Jonah Lehrer Says Relaxation Is The Key To Innovation In New Book

By April 21, 2012

If you want to push your teams toward building the next big thing in the tech industry, the answer isn’t long brainstorming sessions or sponsored happy hours. According to Imagine author Jonah Lehrer, the best way to keep teams at the cutting edge of innovation is to give them the day off.

Lehrer’s new book Imagine: How Creativity Works explores the process of creativity, while debunking the myth that innovative thinking is something that the lucky few are born with. Instead, he argues that seemingly benign activities such as taking naps, daydreaming, and traveling can unleash a powerful storm of ideas that have the potential to change the world.

Although his book is about the creative process in any undertaking from mixing drinks to surfing, Lehrer described how his discoveries about creativity could help move struggling tech companies forward at a recent talk in San Francisco.

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Lehrer on quirky and relaxed offices:

“I think it helps if it’s done properly. If it’s just a vaneer of relaxation where you just put a ping pong table in the lobby because that’s what Google does, and you let people put tiki lamps on their desks, and it’s just the superficial type of relaxation but you really expect them to be at their desk looking at their computer screen, then you are not doing anything. In fact, that’s going to backfire.”

Lehrer on bosses letting their employees waste time at work:

“If the relaxation is sincere and you are really willing to let your employees take a nap in the middle of the day or really have a ping pong tournament, or do stuff that looks unproductive, then it’s going to be helpful. There is this great line of Einstein’s: ‘Creativity is the residue of time wasted’. So, the challenge of a boss of course is letting your employees do stuff that looks like they are wasting time, because that’s when they are going to have their best ideas.”

Lerher on why companies fail as they get bigger:

“As companies get bigger, everyone in that company tends to become less productive and less innovative, so you get fewer patents per capita, fewer trademarks per capita, and people bring in less profit per capita. This is what makes companies die. huge firms that we expect to be around forever like google are only around on average for 45 years.”

Lehrer isn’t just some productivity guru, and he’s never founded a tech company. He studied neuroscience at Columbia University with a special interest in the biological process of memory, and has written three books about the intersection of neuroscience and everyday life.

Tech companies that are already successfully implementing Lehrer’s ideas about innovation and relaxation include 37Signals and OnSwipe. 37Signals  has experimented with a four day work week consisting of 10 hours a day to give employees more time for relaxation. The OnSwipe team encourages napping in the middle of marathon coding sessions.

Whether your company is trying to brainstorm itself out of a rut, or you are about to embark on a big project push, try encouraging your team to take a time off during the process. Your team will come back to work well rested and brimming with more creative ideas.

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