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Why you get ideas in the shower (scottberkun.com)
116 points by ecaron on May 9, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 51 comments

My wife claims that I should charge my company for showering time given the number of times I emerge from the shower and start taking notes on an idea. Usually a shower follows two enormous cups of coffee.

I'd be curious to see a bit more detail on the physiological basis of this. I do plenty of things where you're able to zone out a bit, but none of them have remotely the same idea-generation rate as being in the shower. Can't help but wonder whether a big pile of warm water all over the body does something to blood flow in some useful way. If I could remember any physiology this would be the point to use an impressive word like vasoconstriction or vasodilation or some such. :-)

I'd be curious to see a bit more detail on the physiological basis of this.

My reply to your remark was placed under the wrong comment (that's what I get for posting at some ungodly hour while suffering insomnia):


I tend to get ideas just when the caffeine from my morning espresso hits. So it may just be the timing of the shower.

I bet it's because you're so relaxed, and your body is being stimulated gently with pleasurable sensations constantly. So that increases the fire rate of all your sensory neurons, which are connected to other neurons. Then those fire, then they fire the ones they're connected to, etc.

We don't want to know what follows the "two enormous cups of coffee."

One of the most mentally productive times of my life so far was when I had a 1 hour (each way) commute in a car with no CD player. I was alone in my thoughts for an hour a day with absolutely 0 distractions. Driving was just enough to keep my brain awake, but could get a low enough thread-priority to let me think.

I've replaced the driving with biking (I live a lot closer to my job now), but it honestly isn't quite as good. Some of the stuff I came up with then (this was about a year and a half ago), I'm still fleshing out now.

Another thing that's close to driving, but not quite as good is yard work. Something about the sound of lawnmowers and weed whackers is really conducive to thinking.

I think there is something to be said for just getting clean and killing germs (which is one of the things soap does). I have a compromised immune system, so I am very sensitive to the whole germ thing. Often, the best way for me to break a fever, get to sleep after hours of insomnia, etc is to shower. I am keenly aware of the impact on cognitive function of being even low-grade ill, something other people seem to largely be oblivious to. I don't think that means it doesn't impact them. I think it means it impacts them less and they are unaware of what is causing them to have an "off" day.

Similar for me for several years when I lived in Seattle, but had a job across Puget Sound in Kitsap County. Each way each day I had anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour on a ferry (depending on which ferry I decided to take that day). I could just sit in my car, with some music on, and either technical material I needed to read, or a pad of paper and a pen working out design ideas.

No distractions, and if I needed a break to let something turn over in my mind, I could simply step out of the car watch the ocean, or go up to the passenger decks and have a seat or get a snack from the cafeteria. If it was the morning, they had nice breakfasts available.

Curious, biking to work does it for me. I have a very relaxed route though, does yours require you to pay a lot of attention?

Ever try hiking alone? I'd imagine that'd use the same parts of the brain as driving - visual processing, directions, motor movements, solitude...

Early on I learned that Juggling was a great way to get my conscious mind out of the way of my subconscious so that I could actually retrieve information from it about solutions to problems.

Like a lot of people I know, my brain works on coming up with solutions to 'problems' 24/7, whether I want it to or not (much to my spouses dismay sometimes) And while effective getting those solutions out of the queue require either isolation (camping is great, the shower is ok if a bit short) or to have my conscious brain not focused on trying to pull the answer out.

Juggling (and as it turns out for me piano playing) has the property of applying a temporal focus to my brain which prevents it from interfering with my subconscious. Weird I know, but folks I know who study such things consider it fairly normal. I know a guy who plays FPS video games when he has a really hard problem he's working on, same sort of thing.

The problem with inspiration-based problem solvers is that it's always extremely difficult to predict when they will solve a problem.

This has been a real issue for me and the fact that my off-focus activity of choice is arsing about on the internets and pretty much everyone I ever work with thinks all I ever do is slack off.

Related is Paul Graham's essay, "The Top Idea in Your Mind" [http://www.paulgraham.com/top.html]. He doesn't address the question of why but proposes shower-taking as a litmus test for finding out what the top idea in your mind is (or your ambient thoughts, as he dubs it).

First paragraph:

    I realized recently that what one thinks about in the 
    shower in the morning is more important than I'd thought. 
    I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I'd go 
    further: now I'd say it's hard to do a really good job on 
    anything you don't think about in the shower.

I'd say it's hard to do a really good job on anything you don't think about in the shower.

That's so true. My morning shower is where I think about what my goals are for the day- it's also usually where and when I come up with the seeds of the best strategies for achieving said goals. If I haven't found a executable solution by the end of my shower, it usually won't come to me until 3am later that night when all other distractions are gone.

Thanks. This was what I was searching for when I saw the title.

Oh, great. As if I don't have enough things on my to-do list. Now I have to try this "shower" thing.

(Also, I seem to be really sparse in the idea department. Or rather, in the interesting idea department. I've spent most of the last decade stumbling onto ideas that I could immediately dismiss as being too obvious to be interesting, whether or not they could be financially rewarding, or already done by someone else. There needs to be some sort of affordable R&D/think-tank outsourcing you can do if you're a one or two man job looking for ideas - heh.)

I worked full-time on readwarp.com for 8 months. When I started I was terrified that I'd run out of money. But when I finally gave up I found I had more runway than I'd projected. What I ran out of was ideas. I'm hoping next time that having a cofounder will help keep up a stream of ideas.


It's not about finding an interesting idea fully formed. It's about constantly generating new things to try, new trails to blaze.


"As if I don't have enough things on my to-do list."

If it's closing you to new ideas your todo list is too much baggage. I've grown super sensitive to this; I prune my todo list all the time[1].

It's hard to be open to new ideas all the time, of course. Being too open can interfere with actually doing anything. The author of "Flow" says successful people tend to alternate between being open and exploratory, and being closed/focussed on getting something out the door. I imagine it as weaving alternately on either side of the ideal line. It's impossible to perfectly balance both sides, but you don't have to be perfect.

[1] My todo list is in version control for many years now, and every now and then I check out what it looked like a month or a year ago. It's amazing to me how rapidly items turn over. Most ideas form and die within 2 weeks.

To obvious to be interesting? Its been a while since I read something like that on HN!

Why should it not be interesting just because it seems to be obvious?

Every few weeks I become so distracted by thinking about a problem in the shower that I'll rinse, lather, and repeat three, four, or far more times without realizing. Only seems to happen in the morning, which makes me think it has something to do with the problem-solving activity of my subconscious during sleep. When it occurs, though, what a fantastic window of creativity and focus!

It makes sense that the shower is somewhere you can really relax and think. It's the one place where you really can't be doing something else that is more important. You can't check your email, you can't be thinking that you should be writing a paper for some class. You can't do anything but shower and think.

In college there were multiple times that I came up with solutions to programming problems while I was in the shower because my mind actually had time to take a break.

Not that it's really related to the actual substance of the article, just to the title, but personally I've never had any ideas, or even done any real thinking about current ideas, while in a shower, whereas when having a bath, I have.

I don't know if that's completely random, whether it's something specific about me, whether it's because I will spend longer in a bath than a shower, or because I enjoy having a bath more, and tend to relax more. Or some other reason.

If showers are not a part of your routine, then, when showering, your mind will be preoccupied with things like "how to shower," "how not to slip," "how not to get burned with hot water," "how to control water temperature," etc., and will not be able to achieve the state of relaxation necessary for generation of new ideas.

The key is that the activity has to be both relaxing and routine (double "r"...). For you, it's bathing, for others it's showering, yet for others it's walking in the woods. If the activity is not relaxing, you will be preoccupied with how to control it and with resulting stress. If the activity is not routine, you will be focused on its novelty rather than letting your mind wander on its own.

Maybe subconsciously it's more stressful for me to have a shower, but I have far more showers than baths, and certainly I don't need to really think about any aspects of it, consciously.

It's just that in a shower I never decide to relax and enjoy it, it's always a method of cleaning, or of waking up, or of heating up, not an activity for the sake of enjoyment.

The shower is utterly routine for me, but I also never get ideas there. It's sad - I feel like I'm missing out on something.

My best idea generator is the walk away from my desk & to my car at the end of the day. I have solved so many bugs immediately after exiting the office building...

My theory is that it's the white noise sound from the water that helps concentration.

Diving Slate: http://www.amazon.com/Scuba-Dive-Underwater-Writing-Slate/dp...

Get one of these, and jot your ideas down in the shower. (Don't forget to buy cleaning fluid: http://www.amazon.com/Biodegradable-Dive-Slate-Cleaner-Refre...)

My work day is usually 8 hours of implementing whatever idea I came up with while in the shower that morning. If nothing comes to me during the morning routine, I'll have a really crummy, unproductive day.

I might be able to take an hour for a walk around the neighborhood to clear my head to get ideas, but generally even walking around trying to not get hit by vehicles or other pedestrians still distracts me.

I get ideas while out walking, no iPod and preferably no other people about. Exercise too (of a sort).

It's not about taking a shower - it's about disconnecting from active stimulation for a few minutes. A consequence of our information society or "information addiction" is that a lot of people are really scared to just sit down and do nothing. A lot of people are afraid of being alone in their head with their own thoughts.

When you're taking a shower, this is often the only time during the day when you're not actively engaging your mind. Just taking a walk (no iPod allowed) or just lying down on the couch staring at the ceiling, or sitting in your car after you've parked will give the same effect. Guaranteed. You might experience a few minutes of discomfort as your consciousness grasps for something to hold on to.

I've always found the shower to be effective for thinking because the combination of white noise and the routine of washing occupy the mind so well that deeper thoughts can emerge.

Taking showers to mull over problems is one more advantage to working from home :)

Sensory deprivation is also a safe way to have an intense psychedelic experience, without having to ingest chemicals. Go float in a tank for an hour or two, and you'll be astonished at some of the crazy thoughts you'll have.

Yap yap yap.. my favorite of the lot. Better then meditation. The word "psychedelic experience" might be stretching it but you do get minor visual & auditory hallucinations that are basically your conscious mind observing your subconscious.. stuff monks train for years to achieve in standard meditation while in a tank - bam! Here's a 2 part blog post I wrote on Isolation Tanks ~ http://blog.ernestsemerda.com/2009/09/03/floatation-isolatio...

This happens so much to me that I got a dry erase marker and write down my ideas on bathroom mirror as soon as I get out of the shower ... naturally, everyone who uses my bathroom thinks I'm crazy.

I tend to do my best thinking when out for a walk. There's a greater chance of interruption, though, so I find myself increasingly heading towards less populated areas with fewer streets to cross.

People who are into this kind of thing will probably like "Your brain at work" by David Rock. It covers this topic and a few more - it's pretty interesting stuff for developers and knowledge workers. There's also a tech talk here:


Also, get Pragmatic Thinking and Learning by Andy Hunt. Also covers these topics and helps people understand learning, creativity and how to exploit the way you work and think to, well, learn better.

For more specifics into the cognitive science behind why this is - another good book, which has lots of wonderful references to studies on this topic (amongst other things), is "Your Brain at Work" by David Rock. Or, for the general overview you can watch the Google Talk at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeJSXfXep4M

For those commenting that the White noise is a factor:

http://www.simplynoise.com and also their downloadable thunderstorm soundscape recording: http://simplynoise.com/download.php?key=18336dd65313 (Google result, not sure why it thinks a donation has happened).

I've written todo lists backwards on the sliding glass doors, on the steamed up glass doors, so I could write them down when I get out of the shower. That particular day, I had like 5 ideas I really didn't want to forget, and this was the only way I could think of... it worked, mostly. The lower I got on the door, the harder it was to read.

It's just amazing to know everybody is getting ideas in showers - I used to think I was the lonely weird one...

while i don't disagree with the article, i always assumed the shower was particularly potent because it's first thing in the morning, after a full night's sleep. so you've got a whole 8-10 hours of subconscious activity to catch up on.

Not everyone showers in the morning, and those of us who don't also get ideas in the shower.

hmmm. do you get as many, or as good ones?

[also, maybe i'm just jaded, but the way i read your reply sounds as though you're indignant - as if i've committed some terrible (almost racist) offense by making assumptions about other people. if you are offended, i apologise, but i mention it more because i wonder if it's just a curious consequence of the kind of society we now live in. i have no idea how you would phrase what you said to avoid giving that idea, for example...]

Maybe I shouldn't read my email first then ^^.

If you are crazy extreme, the Motorola Defy (android phone) is waterproof (they only claim "water resistant" but people have used them underwater in swimming pools, check youtube).

I get the best ideas when I'm not trying to come up with an idea, which is a paradox. Though never had an idea in the shower that I remember. :)

I get ideas when I am sleeping.... all the time...

I often take 20 to 40 minute showers in the morning. This is my meditation.

There isn't too much going on to distract me.

I get ideas right before i fall asleep.

When I started carrying a notebook around, I noticed that I seemed to have more ideas. In actuality, I think that I had ideas pretty regularly without the notebook, but I foolishly tell myself, "ah, that's good, I'll have to remember that." Ten minutes later, I've forgotten the idea. An hour later, I've forgotten that I've forgotten an idea...

Most of the ideas I get in the shower aren't appropriate here! :)

I just took a shower................nothing.

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