may result in a white noise-like environment.
  • A change of scenery sets the stage for the unexpected. Merely changing your view and perception of things sometimes results in new thinking. With showering, the change is the location, temperature, attire (or lack thereof), and the addition of water. Coincidentally, the solution for positioning mirrors on the Hubble Telescope during a 1993 servicing mission was conceived by electrical engineer James Crocker as he was showering and observed “European-style fixtures [that] included a shower-head on an arrangement of adjustable rods” (The Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission, Joseph N. Tatarewicz, pg. 376).

Of course, few of us enjoy the convenience, time, or even desire to hop in the shower any time we’re struggling with a challenging problem or want to think about the problem differently. But these observations suggest a model for other activities that may yield similar results if similar criteria are at play:

  • Distractions are minimized, including noise
  • The body is engaged in a monotonous, mundane, or repetitive activity, freeing the mind to think about other things
  • The environment is changed

A number of activities similar to showering come to mind, but I’ll refrain from mentioning any to let you do the talking: How do you achieve creative pause?

(For additional reading, see Eric Karjaluoto’s article for .net magazine “Beat the creative block” (PDF).)



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1   Stephan ~ 12 November 2008

I am constantly distracted in the shower.

2   Brian ~ 12 November 2008

I have three times for creative pause aside from the shower (which is probably my favorite).

1. Walking to work. A great time to look around and enjoy the sites, but also a good time to let my mind wander for 15 minutes.

2. During aerobic exercise. If I need a change of pace I’ll often go on a run, or use some boring gym treadmill or elliptical, I’ll oftentimes get my body engaged then use the time to let my mind wander.

3. Meditation/quiet time. I meditate, but I know a few people who just take 15 minutes of quiet time, where they put themselves into a quiet room without distractions and just let their mind wander.

These are three pretty obvious ways, but they work for me!

3   Nate ~ 12 November 2008

I’m so glad I’m not the only person doing an immense amount of thinking in the shower. After realizing that things just sort of surfaced in my mind so often when in the shower, I started keeping a set of bath crayons (http://www.crayolastore.com/product_detail.asp?T1=CRA+023002) in there so I could write and sketch on the walls.

I think another reason productive creative pauses occur in the shower may be because it often occurs at the start of the day. Typically after a decent amount of sleep and the mind is starting warm up for the day.

4   Ian Tearle ~ 12 November 2008

It is no coincidence that I am the same then, thinking in the shower produces the best results for me, but I also find inspiration when im cleaning, or moving furniture (much to Rachael’s dislike) around the flat.

I often move a chair or a bookcase and have to leave a job half done when a moment of creativness comes and I jump straight on the mac to plan it out.

5   Gavin Cooper ~ 12 November 2008

I have had countless epiphanies in the shower. I have always just put it down to “being my place” where they happen, but maybe there is more too it as you explain!

6   Mitternacht ~ 12 November 2008

This is definitely true. Shower frees your mind and lets your thoughts go places you wouldn’t imagine. And when I really need creativity and motivation, a 15 min bath usually does the trick. Washing the dishes has exactly the same effect. It’s so powerful and efficient that I actually have “home task breaks” when I loose my productivity.

7   Kristian Walker ~ 12 November 2008

I, too, find that going to the gym and exercising is a very effective “creative pause”. Taking a break at lunchtime to work out usually mentally refreshes me for the rest of the day.

8   Rob Cornelius ~ 12 November 2008

Actually our shower is in a freezing cold room and dribbles a pathetic stream of lukewarm water over me. I have managed to get washing my hair and the rest of me down to 4 minutes now. All I can think of is getting out once I am in.

However our bath is in a different room which is nice and warm and is a 100 year old model so its wide and deep and you can work the taps with your toes… far better for cogitating imho.

9   Teapot Monkey ~ 12 November 2008

I had a creative pause yesterday when I was counting sheets of paper while pacing up and down. It was quite a good one too!

10   steve ~ 12 November 2008

I find that I do some of my best thinking in the car on the way to or from work. I have a 45 minute commute so there’s plenty of time to think about current projects and tasks as well as longer-term stuff.

If necessary, I also tend to use this time to prepare for and rehearse presentations.

For safety reasons, I will leave it up the reader’s discretion as to whether or not this method will also work for them!

11   Fred Epner ~ 12 November 2008

so smart, i do this every day and yet never thought about it as a method of how i work

12   John Lascurettes ~ 12 November 2008

We have showers at work for we folk who bike in. I guess I’ll have to start taking showers whenever I’m stuck or distracted. “Sorry boss, I’ve got to go, um, ‘brainstorm.’”

13   Ani ~ 12 November 2008

It’s great that finally someone actually talks about this stuff in a “scientific” way, as one wouldn’t have naturally associated such an activity as showering with solving problems. But it is so true!

I use showering as a “getaway” time and not only it takes the stress away from the work that you are doing, but I’ve found the answers to many creative problems. And those are the kinda problems I’ve been struggling to solve for a while when actively looking for an answer. Instead the solutions just came to me. Not only that, but after the shower the mind is so refreshed and ready to solve even more problems.

Another time I use for “critical thinking” is when driving to and from school on the interstate with some good music playing in the car. I’m not necessarily thinking about “solving” problems, but great new ideas just come to me while driving (that doesn’t happen when I’m in traffic though, only when the road is clear and the speed is consistent).

This whole discussion relates to the constraint for creative people in their 9-5 jobs. It just doesn’t work! I joke all the time that they need to pay us extra to go to the bathroom, because sometimes the best ideas come to us right in there!

14   Susanna K. ~ 12 November 2008

Years ago, a professional speaker gave a talk about creativity at the company I worked for at the time. He claimed that people had their best ideas when they had their pants off and were around running water. Thus, the shower was an ideal place to be creative.

15   Mike D. ~ 12 November 2008

One important caveat to this approach is that your shower *must* actually be a *good* shower. Since moving into my condo a couple of years ago, the water pressure in the place is just killing me (old pipes… need to be replaced). A low-pressure shower is scarcely an arena for any sort of positive vibes. You end up spending your entire time in there cursing the lack of pressure. Was in a hotel in Vegas this weekend, however, that had the best shower ever: industrial grade water pressure and an ultra-fine misting showerhead. Now THAT is a formula for positive vibes and creative thinking.

16   Andrew ~ 12 November 2008

First, thanks for writing this! It’s an articulation of something that I have been somewhat aware of for a while.

Second, in answer to your question, I find that I often find creative pause by having to use the bathroom. Not to be crass, but the reality is that when I’m deep into the process of solving a problem (creative or other), often the only thing that will break me free from that focus is when nature calls.

At work, especially, I oftentimes have “ah ha!” moments while standing over the urinal.

17   Alanna Risse ~ 12 November 2008

I create what I like to call “busy Idleness” drawings. I draw repetitive shapes or patterns on pieces of scrap paper until the paper is filled to my liking. The act of drawing seems to more quickly take my brain to a space of creative thinking that otherwise would require a more “creative” or “inspiring” environment.

18   David Zachry ~ 12 November 2008

I find taking a 15 - 20 minute walk helps get the thought process flowing again. Also, if you have a long commute into work, you can take that time to think through a problem.

19   Rick Grant ~ 12 November 2008

I have no wisdom here except to ask if I’m the only one that gets annoyed by all the ideas that flood to me in the shower. I almost always lose at least half of them before I’m toweled off.

Does anyone have a great way of recording ideas that come to them when both hands are knuckle-deep in shampoo and you’re blinded by the suds? I can tell you that paper notebooks don’t cut it.

20   Megan ~ 12 November 2008

Funny, I was just thinking about this in the shower the other night ;)

I used to notice the same thing when I used to smoke. I’d do some of my best thinking on smoke breaks. In that case you have to get up from your desk, physically go outside, and stand there (often by yourself) for 5-10 minutes. Otherwise not a pleasant experience but it does give you a chance to think.

Not that I’d ever recommend smoking as a solution to creative blocks! You can accomplish the same thing by going for a brief walk.

21   John Faulds ~ 12 November 2008

Water restrictions in our city mean you don’t really have enough time to get much useful thinking done.

22   Cameron Moll ~ 12 November 2008

@ Rick Grant: Did you see Nate’s (#3) comment about the Crayola bathtub crayons?

23   Christopher Swenke ~ 12 November 2008

Running for me is my creative pause as mentioned earlier but not until mile 5 or 6 when my body settles in.

I also find this pause to exist early in the morning when none of the distractions of the day have come to hound me.

24   Micheil ~ 13 November 2008

hmm.. I’ve had many a Creative Pause in the shower before, but asides from that, I’d say my sources for them are:

  • In the first hour before I get to sleep, usually spent lying and listening to the insects out side.

  • Watching people interactive with each other in a playground, and being an observer, not a participator.

  • Walking out and about each morning, the crisp cold air always wakes you up, getting you thinking, being it’s the country side, it’s fresh air too.

25   Sarven Capadisli ~ 13 November 2008

Take naps!

26   jeremy ~ 13 November 2008

This post, and many of its comments, deserve an uncountable sum of “dittos” from me. I believe the insight you have offered into this topic, which essentially explains what I already knew but was finally put into words by you Cameron, and should be required and for all those who don’t find a second for creative pause. I have some of my greatest creative moments after a nice shower. Thanks for the extremely thoughtful and useful post!

27   Andrew ~ 13 November 2008

Another reason I’ve been able to tolerate a 100 mile commute everyday. Nothing like a two-hour radio-free drive to get you thinking.

28   Cameron Moll ~ 13 November 2008

I imagine a radio-free car would produce a good deal of white noise, would it not? :)

29   David Sherwin ~ 14 November 2008

Great post!

I used to think the shower was the only place I got ideas… then when I started doing yoga a year and a half ago, I found that walking home from the studio and/or in the midst of meditation, ideas would flood out of nowhere. It might have something to do with merely being aware of being in your body and breathing. All too often, we spend too much time in our head, thinking that’s where the answer will emerge.

30   Erin Moll ~ 14 November 2008

Hey Cameron. Interesting post and I have to say I agree. But I also find that brushing my teeth is often a time of contemplation and “ah ha” moments. I think it’s because I can’t open my mouth to speak.

32   Vincent ~ 15 November 2008

Shower-thinking is nice, but a related activity that I found is even more effective, is swimming. The fact that you essentially have to focus on not drowning, added with an immersion into the watery environment (much like the shower), essentially places you inside your own world, where external distractions can not weigh you down for long. It’s pretty refreshing, mentally speaking, not to mention a great sport.

33   Matty Fo ~ 15 November 2008

I agree, the shower is a great moment for creative pause. I also find the few moments between when I lay down at night and when I fall asleep are intensely creative. My problem is to then write those ideas down before I fall off…

34   Dabybeaunty ~ 16 November 2008

Как говорится.. Не дать не взять, зачётная статья!

35   Alberto - Caracas | Venezuela ~ 16 November 2008

Well, I do believe it’s a great time to stop and think.

That being said, one has to really think about how to go about it without impacting our planet.

How could you do it in a bath for example? How could you get the white noise component in?

Because staying in the shower for 15 to 30 minutes just thinking is IMHO just a waste of a lot of water!

36   Norbert ~ 16 November 2008

Here’s a curve ball, Alberto. I’m working on a green initiative startup. Sometimes I get stuck on a tricky problem, and need a break so I go take a shower. I usually solve the problem, getting my company one step closer to eliminating tons of carbon.

It’s kind of like the old maxim: you’ve got to spend money to make money.

Besides, who wants a planet that reeks of B.O.?

37   Jeff C ~ 17 November 2008

This is the exact advice given in one of the classic advertising books of all time (also a super-quick read) by industry legend James Webb Young. He found that taking a break of any kind – movie, biking, workouts, etc – will help subconsciously process your thoughts and help develop the answers.


38   Rerneovarve ~ 17 November 2008

+1 :)

39   Danie Nel ~ 21 November 2008

I like the shower. It must be one of my top 5 activities in any day. Not even brushing my teeth comes close.

I find methods of lighting come to me in the shower, pitty the quick light set-up graphs I do in foam on the wall never lasts long enough to copy to paper!

40   pam ~ 21 November 2008

Great post, Cameron! Though actually when I’m in the shower, I usually force myself to concentrate on the stream of hot water and try to relax, rather than follow my mind’s tangent-trails and problem-solving efforts. It’s a break I find necessary during the day, when I don’t otherwise give my brain a rest.

I think my biggest ephiphanies have come during that golden time between being awake and asleep. And if I’m really working hard on something, every time I wake during the night it’s right there, but with a creative freedom I probably wouldn’t be open to during my conscious hours. Problem is, if something beautiful works itself out during this time, it’s not always easy to recall the next day…

41   Ron Domingue ~ 22 November 2008

I actually think there are some similarities and parallels with cutting the grass… minimal distraction, minimal mental engagement, white noise effect and environment change or change in scenery.

Obviously this type of “creative pause” is often unavailable in the winter and overly abundant in the spring and summer.

42   Ethan Allen Smith ~ 24 November 2008

This is one of the reasons why a Vespa may have been the best purchase I’ve ever made. For much more than a year now, I have spent an hour a day (give or take, depending on my to/from commute times) with no distractions. Whether it’s reflecting on the day’s design tasks or just contemplating the meaning of everything, it’s an opportunity I never allowed myself before. It’s mentally refreshing, physically relaxing, and spiritually uplifting.

(Plus, at 70 miles to the gallon, it’s healthy for my pocketbook as well.)

43   Bryan ~ 24 November 2008

This is the best reason to take a shower every day.

My other creative pause moments:

  • The first 10 minutes after waking, while still lying in bed. (This is rare with a two year old)

  • Mountain biking by myself

  • Backcountry skiing (during the hike up)

44   Joel ~ 25 November 2008

I should have read this post sooner. I was realizing the same thing while driving last week.


45   Ryan ~ 26 November 2008

Going for a walk is definitely a creative pause for me - as long as I leave my iPhone and other gadgets at home or the office.

46   Estetik ~ 27 November 2008

Funny how Donohue’s point seems to be being made as this post devolved from discussing goodness for goodness’ sake vs religion demading that you be good, to gay rights and gay bashing, violent content and freewheeling epithets. I always thought of myself as a fun loving atheist. Can’t we all just get along?

47   ML ~ 02 December 2008

Thanks for the post Cameron. Like many others have said, I use the car for my creative thinking. Living in Los Angeles, I have about an hour commute to and from work. Driving alone in the car for about an hour is always great for thinking.

48   Will ~ 11 December 2008

I often times get those creative moments in the shower as well. However, I also tend to get them right before I fall asleep. That moment when you are just lying there not asleep just churning away at thoughts, I forget a lot of those ideas though as I do not want to record them so I do not stop myself from sleeping.

49   Owen ~ 25 January 2009

I am actually doing my thesis topic on enhancing the showering experience, my design should ultimately reflect on this “creative pause” and cater specifically to that particular need.

50   @Josh_Litchfield ~ 09 February 2009

I actually have been doing this for a while. I will take a shower in the middle of the day and it does help. It’s pretty awesome. On that note…


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