Potatoes: One Path to Mindless Innovation

Even Being Mindless Can Lead To Breakthrough Innovation

Sometimes, I enjoy doing what seem to others like mindless tasks. (Although some may call them mindful).

I have this weekly ritual where I meticulously clean our kitchen sink: first I empty it, then I run water, then a use powdered bleach on it, the I scrub the powdered bleach using a J-Cloth, making sure that I scrub it as clean as I can. I then rinse the sinks out, plug them, fill them with a little water, then very carefully pour a very small amount of liquid bleach into the water (if you ask me, the best cleaner known to humankind – even though it’s dangerous!), making sure not to splash any. I then let the water sit for a few minutes while the bleach goes to work making the drain and the bottoms of the white sinks spotless. Shortly, I pull out the drain and let the water run out, rinse the sinks again and marvel at the cleanliness of the sink.

You are probably thinking – why are you telling me this? You all likely have your own rituals like that – little things that one does to feel like they accomplished something real, that they have some control over their lives and their work (I at least have control over the sink!), and that you can literally see the fruits of your labor immediately. I use the time to meditate, to ponder other things – to process those tough problems in the back of my mind, while I’m cleaning the sink, or as my Dad would make me do, dig in the garden.

My son has a similar thing with peeling potatoes. He’s a skilled coder, but many times he doesn’t see the results of his work for a long time, hence he gets satisfaction from starting with a pile of unpeeled potatoes, and ending up with a pile of peeled ones, ready to be turned to mashed potatoes. I’m sure that he’s probably mulling over a thorny coding issue as he peels.

The mind is an awesome thing – it has this great ability to simply work on things in the background – it has excellent background processes (unlike some operating systems I could mention) and many times, when you have a big problem to solve, or are looking to generate innovative ideas, simply stepping away from it and doing something else in the forefront of your mind – especially doing something seemingly mindless – like peeling potatoes – lets your background brain work on those tough problems. In fact, I feel that if you tax your front brain too much by thinking about the problem to too long or too hard, it will drain the energy from your back brain, giving it fewer resources to work on your problem.

If you want your back brain to truly get innovative, its key to do something else while its working on that – something that doesn’t tax your front brain at all – sweeping, cleaning, digging in the garden, all those mindless activities work well.

I can’t remember how many times I figured out a thorny problem or come up with an incredibly disruptive idea by just sticking it in my back brain and doing something else. Now you may not be able to do that in the office (imagine what your pointy-haired boss would say if he saw you cleaning the office sink, giving him the excuse that you are in the process of figuring out how to save that project right now), but maybe we should be.

It may be hard to tell if your people are in the process of using their back brain to solve a problem, or envision new billion-dollar ideas, or just playing foosball, if you’ve hired the right team, you should be able to trust their brains to keep working, no matter what they are doing.

Sometimes, not working on a problem is the best thing you can do to solve it.