A freelance writer who recently published a book on honesty, Judi Ketteler leads a full, busy life. Her days are spent engaging—with her family, a large, bustling social circle, and the dynamic people she interviews for work—interactions that expose her to a constant stream of new information.
Breakthroughs usually arrive during the precious hours in her schedule in which she is alone, untethered from the world outside her own head. “I go running—that’s when I think of 90% of my ideas,” she says.
The last few miles of these runs are a race against memory; she’s spurred on by the fear of forgetting something really good. As soon as she gets home, she writes everything down on scraps of paper and a pencil—selected for their ability to be “sweat on”—before she showers. Later, she’ll transfer it all to her planner.
Running is, of course, just one method for unearthing new ideas and throughlines; there are a dizzying number of ways to brainstorm. Peel away the specifics of any single strategy, however, and you’ll likely find the same foundation: an interplay between stimulation and quietude.
Academics break problem-solving and idea generation into two general camps: individual work and collaboration. Both have their benefits and drawbacks.
Unconstrained by judgement and groupthink, having employees work separately and then pool their solutions typically results in more creativity and options. But solo work can also be riddled with blind spots—without the safety net of a variety of perspectives, it’s easy to go down unproductive rabbit holes.
Collaboration, meanwhile, allows for “a more effective division of labor,” says Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School. Working in a group, “we benefit from each others’ experiences and can get to a better answer faster,” a particular boon in a complex world that requires multiple layers of expertise. But collaboration can lead to conformity; when group members are in constant dialogue, the number of unique ideas dwindles and consensus is often reached sooner than it should be, Bernstein says.
Over the last few decades, as real-time communication tools have evolved and smartphones allow us never to log off, the professional pendulum has moved away from individual work towards constant connectivity. “Maybe we find time in the quiet car to unplug and that feels really good,” Bernstein says. “But those moments are fewer and farther between.”
Bernstein’s research suggests that it’s possible to harness “the best of both worlds” through a process he refers to “intermittent collaboration.” In a series of studies, researchers divided participants into groups tasked with solving a problem in one of three conditions: 1) each member of the group worked in complete isolation 2) members collaborated continuously or 3) members interacted intermittently.
Groups in the first category produced the largest number of unique solutions, although the average quality of each individual idea was low. Groups in the second category produced fewer solutions, but maintained a higher batting average. Groups in the final category “preserved enough isolation to find the best solutions at least as frequently as the groups with no interaction, but also enough collaboration to maintain an equivalently high average quality of solution compared with the groups with constant interaction,” Bernstein and his co-authors wrote. Instead of undermining one another, intermittent collaboration followed by periods of individual focus served as complements, creating a rhythm conducive to breakthroughs.
For managers and teams, the takeaway is clear: a structure that allows for periods of collaboration and periods of uninterrupted individual work can boost creativity and productivity.
For individuals, there are also potential insights. Through the lens of this research, Ketteler’s strategy of information overload, in which she absorbs a flood of sensory data followed by regular stretches of solitude, looks like a personal version of intermittent collaboration.
When examined closely, many brainstorming techniques harness some version of intermittent collaboration, or perhaps more accurately, intermittent stimulation. Designer and author Kelli Anderson finds inspiration in all kinds of places: conversations with friends, exposure to new textures and materials, interactions on social media. “It doesn’t take much of a spark to ignite an idea or direction,” she says.
She actively seeks out diverse input, curating her Twitter feed to extend beyond her professional bubble. In addition to other designers and artists, Anderson follows librarians, graphic design historians, university art galleries, niche outlets (like Cabinet Magazine), and people who, in general, “challenge my tastes and are a little off-the-wall…you never really know what they are going to post.” Because much of her work is interactive, she’s also started following magicians, along with the people responsible for planning exhibits at the Exploratorium and science museums.
When she stumbles upon something that incites a strong reaction, she makes a note of it for later using the digital design system Dropmark, a good tool “for working out half-baked ideas and posting things that you think might lead somewhere.”
No matter the source of inspiration, “I try not to analyze it too much,” she says. “Part of being an artist and designer is trusting those feelings. It’s a pure thing.” Later, when she has time alone, unconnected from outside influences, she’ll unpack her response, deciphering new doors and projects the spark can open or sustain.
A similar process happens on Ketteler’s long Sunday runs, stretches reserved for unstructured thought. “It’s a time when I am not connected. No one can reach me,” she says. It’s also a time when the connective tissues between ostensibly unrelated topics emerge from the chaos and make themselves visible, ready to be explored.