Everyone in the world of tech is obsessed with “innovation.” It’s a popular word with a nebulous definition. Some people think of it as coming up with unique business ideas, others view it as taking existing ideas and making them ten times better, and so on. We’re constantly bombarded with images of famous innovators and the incredible, mind-meltingly good things they create.

There are countless books written about what innovation is, how to recognize it, which organizations have it in their very marrow and, of course, who is the most innovative of them all. It seems to me that Elon Musk is leading the pack at the moment, but at the very core of innovation is the idea that there are “disruptors” who can take that title at the drop of a hat.

As fascinating as I find all this, it strikes me as odd that very few people address ways in which your mind can be utilized to generate innovative thoughts. Even worse, many of the so-called gurus of innovation advocate doing things that have the opposite effect. With that in mind, I thought I’d do you a favor and let you in on how you can provide yourself with some mental tools to help foster original thoughts.

I’m not saying that I can guarantee you’ll come up with anything that will make heads explode over at TechCrunch. But what I can guarantee is that you’ll have a much harder time taking Elon Musk’s title if you ignore this information.

Neuroscience and Networks

Within your brain there are a series of networks, which are simply collections of neurons that work together to accomplish certain things. There are a variety of networks, but tonight I want you to focus on just two of them.

The default mode network is the network that is engaged whenever you’re not intensely focused on something (hence the default name). Neuroscientists associate the default mode network with mental wandering or daydreaming.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the task positive network. The task positive network comes online whenever you decide to give a large portion of your mental resources to the task at hand. Think of it as the network you use whenever you need to get shit done.

task positive network thinking depends heavily on working memory and, as a result, requires far more energy (glucose). While the default mode network does use some energy, it’s minimal in comparison.

Some examples of task positive network-oriented tasks:

  • Writing an essay
  • Trying to find a programming bug
  • Working on the engine of a car
  • Assembling a pocket watch

A few default mode network activities:

  • Going for a walk
  • Sitting on the beach
  • Listening to music
  • Browsing Facebook

In keeping with the idea that multitasking is a myth, it appears that the two networks cannot operate simultaneously. You are forced to use one or the other, but both cannot be on at the same time because of how your brain allocates resources.

The two modes also play a role in memory. Specifically, the task positive network is sort of like vacuum in the sense that you use it to pull in and manipulate information with working memory (as mentioned above). The default mode network does not engage working memory, and instead relies on long-term memory - particularly during mental wandering that involves remembering past events. When the task positive network is engaged, you’re also passively placing items from your time of intense focus into long-term memory.

How To Solve Problems

Most people think of solving problems as primarily a task positive network-type activity. There’s an intense focus on what the problem is, the environment that spawned it, considerations for preventing it in the future, and so on. This works well if the problem is not big, and you can conceivably solve it in a single, short session. Where it starts to break down is with problems that require big, ambitious solutions.

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For example, think about all of the problems in an industry like healthcare. Let’s say you want to solve a big issue related to healthcare, like how insurance is currently handled. So you start to binge read everything you can about healthcare, insurance, related laws and anything else that could be even slightly related.

You struggle like this for months, maybe even years. You’re becoming miserable because your self-worth has become wrapped up in solving this gigantic problem. You sacrifice time with friends (who eventually stop calling you) and family, stop exercising and overall become a hermit. Your days become a deluge of books, research papers, healthcare websites and quick meals at the computer. You’ve effectively sacrified yourself in the name of your grand mission.

This is a hypothetical, but there are plenty of people within fast-moving industries like tech who think this way. Entrepreneurs and their employees are expected to put in ridiculously long hours (sacrificing precious sleep) in order to tackle the world’s biggest problems.

No, you don’t need a vacation, you need come up with a fresh dose of innovation. Now get back to work!

The problem here is that our best thoughts don’t come when we’re working with intense focus. When using the task positive network, we’re just scooping up large amounts of information and manipulating it on the spot. We look at different angles, consider alternatives and generally throw our mental resources at the issue.

Using the task positive network in this way is also a great shortcut to mental exhaustion. The sheer amount of glucose you’ll be burning through won’t leave much left for other things you might want to think about. You’re going to feel more stressed out and tired throughout the day, and this leads to a decrease in willpower. A decrease in willpower might not seem like much, but over time it can cause serious problems. For example, if you stop exercising after work you can start to accumulate preventable health problems.

Being a chronic over-user of the task positive network also allows things you’re classifying as “less important” to pile up, causing even more stress.

The only way to battle this problem is by making a point of switching the task positive network off periodically. This means taking breaks in your daily life. Go for a walk, see a movie with loved ones, catch a show at the local comedy club - whatever. Take some time to laugh, relax and replenish your mental resources.

If you’ve been working with your face to the grindstone for a long stretch, you might want to consider going on a vacation.

What you’ll begin to notice if you start doing this is that you’ll no longer feel trapped by the problems you’re trying to solve. Even more importantly, when you step outside the norms of whatever field you’re working in, you can stumble onto crucially important insights.

The reason for this is not New Age hand waving. It has to do with the neuroscience I talked about earlier. When you’re engaging the task positive network, you’re not forming lasting memories as much as you are manipulating information.

It’s when you switch off that you start the process of memory consolidation that you actually begin to make progress. As this occurs, your brain builds networks between what you already know and what you just learned - in other words, understanding. As that understanding grows, you can start to relate ideas and concepts (even foreign ones) to whatever it is you are working on.

As odd as it seems, our best ideas often appear when we’re not trying to come up with them. This is the default mode network at work, and you should respect how it functions if you want to come up with quality ideas.

Now, I want you to realize that I’m not advocating that you stop working hard or focusing on problems intensely. That is a recipe for laziness and professional disaster. What I want you to consider instead is how you can organize your thoughts and work life to be more efficient. The only way to do that is to fight back against the prevailing wisdom of today’s business world and make a point of relaxing. It might seem like you’re putting yourself behind everyone else, but the reality is you’re giving yourself a tremendous advantage.

-Ace