How was your holiday? By now (it’s mid-September) lots of people will have been lucky enough to have had a summer break and as the tan begins to fade and the memories of the days meld into one, a few stand-out moments will begin to form the narrative of ‘summer holiday 2015’ – that meal, the day on the boat, the night spent hugging a toilet…and, perhaps, the epiphany. You know, the point at which the insoluble, nagging problem you’ve been wresting with  – at work, at home – and spent most of the holiday trying to forget pops into your front of mind consciousness unbidden, almost certainly unwelcome, but this time…complete with an answer. How can we work so hard at something and get nowhere but then do nothing and find the perfect solution? And might the answer to that be helpful during the other 50 weeks of the year.

what you did on holiday

It might be, but in the meantime, what’s the answer to this question: Professor Niko Tinbergen is a  winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. What does he have in common with: Israeli Air Force pilots; Aldous Huxley; Paul Newman; pupils at Julliard School for Performing Arts; Jackie O; George Bernard Shaw; John MacEnroe; John Cleese; Roald Dahl and…Lulu?

The answer is that they are all students of the Alexander Technique (AT). This teaches people a way to be conscious of how they use their bodies.  Students then learn how to develop habits that encourage a more efficient and natural use of the body. How to foster desired behaviour.

The technique is named after its originator, F.M. Alexander.  He taught that:

“Trying is only emphasising the things we know.”

The thinking here is that by striving to correct something we know to be wrong, we are only able to draw upon the means that we are already consciously aware of.

What relevance might AT have to our holiday epiphany? Alexander suggested that simply by inhibiting the wrong behaviour, the most efficient solution might naturally emerge. You make space for what is right. How many times have we seen new initiatives, processes, policies or metrics introduced….but just added to an already long list? It might be a very sensible idea but what have people been told they can stop doing in order that they might have the time and resources actually to follow it through? Is it simply the case that ‘space’ is a necessary condition for change or creativity that is all too often neglected? Perhaps, but space has more than one dimension.

The concept of the attention economy has been with us since the early days of the internet and has fundamentally shifted approaches to everything from advertising strategy to software design. It’s based on the premise that in our information age attention – not information –  is the scarce resource. And around 20 years since the phrase was coined we can witness daily on our commute  attention being apportioned in ever smaller packets as people flick between their different lives on their devices: work, partner, social, work, family, game, movie, news, work……

The result is that one tends not to give a subject enough attention, and paradoxically, never leave it alone either. I wonder how many fewer holiday epiphanies people are having since they could (or feel they ‘should’) take their work with them on a phone. The consequence is that we end up with either choosing the quickest ‘answer’ or no ‘answer’ at all.

Our brains often do much of their processing subconsciously and this is a process that must be fed but can’t be forced. One of the stand out memories I have of the TV series Mad Men is some advice given by the character Don Draper, a 60s New York ad man, to his young protege, Peggy Olsen, who is struggling with one of her first projects as a copywriter. I can’t find the exact clip to quote but in other words Don says:

“Get all the information you can and immerse yourself in it, think about it hard. Really think. Really hard. Then forget about it. Go do something else. In a few days it’ll come to you.”

So whilst creating the space for ideas and ‘answers’ to emerge it’s as well to think of time-space. You might not have a ‘few days’ but in a meeting, a creative discussion or workshop it’s important not to crowd out the optimal with the immediate: sacrifice the best you could do to the first thing that comes to mind. Look at the people trying to extol you to do the opposite. Hurry ‘while stocks last’. Coupon ‘valid this weekend only’. Why do you think they emphasise the need to decide fast? Often those decisions made in haste are the ones we repent at our leisure – perhaps on a ‘bargain’ holiday.

It turns out that, in the attention economy, nothing (for now) can be better than something.

Think of a longstanding, intractable problem or problem area. It often feels best to concentrate on what you or your team can do extra to address it: more or different targets, a new process. Try the opposite. Make the space for what’s right to emerge. Work with the team to identify the absolute minimum set of rules you can get away with and not be negligent. Three is optimal. Be ruthless. Try that for a month or two and see what emerges to occupy the space you’ve made.