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INNOVATION

Stuck? Try cultivating an ‘aha’ moment Add to ...

It happens at moments when you least expect it: in the shower, while out for a run or, for me, right before falling asleep. A solution to an obstacle or problem that may have been plaguing you for days all of a sudden becomes clear and eureka, the worry ebbs away.

Running a technology startup comes with a unique set of pain points. Reaching out to a network of other tech founders sometimes helps in terms of finding a solution but often you’re stuck figuring it out yourself. Despite my better judgment, I often waste time searching for solutions, which often translates to mindlessly Googling related topics. It almost never helps. Truth be told, when was the last time anyone came up with an epiphany at his or her desk?

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Cultivating these “aha” moments seems about as likely as forcing a pot to boil water faster, but there are tactics you can use to encourage them.

For years now, scientists have been aware of the activity that takes place in the brain when you reach an epiphany. In research published in 2009, John Kounios, a professor of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia and Mark Beeman, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., discovered that a spark of high gamma activity occurred in the right hemisphere of the brains of their subjects a third of a second before arriving at an answer. This gamma activity signals the birth of a new idea – the physical result of an aha moment. But before this spark, the activity in the area of the brain that controls sight slowed down – a “brain blink” – suggesting that the brain needs quiet before processing this revelation.

In other words, we need quiet time to think. It’s something we tell our children, when they want to watch YouTube videos while doing their homework, but for some reason as adults we don’t want to give ourselves the permission, despite the incredible benefits.

Toronto-based author and blogger Maya Chendke said she needs a “physical disconnect” to think creatively and often travels outside the city to do so. Ms. Chendke recently took a trip to Cape Cod to kick-start her next novel and it did the trick.

“I have had a story percolating for some time now, but found it increasingly hard to find time and brain space to start it back here in Toronto. Maybe it is the decompression of being ‘away’ that sparks this ‘aha’ moment. It’s literally like a switch turns on,” she said.

Barbara Stewart, partner and portfolio manager at Cumberland Private Wealth Management, also arrived at her aha moment while visiting the Canadian Rockies five years ago. It was an epiphany, which changed the course of her career.

“The financial crisis of 2008-09 was not a fun time to be a portfolio manager,” Ms. Stewart said. “Despite my years of study and experience, it was difficult to feel that I was adding any value, and I began to feel like my work was without meaning,” she said.

To lift her mood, Ms. Stewart went on the vacation in the Canadian Rockies with her husband. After six hours hiking in the wilderness, she said her “brain had entered that blissful state where all thinking has shut off.” Then out of the blue, she was hit with her aha moment.

For Ms. Stewart, this meant conducting her own independent research into the subject of women and finance. In addition to her role at Cumberland Private Wealth Management, she wanted to travel the world, meet successful and fascinating women, and “make a lasting contribution to the planet.” She’s currently working on her fifth research paper.

“I fell back in love with my job,” said Ms. Stewart, who believes her breadth of travel and experience made her an even better portfolio manager. New clients seek her out because of her research, which she attributes to an aha moment in the Rockies.

Reaching a workplace epiphany because of a short jaunt through nature is certainly nothing new, yet some of us need to be reminded of its benefits.

Career coach Sarah Vermunt, founder of Careergasm in Toronto, said she’s noticed the trend with her clients, who come back to work after a short time in the wilderness with creative solutions to work problems. One client said that after just four days of camping, he was able to see his business challenges more clearly than he had in years.

“There’s something about being immersed in nature that facilitates clarity. You’re away from the clutter and noise, and suddenly space opens up so you can connect the dots,” Ms. Vermunt said.

“I have always noticed this on a personal level, but it’s interesting to see just how pervasive the phenomenon is with most people,” she added.

Don’t have time – or money – for a trip outside the city? Rest assured, aha moments can be arrived at for less. For Ms. Vermunt, a 20-minute nap provides the perfect escape.

“It’s counterintuitive, but for me, napping is one of the most productive things I can do,” she said.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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