Uninspired? Take a shower

Forcing creativity isn’t productive. It simply doesn’t work.

Remember the last idea or revelation you had that demanded immediate action? It might be as simple as a reminder to buy toothpaste or an idea for your public policy midterm. Or it may be a major life decision predated by weeks of agony, like ending a long-distance relationship right before Valentine’s Day (it’s not too late yet!) or choosing Duke over UNC.

The content here is less important than the context–the spark of genuine clarity followed by urgency and inspiration sometimes mislabeled as impulsivity.

The idea just sort of comes to you. Most likely at an inconvenient time. 

You then scramble for your phone or something to write with–or my personal favorite, holler at Siri–to ensure that someone can get this idea of yours recorded before you forget.

This inspiring adrenaline is something we want more of. More creative thinking means more progress, innovation, joy and a sense that what we’re doing matters. Intuitively, we know this. Which is why we try to recreate the conditions conducive to such thought processes by seeking a special, indestructible environment–like the window seat on the second table to the left on third floor Perkins, or the luxurious spinner chair in your dorm room. Once settled, we then enter a generous block of time allotted for “brainstorming” or “figuring my life out” only to stare frustratedly into the oblivion of a blank word document for hours on end.

It’s like trying to fall asleep by whispering, “Okay, sweet and twisted brain of mine, time to go to sleep!” only to disrupt the process of actually dozing off.

We’re simply trying too hard.

There is, however, value in understanding the contexts in which we are most inspired. So, I started to take note of when and where ideas “just sort of came to me.” And after a week of paying attention (wild concept, I know), one particular setting stuck out to me: the shower.

Showers are a non-negotiable and seemingly passive part of our days. At first, I thought I was crazy to believe that the shower ousted my favorite coffee shop for inspiration and clarity. Hip deep into writing this article, I continued to think I was professing straight bullshit. But there had to be something about the shower that makes it conducive to creative thinking if there’s even a Hinge prompt about it.

Turns out, the shower speculation is real.

A quick Google search will inform you that great ideas arise in the shower due to the interplay of distraction, relaxation and sensory stimulation that produce a neurological dopamine high. It isn’t that the mindless, automatic nature of showering activates creative sweet spots in the brain. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Our brain is released from high-order activities and instead engages its appropriately named “default mode network.” Showering liberates our minds from the outside noise and allows us to do something we rarely let ourselves do: be present.

But in constantly trying to get ahead, we forget where we are.

We aren’t present. If the mental liberty that comes with presence is what enables good ideas, important revelations, and untamed creativity–then perhaps we have it all backwards.

Shower theory, I came to realize, isn’t really about showers at all. The rarity of solitude and relaxation in our busy lives is what makes the shower experience compelling. However, I find it more illuminating to understand why we aren’t experiencing this kind of creativity elsewhere. So, I discovered more instances where good ideas “just sort of came to me,” including:

  • First thing in the morning after a cup of coffee. Because I haven’t had the chance yet to worry about what the day may bring.
  • Lying in Savasana–the “corpse pose” that concludes most yoga sequences–where doing anything other than melt in my own thoughts would disrupt those around me. 
  • In bed at 3 am, when there is no loss of productivity since the expectation is that I should be sleeping anyway.

And of course, during a steaming hot shower. Because I have to clean myself. And since there are only so many things I can do while nude and wet and keeping this PG, my mind is released from responsibilities elsewhere and is allowed to simply be.

“The arrow doesn’t seek the target, the target draws the arrow.” Matthew McConaughey was talking about love when he shared this quote in Greenlights, but it applies here just as well.

What all of this goes to show is that forcing creativity is counterproductive. Good ideas don’t “just come to you.” You have to make yourself available to receive them.

Unlike losing men, it’s difficult to learn how to be present in 10 days. It’s a lifelong journey, and I suspect that the balancing act doesn’t get much easier.

I am not about to tell you to “work smarter, not harder” because that would only reinforce the compulsion towards busyness that got us here in the first place. Instead, next time you feel uninspired or indecisive or in a mental rut–what if you just did less? If shower theory taught me anything, it’s that sometimes the least “productive” thing to do is actually the most.

Oh, and this article? Totally a shower thought.

Samantha Sette is a Trinity Senior. Her column typically runs on alternate Tuesdays. 


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