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Why I'm More Creative On The Bus Than At My Desk

Right. It’s the blank page again. I’m on my second cup of coffee this morning and I've got a grand total of three words on paper. My hands are starting to jitter. Okay, calm down. Cleansing breath.

Let’s get out of here.

The 74-seater Inspiration Machine

This is my silver bullet. My secret sauce, my cheat code. I hop on a double-decker bus. The top deck is arguably the better deck. There are a few people here, but I sit in the front and pretend they don’t exist. I know this route by heart. It winds through three neighbourhoods before it reaches the city, and by that time I always have a solution. I don’t know how or why it works, because I’m not actively thinking about my problem at all. I just sit and pop! The ideas come.

I gaze out of the window and watch the world unfold from my plexiglass cocoon. There’s an old woman with a shopping trolley, and a delivery rider headed right for her. His bell shrieks. She stays her course. They play a game of chicken - and at the last second, he meanders around her.

There’s a gargantuan young man in a singlet. His biceps are the size of his head, but he’s cradling a tiny white pomeranian with a bubblegum tongue bouncing in and out.

The bus pulls to a stop. There’s a girl in a robin egg top smiling at her phone. Oh, she’s cute. Then her sixth sense kicks in, and she looks up. We lock eyes. Oops.

I pretend I wasn’t looking.

But the magic has started to kick in by now. Words and phrases leap out at me. Story threads unravel. Questions come knocking - they’re asking for answers. I don’t have all the pieces, but I’ve got enough.

Wait. Am I the only weird one who works like this?

To sit or not to sit

Alright, I’m back at my table. This time my head is clear.

The creative benefits of leaving one’s desk aren’t breaking news. Great minds of the past, from Beethoven to Charles Dickens, all loved to take walks. The Greek philosophers Plato and his student Aristotle pontificated on their walks so often that this habit was immortalised in Raphael’s “School of Athens” renaissance fresco.

Author Virginia Woolf loved to walk so much that she proclaimed in her diary, “to walk alone in London is the greatest rest.”

What is it about wandering that’s so good for creativity?

I took this question to a friend group chat. I asked if they had more creative ideas at their table or out of the office. Four out of six said they had more prolific brainstorms away from their desk.

When I asked them why the dots started to connect.

The only guy who preferred the desk said it allows him to stay focused, but he still needs to leave the room periodically to ‘reset’. So actually, we’re not that different. He just puts a different weightage on his desk vs. away ratio.

One of the four mentioned that her muse visits her right before she goes to bed. Another said she churned out ideas better in the shower.

I almost rolled my eyes. You’ve seen this in movies before—the main character’s in the shower, the water beating down on their face. Then they get a look in their eye, and you know something’s about to go down. A modern-day eureka scene.

A cliché, but does it really happen more often than we think?

The Shower Effect

A 2015 study of over 1000 participants reported that among those who experienced creative insights, around 50% agreed they were the result of being away from the problem.

Popular situations to not think about problems included being in the shower, in bed, cleaning up at home, walking, exercising, and - gasp! - in transit!

Science people call this the incubation period. When your conscious mind is focused on something else, your subconscious gets to work on it in the back room.

In other words, it’s not necessarily physical wandering that boosts creativity, it’s mental wandering.

Another study in 2019 looked specifically into mental/mind wandering. Participants said that 20% of their most creative ideas came when they weren’t thinking or doing anything work-related. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but here’s the rub: the ideas were strongly associated with those that solved an impasse. Taking a break is a Get Out of Jail Free card.

To walk alone in London is the greatest rest. Everyone from Woolf to Plato understood the power of letting the subconscious go for a drive. We just have different ways of getting into that space.

So the answer is, no, I’m not the only weird one. But I still don’t know what it is about the bus.

Perhaps I’ll think about it in the shower.

My version of Plato’s walks

I’m walking in my local park, where two kids on tricycles have introduced themselves to me by nearly running over my foot. I should have taken the bus.

The bus ride and the walk aren’t so different. Walking is a thinker’s favourite tool because it blends two elements that are essential for creativity - relaxation and stimulation. Your mind wanders on a walk, yet isn’t bored.

But when all is said and done, I prefer the bus. It’s basically a supercharged version of walking - I can take in more of the world on a moving vehicle, but I can also switch off and daydream. It’s affordable, I don’t have to worry about driving, and I’m safe from the elements. And kids on tricycles.

The only thing left to wonder about is what if buses had existed in ancient Greece. Maybe Plato would have boarded them for a think?

Oh, the ideas he would have had.

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