Think back to the last breakthrough idea you had. Where were you? Maybe you were in the shower. Or maybe you were in bed, about to drift off to sleep.
Whatever the case, there’s probably a good chance you weren’t doing anything too taxing. You had some time to yourself. Your environment, and therefore your mind, was quiet. You likely weren’t even trying to have the idea — it just sort of came to you.
At the NeuroLeadership Institute, we call these eureka moments insights. Research suggests they are essential for creating the kind of intrinsic motivation that helps people build new habits. All of which raises a new question: How can leaders create the conditions for insight for themselves and their team members?
NLI has spent over a decade studying which conditions enable insight generation. The consensus is that there are four key ingredients: quiet moments, looking inward, positive emotion, and distance from the problem.
The richest insights happen when people are in a good frame of mind and away from the issue, in a place where they can reflect quietly. Or to put it another way, far more than what you should do, insight is about what you don’t do.
The Four Ingredients of Insight
We can draw out the relevant science from each component.
Quiet moments: Quiet moments help reduce external perceptual competition (e.g., sights, sounds) for our conscious attention or awareness, allowing the brain to detect weaker signals more readily.
Looking inward: Looking inward, or thinking about your thinking (also known as metacognition), shifts the focus of awareness away from older, more established solutions, and away from external input. It also can shift your focus to your thought process itself, as opposed to just the content of your thinking.
Positive emotion: Research suggests people are more likely to solve more problems with insight when in a positive mood than in a negative mood.
Distance from the problem: When you walk away from the problem and allow your attention to drift, this frees up the conscious mind from focusing on very strong and well-rehearsed signals.
Why Insight Matters
Everyone likes to feel inspired, of course, but the real value of insights lies in their power to motivate people and help them come up with creative solutions to thorny problems.
In practice, that can mean leaders giving employees quiet time to reflect at the end of meetings or throughout their workday, when their brains are free to turn off. The approach helps people take a break from the steady stream of work they do, so they can actually begin to process that information.
Giving time for insight doesn’t need to take hours, either. So long as leaders intentionally build in small breaks during meetings, or explicitly encourage their employees to pause throughout their day, just that small deviation can help put people in a new frame of mind.
Though it may seem initially like a hindrance for productivity, the return on the investment could pay dividends for years to come.
To learn more about what it takes to create the conditions for insight, register for this year’s Culture & Leadership Insight Lab.