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Eureka moments: What they are, and how to have more of them

You’re sitting at your computer. You’re trying to think of a great concept for an article or a paper (or a business), but nothing’s coming. You walk away, you water the plants, you take a sip of tea. Still nothing. You call your good friend and idea-sounding-board on the phone, and you do a little reading. Still nothing. You think how wonderful the setting sun looks and despair that the day passed without an idea reaching you. You switch off your computer and sit quietly. And just when your mind has started to wander … Eureka!

We’ve all had one, or if we haven’t had one yet, we’ve heard of them: eureka moments, instances where, in pursuit of a problem, the knowledge we have coalesces into one breakthrough insight. They can strike at any moment and summon feelings of excitement.

These moments can seem miraculous, but they’re not. In fact, they’re nothing more than the culmination of a longer process, during which ideas and impressions form, mix, and are incubated. And whether you’re a writer, a budding entrepreneur, a scientist, or a marketer, there are strategies you can use to maximize the chances of having a eureka moment of your own.

What are eureka moments, and who has had them?

Eureka moments are common to all manner of eminent individuals through history: from philosophers to scientists to entrepreneurs.

Scientists are perhaps the people we most associate with eureka moments. For them, the eureka moment marks the end of their journey, where all their scholarship and thought combine into a key insight or proof. Some examples include:

  • Archimedes: Suddenly conceived of a way of measuring the volume of an irregular shape, a realization that came to him while he was in the bath. Archimedes reacted to his breakthrough by crying ‘Eureka!’ and running naked into the street (which we don’t advise per se).
  • Isaac Newton: Formulated his theory of gravitation after being hit on the head by an apple falling from a tree.
  • Joel Stock: Realized, while on a plane encountering a patch of turbulence, how worms could be used to fight autoimmunity.

Entrepreneurs are also associated with eureka moments, in which they usually discover a need or problem that can be solved by creating a business. Entrepreneurs, unlike scientists, begin their journey with eureka moments. The eureka moment provides their idea; next is the small matter of turning it into a company. Some examples include:

  • Luis von Ahn: Hatched the idea for Duolingo when he realized what an intense advantage being able to speak English was in his home country of Guatemala.
  • Sam Walton: Got the idea for Walmart when he found out his employer would not extend his supermarket chain into commercially untapped rural areas.
  • Steve Jobs: Realized that personal computing could become a world-altering industry when he first set eyes on Steve Wozniak’s Apple I at the Homebrew Club.

How to have more eureka moments

Eureka moments can be life-changing events. You may not be able to force a eureka moment, but you can create circumstances in which one is much more likely to occur. By consulting studies of the mind and reading studies of the habits of great people who experienced eureka moments, we can see that a few strategies, in particular, seem to increase the probability of breakthrough insights.

Study, study, study

If you want to get a sense of how important foundational study is to generating eureka moments, look no further than these words spoken by American psychologist and computer scientist JCR Licklider: “Rarely does one recognize or discover a complex problem, formulate it, and lay out a procedure that will solve it — all in one great flash of insight.” If you need proof of Licklider’s experience with eureka moments, bear in mind that his eureka moment led directly to the machine on which these words were written (as well as the machine on which you’re reading them).

For researchers, incubating eureka moments begins by establishing an understanding of the bounds of your problem. Familiarize yourself with the history of research done on your subject to date, focusing on finding weaknesses or blind spots in the literature available. Analyze the methodologies that have been used. These things alone may not provoke eureka moments; they’re all about training your mind’s focus on where the possibilities for new insights might be.

And entrepreneurs in search of eureka moments should study too. If you want to come up with the next Apple/Facebook/Walmart, stay up to date with new developments in business and technology. Read media reports about your chosen action area. Take up the practice of ‘dismantling the room,’ looking at everything in your environment and trying to think how that environment could be improved or what might be missing from it. Above all, listen. Listen to people around you, and absorb information about their needs and the pain points they experience in life and work.

As in scholarship, for entrepreneurs, study may or may not produce eureka moments by itself. What it most certainly will do is train your brain to look for problems even when you’re not thinking specifically about them.

Surround yourself with excellence

One of the most eureka-prone environments of the 20th century was Xerox’s PARC facility. PARC (the Palo Alto Research Center) was a research facility set up in the 1960s dedicated to breaking new ground in computer technology. In the 15 or so years from the 1960s, it produced almost everything we now associate with personal computing, including the integrated PC, bitmap displays, the Ethernet, word processing software, and object-oriented programming.

These amazing developments came about thanks to managerial genius Robert Taylor, who brought the best researchers together and fostered a collaborative environment where researchers spurred one another to new realizations. And whether or not you have Xerox subsidizing you, you can emulate the PARC approach in search of your own eureka moments.

Surround yourself with other people who are trying to do great work. Discuss your problems with them and chime in on the challenges they’re facing too. It doesn’t matter if the people you’re talking to are from the same discipline or working toward a similar goal as you. In fact, your conversation might be more creative if you actively seek out people from other disciplines.

When talking to motivated, creative colleagues or friends, try to engage in what are known as Class-2 arguments. In these discussions, the point is that participants articulate not their own perspective but each others. This can help everyone involved escape their own perspectives and reflect on challenges in a new way. All of these things can lead to the kind of thinking that results in a eureka moment.

Sleep well

You might want to reach that breakthrough more than you’ve ever wanted anything before, but don’t be tempted into overwork. Only alert minds can arrive at eureka moments. Resting your own personal neural processor by getting enough sleep is vital if you plan to break on through to the other side.

In fact, sleeping well is a crucial part of the process. Studies on the relationship between sleep and insight have suggested that “sleep consolidates recent memories and could allow insight by changing [memories’] representational structure.” Once your mind has been trained on a problem, sleep can help ferry you toward a breakthrough. In some cases, eureka moments can arrive while you sleep. Dmitri Mendeleev, for example, conceived of the periodic table in a dream after three days of thinking about the subject.

Set clear timetables that allow you to consistently get the amount of sleep that is optimal for you. Avoid blue light and screentime for at least an hour before you go to bed. Meditating before sleeping can also increase sleep quality.

Get away from the problem

Sometimes, a singular focus on your problem can obscure the insight you’re driving toward. And since eureka moments depend on a mind that is clear, focused, and unburdened by extraneous stressors, sometimes you just have to take a break.

When you’re feeling particularly frustrated by a problem, take a moment to unwind. You can meditate or take a relaxing bath. Take a walk and enjoy nature, letting your mind wander. Long walks have proved to be vital insight-generators for monumental creators like Charles Dickens and Ludwig van Beethoven.

You can also engage in a pursuit apart from your subject focus, getting different parts of your brain working while letting your over-taxed analytics nodes catch a breather. Einstein was known to lose himself in music when driving after his own eureka moments. A century prior, Ada Lovelace, who was both the first computer programmer and a poet, applied insights from one discipline she was interested in to problems in another.

‘Excuse me, there’s a lightbulb above your head’

Greatness is not always about stress, strain, and 20-hour workdays. In fact, most of what we know about stimulating eureka moments involves taking as much unneeded stress off your mind and memory as possible. That’s why the right research tools can also be helpful when you’re working on a huge problem.

The more you can embrace strategies that make your work easier, that allow your mind to quest and wander and assemble the information you’ve given it, the faster eureka moments will arrive. They might not arrive exactly when you want them to, but they’re always right on time.

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