Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Power of Shower Thoughts (alexanderell.is)
351 points by otras 67 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 78 comments

It just has to be some repetitive physical activity that doesn't require intense thought or mental focus.

This can be chopping wood, taking a shower, walking, hiking, running, riding a bike, taking the dog for a walk, doing the dishes, etc.

The key is:

1. No particular mental focus

2. Some kind of physical movement

Your mind eventually starts to spin on autopilot, which is when it is able to mix things it can't while you're focused.

To add to your point 1 - no particular mental focus also requires no audio input. It's so easy to fall into the habit of constantly having a podcast or an audiobook on.

Actually, audio and especially music can make it easier to go into a diffuse state. The trick is to make sure it's music without lyrics, or the volume is low enough you're not listening to the content of the talking.

Or, it's a song you've listened to a hundred times already and know the lyrics and the tempo by heart. At least, it works for me.

I can't confirm that, since as of late I've been getting great results with this:


Of all places I thought I'd see that channel recommended, HN is close to last on the list. That guy puts up some really great stuff.

I originally found this channel searching for "Saturn noises". And Saturn noises I got.

Not sure how to interpret the "no audio input" part; for years, I've been able to get into this kind of flow simply by starting a minimalist, repetitive tune on a keyboard and let that run for an hour or longer. My most effective place for this is early morning events where the secret sauce is to avoid opening your eyes until the idea that is emerging is fully baked in your memory.

What’s wrong with music?

Nothing inherently wrong, but if your mind is thinking about the lyrics it might be hard to "wander". Of course varies from person to person

> Some kind of physical movement

My theory, unencumbered by evidence, is the movement shakes the thoughts around until they find a pattern where they fit together.

I always called this getting in the flow. A semi meditative state. I did long range cycling in my teens (100 miles or so) and this kicked off a pattern I still use today.

The Aristotelian “Peripatetic” school gets its name from the act of walking while philosophizing if my memory of undergrad philosophy still serves.

I throw my yoyo. Once you are good, your mind will wander.

This is a great idea, I bought into the yoyo fad as a kid in the 00s and still have the muscle memory for it, might try this out.

"Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."

There are some video games that also do it for me. Super Hexagon, One Finger Death Punch, Guitar Hero/Rock Band, Geometry Wars are the big ones.

These are all games that require some type of intense focus but where I surely begin making mistakes the moment I consciously think about my actions in the game. Sometimes this means getting in the zone and not thinking about anything at all, but sometimes my mind is instead allowed to wander it a way it doesn't normally, and without judgment.

Same happens when one learns touch typing using a tool where words are random or not valid words at all(like keybr).

When using such tool, at some point where there is no need to focus on keys or words, mind will drift into thinking something else.

> Some kind of physical movement

Much of our thought is based on metaphor of body movement.

A neuroscientist once said that our brain's primary purpose is to coordinate movement.

Cigarettes taught me this in college. Definitely the only positive impact smoking had on my life. I would be deep into solving a hard problem, and my nicotine brain would force me to go outside and smoke. I would very often come back inside and immediately get past a big hurdle I was struggling with.

It happened so much that when I quit smoking I made sure to continue the routine of getting up to go outside for a few minutes every two hours or so.

I came here to say the exact same thing. I used to find that the act of prying myself away from the computer to go have a cigarette was incredibly beneficial to my problem solving ability. There is definitely something to performing a simple, repetitive physical task while leaving the mind free to wander. Like the above poster, I've since quit smoking thank goodness. I don't miss the smoking itself as much as I miss having a reason to get up and treat myself to some quiet time to indulge myself in thought.

Interestingly enough browsing HN every so often is my version of this.

I don't smoke, but going out for a walk or run has that effect on me.

Nicotine also improves mental performance.

Somehow when I take a break to do something mindless, showering being especially high on the list, I often am able to step back from the problem and get some perspective. Yesterday I realized I was making the solution to complex by separating concerns and could combine them and greatly simplify the task. Five minutes in the shower yielded more forward progress than three long days of coding. It doesn't always help, but it does often enough that the daily shower is a productive time. More often it's just a mental code review and I catch and fix a bug, that works best if I go strait from coding to the shower with all the pieces of code fresh in my mind.

In fact that is well known to be a great way to find creative solutions to very difficult problems. Step 1: Work intensely for a long time (days or more) looking for a solution. Step 2) Relax and do something to let the mind wander.

If you look at all the “it just came to me” stories, they are talking about step 2 while glossing over the sweat and tears that went into step one.

It is possible that the five minute "shower insight" would not have happened without the three long days of coding.

The way I see it, finding a shortcut in a mental landscape requires that landscape to be setup in some sufficient detail.

I absolutely agree, without the three days coding, I wouldn't have had the possible space sufficiently in mind to see the simpler solution.

This is also the advantage of iterative development. Build a prototype, if you see a better solution, rewrite it. Rinse and repeat if time permits.

The commute to work helps me as well. I think this is something that can get lost for people who work from home. Too many people are so focused on heads down LOC/hour and forget that the software is art. I've worked with good engineers that can't touch type. Designing effective maintainable solutions is hard and should be the thing that people focus on.

The commute is one of the only thing I don't miss from working home, if I want to clear my mind I have plenty of better options, I can walk through the neighborhood, take a shower or do some house chores.

Sure, it is an individual thing. The thing I like about my 20 minute drive is that I can't be distracted. I can't look at my phone or the tv. This is also best for me in the morning when I'm still waking up and my brain is in a lower gear.

If you live and work in a rural area, sure. On I-95 in northern Virginia, commuting is not a mindless or relaxing task.

I can't touch type. Although with somewhat reduced accuracy I pick type with two hands without looking at the keyboard. Still speed of text entry is rarely the bottleneck for me, and I benefit ergonomically from having my wrists free in the air.

I also work at home, so I guess my shower is like your commute.

When I work from home I often take a break to do laundry or do the dishes. It often helps me to get clarity on issues I have been working on.

Being able to replace "staring at the wall and thinking" with "putting the dishes away and thinking" or "chopping veggies and thinking" or similar is one of the biggest benefits of working from home, IMO.

doing dishes too! and for a modern take on the topic, watching mindless youtube videos! lol

One of the advantages of the pomodoro method is that those 5 minute breaks allow me to stop thinking hard at the problem I'm working on. "Do I really need to solve that, in that way, or is the solution in that other direction?" That realization would come anyway but with a break every 25 minutes it comes much earlier and with less wasted time.


My experience has been the same and I think it is related to pressure on the problem. If I'm thinking to solve the problem on my code editor (or in work enviroment, for the case), I feel a lot of pressure in solving it right and (maybe) quick. I have to think about the problem well, I can't misstep.

In the other cases (shower), I can think about the problem without pressure and in a more free way. No one will care what I think or what I could propose about the problem in that situation, it's just my mind and me.

Am a big fan of this approach, I've slipped into this intense focus / distant reflection practice over the years without knowing why or how it worked.

It's wonderful to see it formalised and be able to communicate its value.

Naps, walks and gentle bike rides hold the answers to so many puzzles.

You might find this recent article in The New Yorker intriguing: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/the-myth...

If I have a problem I need to solve, I think about it before I go to bed, and in the morning when I wake up I will often find it solved. I am pretty good at remembering my dreams, and on many of these occasions I will recall a dream of writing code related to the problem. I never remember the code itself, but often the structure of the problem will be much more apparent to me the next day.

Thinking actively about a problem is often all we have time for, but if you can let something stew and let your brain work on it, especially while working on other problems that might turn out to have some similar structure, the results can be quite satisfying.

This has worked so well for me in the past that back in my undergrad Analysis of Algorithms class, I would take extra showers just to work through particularly tricky problem set problems. It never failed.

I am pretty sure activities that have low brain requirements, be it the shower, running and the likes allow our brains to declutter, clean up all the mess of the constant stimuli we are assaulted with, especially from tech, but also noise if you're a fellow urban dweller.

On a similar note, I realised pen and paper -away from any computer, works wonders to organise my thoughts.

I wonder if the habit of listening to audio at faster than 1x speed has the side effect of muting the brain’s ability to do “background thinking.” I have noticed that when I take a day or two off from listening to a podcast or audiobook on my commute I have better focus and creativity — but the sample size is small and I do t know if this is merely coincidence.

I wonder if anybody have studies of whether the constant audio of music and audiobooks are a detriment to allowing the background processes to work in the mind?

That's an interesting question that I'd also love to know the answer to. I'm also curious whether there's a difference between music and podcasts/audiobooks since the latter seem to require a lot more focus than the former which might further inhibit background processing?

Even within music we might expect differences between instrumental, nonsense lyrics, and narrative songs.

I call it backprocess, it's fun how when you let go sometimes it comes with new conclusions and more clarity. It's also super comforting to have this inner "friend" do some of the thinking for yo.

The other thing I've noticed is how it's sometimes hard to concentrate on something else when you're going through a significant cognitive process (changing jobs, arguments, work hassles...), even if you are not actively thinking about it. As if your brain's cycles were taken by something else.

I've started to notice the pattern (hard to focus, distracted), attribute it to backprocess, realize that whatever triggered it must be significant, and expect to yield results at some point.

Some of my best ideas and realizations in science research and business I got while exercising, sleeping, or in the shower.

Same here. Throughout the years, I realized that a warm shower is priceless for making better plans, generating new ideas and solving difficult problems

I've experienced this many times. I've been walking to and from work most days for the past several years, about 30 minutes each way. In the morning I listen to a podcast, but in the afternoon I just walk and let my mind wander. By the end of the day I'm usually too tired to continue in the focused mode of thinking, but sometimes I'm still able to discover some new insight while walking in the unfocused mode.

I've had some of the best ideas while in a sauna. Sure, I can't write stuff down, but a) I don't have my phone, no distractions, b) it's a prolonged period, so I have time to think it through, c) there's no physical exercise to distract me from all this.

The one downside is the fact that I can't write stuff down, so I oftentimes forget these revolutionary thoughts ;-)

Two things to share.

1) The book Your Brain at Work by David Rock does a great job explaining the brain and how to tilt it in your favor, more often.

2) I have solved more problems and had more great ideas 3+ miles into a run than any place else. There's something to be said for thinking less and not forcing the brain into a corner.

Do you run at a high or slow pace?

I find myself unable to focus on my audiobooks while running once the pace is high enough. I imagine all I would be thinking of while running without content to distract me would be the number of the miles left of the run.

Mid to slow. I don't do technology of any sort while running. That's the point. It's the chance to disconnect. I don't run for my body. I run for my mind.

Highly recommend the book “Hare Brain Tortoise Mind” for more insight into how this does and doesn’t work well.

This is one of the many reasons I love bike commuting. I solve many work-related problems while I'm riding.

My bike commute was anything but routine. Cars making unsafe right turns one day, pedestrians in the bike lane the next, black ice the third day...

"Things I’ve found don’t work... Playing video games"

Opposite for me, I go for easy problems and then let my mind wander while I play a mindless game of Chess or HoMM3, then when I restart work one hour later the solution writes itself in 5 minutes.

What game really matters. High attention games I find don’t work. Just like driving during rush hour in tretcherous conditions doesn’t work for me, but a driving sim where I can’t physically die if my mind wanders might...

Multiplayer games of high action, like overwatch similarly are bad.

Other games that don’t work well for me are zachtronic likes, too hard, and too much like the problems I’m trying to solve.

Suprisingly, though, dark souls is a good game to play. Something about the combat is meditative, especially the corpse runs from dying to an easy mob, that focuses my attention in ways I find other activities don’t.

Homm3 seems like a good meditative game. Lots of relatively brainless combat, especially if you use save games to avoid truly stupid moves. Many one more turn type games can fall under this historically. Newer strategy games I find lack this quality though. It seems that modern game design generally avoids the dominant and dominated strategies that I used to enjoy finding and exploiting mindlessly decades ago.

By and large though, I personally try to avoid games until I’m done for the day. I find it hard to go back to work, and my working sessions are shorter and shorter the earlier I allow myself to play any games...

I've solved plenty of problems when I swim. There's so many different "rooms" and frames of mind I can be in during that activity I think that's the main reason why it doesn't happen as often during weight training. While swimming I can come up with the solution in the shower, in the sauna, while doing my sets in the pool and while resting between sets. I switch between being completely immersed in water, almost deprived of sensory inputs, and being above water constantly.

I'd love to hear from John Carmack on this, it would be interesting to hear that he rarely has these 'shower' moments because he is always operating with great perspective.

I would expect the opposite instead. I don't know him personally and this is conjecture based on what I've read about him, but his being totally immersed in a particular subject, to the extent of going to a thinking retreat in a cabin, is the best way to reach those Eureka moments.

I've written in the past about this, let me copy an old comment of mine:

"Let me share a tip that might work for you as well then: some times you will procrastinate heavily because you're have a hard problem with no solution in sight. You'll want to make some semblance of progress, but you just can't sit down and concretely work on it.

It's by design! Your subconscious keeps working in the background, thinking outside the box until one day out of nowhere you get the solution right before your eyes.

I'm not sure it's possible to think outside the box if you're not procrastinating, since you need other types of unrelated input for your brain to make a different type of association and reach a conclusion from another perspective.

I'd like to read more about this phenomenon but has been one of my best tricks up my sleeve in my career. Recently I've been trying to write down a complex piece of code, the corner stone of my application critical to the whole business. I've spent weeks on that problem, tried and failed to design a working solution, spent hours reading papers during working time instead of writing anything, browsing HN mindlessly, until after 2 months, out of the blue at 4am looking at cat pics on reddit I found the answer. And I'm now enjoying this newfound wave of productivity until my next hard problem"

>> you need other types of unrelated input for your brain to make a different type of association

Or maybe it's even simpler: conscious mind stuck on hard problem starts to work as broken record - you are repeating the same thoughts, reconsidering the same wrong solutions all over again. Focusing on something unrelated frees your uncounciousness to try something else.

In my previous job when I used to write code, all the answers to my problems came when I got up, walked to the toilet and did my business.

For more information on how you can use this and other techniques to solve hard problems and get more (deep) work done. See Cal Newport's book Deep Work https://www.calnewport.com/books/deep-work/

"Just think about it deeply. Then forget it, and an idea will jump up in your face."

A mentor of mine once said that information acquisition is intentional, like eating, but learning is subconscious, like digestion. He liked to say “you can’t help but learn!”

For anyone having many good shower thoughts but easily forget them due to bad short-term memory: buy some water proof note taking papers. It's among the best things I've done for myself recently.

I'd also add - Public transit - don't take your phone

I don't know about where you live, but where I am public transport in peak hour is a ghastly cyberpunk nightmare. When you're packed into poorly air-conditioned, cramped and dirty trains some small amount of escapism is more than a luxury, it's a matter of mental health.

Well I live in NZ, but back in the day I used to get on to BART from the East bay to SF during non-peak hours, and usually just turn around and come back because I'd solved my problem

My problem with shower thoughts is often I have too many and it's a struggle to hold on to them all until the end of the shower so I can actually write them down

Start bringing a whiteboard marker with you

Or a waterproof notebook (with an attached waterproof pencil). They worked really well for me; I sketched a few public talks in the shower this way.

Solvitur abulando - 'it is solved by walking' (Diogenes of Sinope). Great tool for solving hard problems.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact