Obsessing over your productivity? Try percolating instead

The secret to good ideas: giving them time to brew.
Plenty's been brewing.
Plenty's been brewing.
Photo: Sean Gallup (Getty Images)
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When I was in the early days of my career, I carried around a Moleskine notebook and would write down ideas—all sorts of ideas, from products to sell or stories to write. I’d scarf down scraps of overheard dialogue on my commute and file them away for later. I’d log quotes from books I read, films I wanted to watch, and create itineraries titled “My Ideal Day.” For what? It didn’t matter. I was flowing with thoughts and wanted to—needed to—capture them. It was a pact made with myself: Respect each drop of inspiration.

Sound familiar? We all experience periods of intense creativity or idea generation. Sometimes they’re spurred on by a deadline, an end date, or a more anxiety-driven event. Say there are gentle rumblings that your company is going to be sold. Suddenly, your job doesn’t feel safe. Frustrating and scary, yes. But also activating. You get inspired to reach out to connections, reframe your experience, and refresh your resume. Opportunities arrive. Avenues appear. Stuff starts to happen. Maybe the company isn’t sold and your job remains comfortable, but you’re invigorated after seeing your options.

I’ve started giving it a name: percolation. Percolating means providing yourself time and space to think without tracking your performance. It’s reflection, exploration, generation. It’s remembering there’s a wide world of opportunities outside the narrow confines of what you already know. The further we get into our careers, the more we are drawn away from percolation and towards productivity. We churn along and burn out to maximize profits, hours, and energy. We may become experts at hustling through a to-do list, but the hustle can also become incredibly boring.

While productivity is about performance, percolation is about play. If you’re looking to get your creative or career ideas flowing again, here are a few methods to get you back into a mindset of exploration.

Sneak it in as a warm-up

In 1951, John Steinbeck was working on his latest novel. Each day, he set a goal of putting 1,000 words on the page. But before he began, he followed an unconventional ritual: he’d write a letter to his editor.

A good day would begin like this: “Today I am early at work and I want to boost the work to two pages today. It is time for that. I know this is going very slowly but I want it that way. I don’t want to rush. I am enjoying this work and I truly want it to be the best I have ever done.” But a difficult patch might look like this: “I’m having one hell of a time today. I’m tired, so tired. It has come up like a wall.”

Steinbeck would tell his editor how the book was going. He’d write about his sons and complain about running low on pencils. Silly, seemingly mundane words. And yet, after the letter was done, Steinbeck would turn to his novel and knock out his word count. (The book turned out decent. It was East of Eden.)

This is an act of percolation. A fresh, generative, free-flowing firehose of whatever comes to your mind. Another popular form of get-it-done warm-ups are morning pages, popularized by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. Write three pages a day in the morning, she says, putting down your thoughts and fears and wisps of dreams, and the work will come easier. For many people, it does. Morning pages are like popping the cork on the bottle labeled Important Work. They allow you to start pouring.

Brew throughout the day

Choreographer Twyla Tharp percolates her ideas by what she calls “scratching.” “I’m digging through everything to find something,” she writes in The Creative Habit, noting that she’s hunting only for small ideas, which can often be found in reading, conversation, nature, other people’s handiwork, or the lessons of mentors and heroes. “When you’re scratching for an idea, you don’t need to think ahead. You have to trust the unconscious rush and let it hurtle forward unedited and unencumbered,” she writes. It’s also a judgment-free zone. “Let it be awful and awkward and wrong,” she declares.

Compare this to when you and your team or collaborators have your best conversations. I’m going to guess it’s probably not in a meeting titled “Brainstorm” or “Weekly Ideas.” Holding your breath all week and then letting it all out for 90 minutes isn’t exactly the way to create lasting, interesting, groundbreaking work. Why try to corral all of your thoughts into one sluggish afternoon? Instead, think of literal percolation. Treat your thinking like the world’s biggest coffee pot, perpetually at brew.

Ask yourself open-ended questions more often:

  • What am I thinking about [our marketing plan, my podcast opportunities, Q4 goals]?
  • What are the wildest ideas I can dream up for [our new ad campaign, the editor I ghosted, a new side hustle]?
  • What is the most intriguing thing I’ve learned this week?
  • Who might know about [editing a book proposal, running for office, starting a non-profit]?

Mull them over or jot them down. And move on. Start becoming an idea percolator and you won’t dread brainstorming meetings or “got any ideas?” emails. You can simply turn to the list you already created and sort the gold from the generic.

Throw away the clock

Finding a finish line is essential if we want to share our work. But most projects—especially truly original ones—are like blobs without borders. When you’re gathering ideas, it’s essential not to compare your timeline with someone else’s.

Composer and lyricist Jerry Herman spoke about the long tail of writing musicals: “Everybody asks you, ‘How long does it take to write a song?’ The actual writing time at the piano, or walking on the streets of New York, may be a half hour or a day or a week, but the actual gestation time, the time that it has been percolating in my brain, might be a year and a half,” he says in Notes on Broadway: Intimate Conversations with Broadway’s Greatest Songwriters. “So the answer is hard to be accurate about. I wrote the song ‘Mame’ in twenty minutes, or I wrote ‘Mame’ in a year and twenty minutes.” Whether in your incubation stage or making your curtain call, remember that something worthwhile will take as long as it’s going to take.

Embrace the unfocused conversation

Your next big idea might come during an Uber ride. It happened for The Beatles, anyway. Their song “Eight Days a Week” was said to have been inspired during a ride to John Lennon’s house. “I usually drove myself there,” Paul McCartney once said, “but the chauffeur drove me out that day and I said, ‘How’ve you been?’ – ‘Oh working hard,’ he said, ‘working eight days a week.’” Thanks to his curiosity, one simple question—”How’ve you been?”—became a hit.

So give me a three-hour chat that would be impossible to transcribe because of all its curlicues and tangents. Hit me up for the 30-minute walk-and-talk covering books, grief, plant care, and career objectives. Put me down for the “can I get your brain on this” text. Beyond containing the richness and randomness of life, these types of conversations with friends, acquaintances, and colleagues can unlock new doors: work strategies, culture recommendations, inspiring people to follow, and more.

When I was hyper-focused on productivity and scheduling out every moment of my day, these chats would make me antsy. I’d gauge whether I had enough time to spare. I’d wonder, What’s the juice? What are we trying to get, or do, or accomplish? And most of all: What’s the point?

If you’re percolating, there doesn’t always have to be a point. An obsession with productivity dulls the edges of your creativity, but also your life. If you schedule the random phone call, keep in mind you might not “get anything” out of it, but maybe you’ll give something instead. If you stop and ask your boss for the name of the book they loved, know you might not find the chance to read it—but there’s a possibility you will, and it will hit right when you need it.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward,” as Steve Jobs famously said in his Stanford University commencement speech. “So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

The same holds true for percolation. Remember that you’re constantly generating and creating, even during the times that feel stagnant. If it helps, grab an unused notebook from your toppling pile, and write across the first page: Percolation. Capture whatever you want, whenever you want, in whatever form you want. Unlike the strictures of productivity, there are no rules here. Let your ideas flow.