Why you get ideas in the shower

[This is an excerpt from the Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest, completely irreverent guide to creativity]

When you are known as a writer about creativity, people send you interesting things. Recently I was forwarded a link to AquaNotes, a waterproof notepad you can put in your shower. I’ve never used one, but I can tell you the science behind why people get ideas in the shower.

Technically we get ideas all the time – that’s what it means to be conscious. It’s quite hard to stop thinking, as anyone who has tried to practice meditation can tell you. Our brains are idea generating machines. Most of our ideas and thoughts might not be Eureka-worthy but that’s more a matter of how we evaluate an idea than whether we have them all the time or not.

More germane to showers, much of who we are is driven by our subconscious, far more than our rational higher brains like to admit. We also know our dreams, which are owned and operated by our subconscious, can be incredibly creative.  It’s our subconscious mind that is the best at finding associations between concepts, something our more logical, and dominant, frontal cortex isn’t very famous for.

The rub is that these busy days in modern times we are bombarded with information, forcing our brains to take more defense postures to the world, and conscious mind dominates. Which means it’s only when we have quiet time, going for a walk, getting some exercise, or taking a shower, that our conscious minds quiet down enough for our subconscious to be heard. And that’s why you get ideas in the shower. You’ll find many creative people have dedicated time for being “idle”. Going for walks, exercising at the gym, or even sitting in a park watching people walk by. Making time to let minds wander is an important part of working with ideas for a living.

Scientist and creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, known for his definitive work on Flow, refers to the time where we allow our subconscious to work as Incubation. This is time away from the work itself where our subconscious minds are free to work on our behalf and deliver ideas back to our conscious minds. It’s a necessary part of the creative process, and it can only happen after we’ve thought enough about a problem to exhaust our more rational explorations and choose to put the challenge aside for a time.

Today we have fewer places in our lives where we are not bombarded by incoming information. For some people it’s yoga, going for a run, or going for a walk that quiets the conscious mind down enough for the sub-conscious to speak up. For other people it’s driving in the car. Everyone’s psychology is different and will relax in different environments, or at different times. The start of being serious about your own creativity is paying attention to when and where you feel creative.

Of course, there are other ways to engage the natural creativity of your subconscious. Taking an improv theater class is all about learning simple games that quiet your conscious brain, and let your creative instincts come through. Waking up early, staying up late, having beers with friends, all shift how your attention works and might provide the best kind of environment for you. Simply changing your habits alone can stimulate new questions and ways of thinking. Lastly, there are drugs and alcohol, substances artists have used for centuries to shift their thinking and allow other parts of the mind to have center stage. Don’t kid yourself: the caffeine in your coffee does all kinds of things to how your brain functions.

But part of the mythology around ideas and showers is somehow a truly great idea will, on its own, make you rich and change the world, a fantasy I can promise has never happened. Ideas are easy to find once you understand the basics of how they work (See ideas are made of other ideas). But it’s always what you do with your ideas after you get them that matters. And perhaps this Aquanote gimmick, which lets you leave the shower with the idea in your hand, isn’t such a silly idea after all.

Want more specific creativity advice? Check out the rest of  the Dance of The Possible.


40 Responses to “Why you get ideas in the shower”

  1. Kathy Sierra

    This hit me last year when I happened to be in a marine supplies store and saw a rack of waterproof notebooks. I got my first, and now I consciously, deliberately head to the shower or bubble bath to “work”. I have storyboarded my last two presentations entirely on waterproof notepads!

    My favorite brand is called “WetNotes”, though I have also used “Write in the Rain” brand. I haven’t tried AquaNotes. The only other place I get ideas is when shoveling manure in my horse barn, a daily morning activity. Despite how often we use “shoveling a load of horse s***” as a metaphor for the opposite of “inspirational”, you might be surprised how useful the real thing can be ;)

    1. Scott Berkun

      Great little story Kathy – thanks.

      For many people, myself included, repetitive physical labor is great for the mind. When I first quit I discovered splitting wood was a fantastic way to take a break from writing. The shear violence and crudeness of it was a sharp relief from the precision required to write, and it just felt great. My thinking was always much clearer after my body had been used for awhile.

      I’ve heard this called kinesthetic creativity, or that some people are more creative when their bodies are in motion or active, than passive. Having conversations while going for walks/hikes fits this quite well, as there’s something about all of the sensory experiences of a walk, both the sense of movement as well as the sensation of observing the scenery, that improves the quality of thinking in the conversation.

  2. Scott Duffy

    There is a story about Thomas Edison, and how he trying to tap into his subconscious mind for ideas. He would sit in a chair with ball bearings in each of his hands. Then he would drape his arms over each side, and start to fall asleep. Just when he got into a relaxed state, his hands would let go of the ball bearings and crash to the floor, waking him up. He would then write down whatever ideas were in his head at the time. He probably could have just taken a really long shower…

  3. kev wood

    I put a treadmill in my shower.

    Now I can go for a walk and take a shower at the same time. My secretary sits on the toilet and takes my notes for me.

  4. Jesse

    I was under the impression that the falling water in a shower ionizes the air and increases oxygen to the brain.

    1. Scott Berkun

      That might be true, but I’ve yet to see any need to go that far to explain it. There’s some basic brain function and psychology involved in why when we’re relaxing, we’re often more creative.

    2. Ochua Karguah

      I believe it is from doing nothing. You aren’t distracted in the shower since there are no phones, tv, or books in there. Your mind is open and you can easily hear your thoughts! This works since you can’t completely turn off your thoughts since we dont have complete control over our thoughts( which is why stuff get stuck in our heads). I found all of my science fair, science projects, book ideas, and all kinds of stuff in the shower!

  5. Kathy Sierra

    Ohhh so true. I was once hired by a small game dev company near the Malibu hills, and on orientation day they gave me a gift cert for hiking boots. When I looked confused, they said’ see those hills? That is where we have our meetings.” There is some good evidence that using the body does indeed produce sparks in the mind.
    And if anyone is looking for new ideas and you are near Santa Cruz, I always have an extra manure fork handy. And, you know, there is a rumor that shoveling leads to six-pack-abs, so there’s that. :)

    1. Scott Berkun

      Adam: Unfortunately, you can’t smoke cigars in the shower. Until they invent waterproof cigars that is.

  6. datt

    Yeah it’s true when you are playing,doing YOGA,meditation and bathing our subconscious will refresh so we will get good thought.i read some where that ideas is like lust,vision is like love.

  7. WordPress Designer

    It’s a great post, you really are a good writer! I’m so glad someone like you have the time, efforts and dedication writing, for this kind of article… Helpful, And Useful.. Very nice post!

  8. paul

    Just found your blog, its great stuff.

    I keep shed loads of small dot grid journals. Working from left to right i jot down anything “intellectual” or work related, and from right to left usually more writing or comedy centric notes.

    Ive a sneaky suspicion i might be addicted to writing in my journal though, a bit like a googleing addiction.

    Without a doubt i find implementation the hardest part.

    Great post.

  9. Cal

    Great insight and summary about the idea creation process and a great product tip. Thanks! Read the sampler of your book and will be ordering one. Nice job!

  10. Bill Meade

    I read an interview in INC magazine in the 1980s where the entrepreneur interviewed claimed “Raising your brain temperature 1 degree doubles your efficiency in thinking.” Scott I was hoping you were going to provide a web link to that article in this article. :-(

    I started a new job January 1 that has had me overloaded ever since. The shower was the one time of the day I allowed myself to just enjoy. While sex may outrank showers because the thrill x duration score is momentarily higher. The satisfaction of showers is larger in real life. It is a power law thing. Oops, this has turned into a terrible tail. :-)

  11. danemblog

    The post is very interesting, although I must say that the toilet works best for me (no jokes!?). I did not know your blog (alas), but I’m very glad I discovered. Congratulations and thanks to Wittgenstein

  12. Kevin

    Has the ipad for the shower come out
    yet ?

  13. Kolby Kallweit

    I think that after reading Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware I became more aware of my R-Mode of thinking and why when in the most mundane of situations we come up with our most brilliant of solutions. I would highly recommend checking this book out if you have not already. It’s an easy ready with some great concepts.

  14. Fred Dempster

    Sounds way better than running around the house naked and wet looking for that pen and pad, ending up with a stubbed toe and the thoughts are gone…

    For non-showers, the little digital recorders are the option, OneNote is a great application to (just copied this there!)


  15. Ishtar

    wow, great advice. thank you. it is working for my writer’s block brain.

  16. Miranda Ashley

    I found this interesting. I had no idea that these kinds of water proof writing pads were in existence. This just goes to show the types of new and exciting innovations that are created everyday. As far as coming up with ideas in the shower, I have to admit that most of my ideas for lessons in my classroom come to me while I am in the shower. It is a quiet place where no one is bothering me or asking millions of questions. I’ll start thinking about different different activities that I can use in my classroom to help students learn the content. I also reflect on my teaching in the shower. I think about what went on in the classroom for the day, I think about things I could have done differently, and I think of ways to improve my teaching.

  17. Michael LaRocca

    Back when I lived in Asia, I traveled everywhere by bicycle. The habit of carrying a notepad and pen in my shirt pocket served me well, because I never knew when I’d stop to jot down a great idea. I think I wrote an entire novel on a series of bike rides in Thailand.

  18. Ab

    Inspiring and interesting post! Most of my best ideas come to me while I am in the shower or at the gym.



  1. […] Read it. More germane to showers, we rarely admit how much of who we are is driven by our subconscious minds.  We know our dreams, which are owned and operated by our subconscious, can be incredibly creative.  But on a busy day in modern times we are bombarded with information, and our conscious mind dominates. It’s only when we have quiet time, going for a walk, getting some exercise, or taking a shower, that our conscious minds quiet down enough for our sub-conscious to be heard. And that’s why you get ideas in the shower. The other inputs to your mind are quiet, your body (which is connected to your brain) is relaxed, and the way is clear for the rest of your brain to bubble up interesting thoughts. (Chapter 1,  6 and 12 of The Myths of Innovation explores the science/history of, and advice on, how creativity works – sample chapters here (PDF)). […]

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