Why Spanx’s billionaire CEO drives aimlessly for an hour every morning

Who’s calling shotgun?
Who’s calling shotgun?
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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As the CEO of Spanx, the beloved female shapewear company with an estimated $400 million in annual sales, and the mother of four children under age eight, Sara Blakely doesn’t have much time to sit back and smell the daisies.

Like any entrepreneur (or any human with a job, a family, or a life) Blakely wishes she had more free time. Still, the 47-year-old, who in 2012 became the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, says she manages to go for an hour-long drive, child-free, every morning before going into the office.

“I’ve identified where my best thinking happens, and it’s in the car,” Blakely told fellow entrepreneur Reid Hoffman on his podcast Masters of Scale. “I live really close to Spanx, so I’ve created what my friends call my ‘fake commute,’ and I get up an hour early before I’m supposed to go to Spanx and I drive around aimlessly in Atlanta with my commute so that I can have my thoughts come to me.”

Blakely tells The Cut that it was on one of those drives that she formulated the idea for Spanx’s newest bestseller, Arm Tights—all the more reason she is unwilling to schedule over this invaluable thinking time. And on Mondays, her ritual mind-wandering extends well beyond the car. “Monday is my think day,” Blakely tells The Cut. “I usually clear my entire calendar for Monday, unless something urgent comes up. I use that day to create and think.”

While entrepreneurs may raise a brow at the 10-plus hours Blakely spends aimlessly thinking every week, she views the ideation sessions as an essential investment in her company. Driving aimlessly is Blakely’s adaptation of the notion that we receive our best ideas while showering—or simply walking around, which was a preferred means of brainstorming for Steve Jobs. Entrepreneurs including Mark Zuckerberg,  Jack Dorsey, and Jeff Weiner also extoll the virtues of taking undirected walks as means of landing on innovative thoughts.

Indeed, ample research shows that activities like rote habits like showering, walking, working out, gardening, or driving are good strategies for ideating precisely because they’re relatively mindless and monotonous. These types of activities let your brain flip to autopilot, freeing up your unconscious to “quietly play a no-holds-barred game of free association,” as Lucas Reilly writes in Mental Floss. “Daydreaming relaxes the prefrontal cortex—the brain’s command center for decisions, goals, and behavior. It also switches on the rest of your brain’s ‘default mode network’ (DMN), clearing the pathways that connect different regions. With your cortex loosened up and your DMN switched on, you can make new, creative connections that your conscious mind would have dismissed.”

This phenomenon is so powerful, startups have even created waterproof, hangable notepads to be sure your shower epiphanies don’t go down the drain.

Not everyone has the ability or privilege to spend hours each week aimlessly driving or walking around. For many of us, just the thought of closing our eyes and breathing quietly for a few minutes a day feels overwhelming. But Blakely says it all comes down to prioritization. If you know innovation is your power—financially and professionally—you risk your own success, and that of your company, by prioritizing almost anything over untethered creative thought.