How to Make Space for Good Thinking

The other day I read an excellent post by L. L. Barkat entitled “creative_thinking (1).jpg How to Work Like a Genius.” I was especially intrigued by the following observation about Albert Einstein.

Einstein, who developed some of the best ideas, also understood the power of space. Rather than spend his days solely dedicated to physics, he actively made space in his life for other ways of being and thinking. Ken Robinson, in his book on creativity, notes that it wasn’t unusual for Einstein to put aside his theorizing to play the violin or interview poets (Einstein was fascinated by how imagination works and thought that poets could lead him to understand it better).

Maybe we’re afraid to give ourselves a little space. It can get messy, like my daughter’s dining-room web. It doesn’t always seem “applicable,” like Einstein’s violin or his fascination with the poetic mind. Perhaps space seems wasteful or indulgent.

As one who speaks and writes regularly, I find it critical to find space to think and create. When I am not doing this, I see and feel the difference.

I learned this through trial and error during the summer months. Every July, I am away from our church (two weeks vacation and two weeks study leave). The first few years I did this, the study time was most difficult for me. I kept thinking that I get the most done during this time when I do something applicable. Consequently, I would spend most of my study break inside a library, pouring through journal articles and books that were directly related to an upcoming sermon series or class I intended to teach.

I noticed, however, that something interesting happened when I would approach this differently. For example, for several years, during July I audited a class at Regent College. What I audited was totally unrelated to what I intended to preach in the fall. After the lectures, I would go to the market, experience a new coffee shop or walk through a part of the city. When I returned to my room, my mind would be filled with ideas, insights, observations, stories, etc. I then began to read journal articles and books related to an upcoming series of messages. I often felt energized and creative at that point. Consequently, for the last ten years, I have been particularly deliberate about creating space during this month.

  • Reading materials totally unrelated to what I am studying.

  • Visiting art museums.

  • Spending time in coffee shops and cafes that I have never visited.

  • Walking down city streets.

  • Spending time alone in a cabin.

  • Auditing a short course in a subject that is not related to anything I plan to teach or preach.
  • Carefully watching advertisements on billboards, in magazines, and on television to understand the messages.
  • Sitting in a park and writing in my journal whatever I happen to be observing.
  • Spending time in Barnes & Noble, looking for common themes in book titles in the fiction and non-fiction shelves.
  • Watching TED talks or listening to podcasts (particularly interviews of thought leaders).

These practices have been helpful.

The big challenge for me is to carry these kinds of disciplines into my normal workweek.


What do you do to keep your creative juices flowing? When do you usually have your best thoughts?

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19 thoughts on “How to Make Space for Good Thinking

  1. This is exactly why I keep a piano in my office. If I am stuck, I try to kick start the right side of my brain. This is usually a great producer of fresh perspectives and new questions. I have come up with more good thoughts while playing piano or hitting balls on the driving range. Excellent post.

  2. My best thoughts come to me out of the blue. Usually they are observations on life or a verse of scripture that just strikes me a certain way. My challenge is being disciplined enough to follow the thought and get it down on paper or to do the necessary research to further flesh out the thought. Often, I have brainstorms and have a great introduction written in my head, but I seldom follow through on it. I’ve got to change that.

    • Hi Pat, you have expressed well that many people feel who have thoughts, ideas, etc., don’t write them down and then forget them by the evening. I identify with this well. I now have to make sure I have them written down or I can assume they will be gone later.

  3. your advice reminds me of what Julia Cameron calls “artist’s dates” in her book The Right to Write. She is a huge advocate of feeding the creative side by spending time alone with beauty. Thanks for reminding me of that. I think I’m past due :).

  4. Excellent post! It’s such a temptation to hole up in our office/wherever, thinking outside input will be a distraction, but intentional ‘getting out and about’ often makes the sparks fly. WALKiNG and BICYCLING on country roads, while listening to podcasts I don’t usually have time for, really gets me thinking and creating!

    • Marilyn, you are right. It is a temptation to hole up in an office. Even though I know better, I find myself thinking that I don’t have time to do anything else but to stay after the task in the office. Yet, quite often, it is after a break or intentionally doing something different that I experience some sort of breakthrough.

  5. After struggling with the decision for a time, I’ve finally decided to take a year off before I begin my PhD studies. That year starts in just about a month and I couldn’t be more excited. I think a year spent with my Kindle (reading all those non-theological books I haven’t had time for) at the beach, on the porch, or downtown is going to do a world of good for my creativity. The relief I’ve felt since deciding to take this year off I now recognize as my body and mind being grateful for creative space– Amen!

    • Kessia, this sounds like such a wise decision. I can see how a year spent like this, prior to your Phd studies could be so helpful and mind refreshing. Please comment again and tell us how the year is going.

    • Daniele, thanks for the kind words. Thank you for contributing a valuable idea for mind clearing. I can see how this might be very helpful.

  6. I am most creative at 40,000 feet.

    For much of my working life I flew a lot. I never realized how much my creative production was conduced by being in a space for several hours where no phones, email or “important” interruptions cluttered up my thoughts. And they refill your coffee cup – at least they used to.

    Now I rarely fly, and when I do, it’s rarely to Europe or Japan. So I found my creative streams drying up, but didn’t know why until I flew again to LA. Wow! What a tsunami of ideas, initiatives, stuff! I get it now, so I strategize for ways to get optimally isolated. I’m still working on figuring out how to get someone to bring me fresh coffee…

  7. Gary, I can relate to your comment. I just flew to LA and back this week. My notebook is full of ideas, lists, projects, and thoughts. These all came during the flight to LA and then the return.

    Love your last line regarding fresh coffee! 🙂