Great inventions are not only due to effort and hard work, they also owe their existence to disconnection, contemplation and lateral thinking that leads to great insights. The geniuses of history knew this, which is why they spent a lot of time on what we could call the “2 Hour Rule”.
Active contemplation encourages creativity
Albert Einstein, for example, consciously and voluntarily spent time fantasizing in a special way: he sought ways to connect fantasy with real possibilities. In fact, at the age of 16, he wondered what would happen if he rode, like a surfer, on a wave of light moving at a constant speed.
The pioneering theory that led him to establish the foundations of modern physics was actually an idea that emerged in one of his many mental experimentation spaces. Einstein took time to daydream and explore multiple paths, no matter how far-fetched they seemed. His case is not isolated, when we are immersed in a creative process, the time to rest and dream is as important as work.
In the middle of the 17th century, when the Great Plague was ravaging England, Newton took refuge in his mother’s house in Lincolnshire. William Stukeley, a friend of the scientist and a witness to his reflections on the theory of gravity, told that both used to spend hours reflecting and debating scientific news under the shade of the property’s apple trees.
In the book ‘The Life of Sir Isaac Newton’, Stukeley wrote: “He told me that the notion of gravity came to his mind while he was in this very situation. It was something caused by an apple falling while he was sitting contemplative. Why does that apple always descend perpendicular to the ground?” he asked himself.
The apple did not fall on his head, as the apocryphal versions of the story claim, so it was not chance that led to one of the most important discoveries in the history of Physics, but the time of active contemplation and curiosity. Had he not been idle but busy in his laboratory, perhaps he would not have wondered why the fruit always fell the same way.
Walking to find new ideas
Darwin and Nietzsche probably wouldn’t have come up with some of their greatest ideas either if they hadn’t left room for productive creativity. Darwin, for example, had a “thought-activating tour” meaning that he would go for a walk when he wanted to delve into an idea.
Nietzsche also spent hours walking through nature to make sense of his philosophical ideas. He affirmed that “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” And he put it into practice in the mountains, the environment that he most liked to explore.
Actually, his method is not new. An old Latin phrase said: solvitur ambulando. Attributed to Augustine of Hippo, the literal translation would be: it is solved by walking.
The peripatetic school, a philosophical circle of ancient Greece, followed the teachings of Aristotle, its founder. It received that name because it was located next to the temple dedicated to Apollo Lycio, which had a garden through which, according to tradition, the teacher walked with his disciples reflecting on life. In Greek peripatêín means to walk or go around, for this reason the followers of Aristotle were also called peripatetics.
Kant followed in the same wake as those great thinkers. The philosopher spent his entire life in the surroundings of Königsberg, walking in a rather methodical way: he would go out in the afternoons, exactly from five to six, to walk through the woods. He always did the same route in solitude. Back home, he locked himself in his office and began to read, think or write.
What is the 2 Hour Rule and how to apply it?
To follow in the footsteps of these great geniuses, we can put the 2 Hour Rule into practice. It consists simply of spending two hours a week to be alone with our ideas. We can use that time to take a walk in nature or just relax at home. The norm is not to have devices and not keep your mind busy with any activity.
In fact, a study conducted at the University of Texas found that the presence of phones limits our cognitive resources, creating a kind of “brain drain.” Of course, turning off the phone is not a guarantee that we will experience an epiphany or a Eureka moment, but it will certainly help create the right conditions for new ideas to flow.
Those two hours are devoted entirely to dolce fare niente. At first, you may feel like you’re doing something unproductive or wasting your time. It is understandable since we live in a society that prioritizes productivity and action, but that time in which you disconnect and let your mind relax and fly free is essential for good ideas or different perspectives to be born.
During those hours you can simply let your mind wander or reflect on your life. For example: Is what I am doing moving me closer to or further away from my goals? Am I dedicating time to what is important or only to urgent things? What great opportunities am I wasting? Is there something I can do that will make a valuable change in my life? How can I improve the path I have traced from where I am to the point I want to get to? What alternate paths can I take if things go wrong?
There’s nothing as effective as letting the mind wander aimlessly to abandon the beaten path and make “non-linear connections” that lead to new solutions. The most recent neuroscientific research has shown that creativity is associated with a greater density of gray matter in regions of the brain’s default network, which is activated when the mind wanders.
Letting your mind wander freely has been proven to enhance creativity and play an important role in problem solving. Daydreaming or evoking thoughts that were somehow related to the challenges we must solve, but in different contexts, such as in the forest, can be particularly effective in finding original solutions.
In this sense, an experiment carried out at Bar Ilan University found that the less stressed we are, the further our mind can go. That study suggested that, in the absence of significant cognitive demands, our “default setting” is “creative thinking.”
When these researchers gave participants a free association task while asking them to simultaneously perform cognitive tasks of different levels of difficulty, they found an inverse relationship between mental load and the creativity of their responses. For example, those who had to memorize seven digits gave more predictable responses, while those who had to memorize only two digits responded more creatively.
Mind wandering also has a positive effect on mood. The more creative we are, the more joy we will experience, and vice versa. Mind wandering also opens up new opportunities for serendipity and wonder. After all, the world around us is full of clues, opportunities and possibilities, we just have to be attentive to take advantage of them by stopping living on autopilot.
Of course, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, but this simple 2 Hour Rule can be invaluable. In reality, no matter how busy we are, we often waste time on trivial tasks that add nothing of value to our lives. Therefore, being busy is not a valid justification for not dedicating a little time to an activity that can make a difference in our lives.
In fact, allowing our mind to wander can also provide us with opportunities to process emotions. Many times we keep busy precisely to avoid thinking about certain feelings and emotions. However, when these accumulate, they can end up blocking us. For this reason, psychologists from the Pennsylvania State University confirmed that letting our minds fly helps us deal with those unpleasant emotions and mitigates anxiety, depression, and stress.
In short, the 2 Hour Rule is about being more in the present and exploring alternative paths without pressure. It is a space for responsible, conscious and quality planning, but also to let our imagination run wild and reset our mind, so that it allows us to get closer to the point where we would like to be and lead the life we really want in a more original and authentic way.
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Yamaoka, A. & Yukama, S. (2020) Mind wandering in creative problem-solving: Relationships with divergent thinking and mental health. PLoS ONE; 15(4): e0231946.
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Seli, P. et. Al. (2019) Depression, anxiety, and stress and the distinction between intentional and unintentional mind wandering. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice; 6(2): 163–170.