Vivienne tells me that her favorite part of the day is Choice Time. This is when she's at her most creative and enjoys herself the most.

Vivienne is my 5 year old daughter. Choice Time is when she and her fellow kindergarten classmates get to pick whatever they would like to do for one period (just as the name implies).

Many of the entrepreneurs I talk to seem to be stuck in Not My Choice Time. They spend their days doing things that they don't want to be doing and as a result their internal turmoil and stress increases while their creativity and ability to innovate decreases.

Set Your Mind Free

In The End of Stress: Four Steps to Rewire Your Brain, Don Joseph Goewey stresses the importance of giving your mind the freedom to wander. Let's call it Think Time. When you wander, you can also discover. The new paths you stumble on can help stimulate innovative thinking, which allows you to find solutions to your problem more easily.

Can free Think Time really be the key to innovation and breakthroughs?

Take the $100 Billion company 3M, for example, which is world famous for its prolific innovation. A core belief of 3M is that creativity needs freedom. Since 1948, they have encouraged their employees to spend 15 percent of their working time on their own projects. They want employees to "waste time" daydreaming and have the freedom to make mistakes.

The results of 3M's 15 Percent Time are remarkable. Examples include Scotch Brand Tapes, Post-it Notes, Scotchgard Fabric Protector, automobile window treatment films, multilayer optical films and silicon adhesive systems for transdermal drug delivery.

To be sure, for most of us, the idea of "wasting time" for 15 percent of our day or week seems pretty unrealistic. Sure it's easy for them because they are a huge company and have been doing it for so long, you scoff and go back to your mountain of work with no end in sight.

But what if you could tap into 3M's secret ingredient and discover a way to have your own think time and still feel productive at the same time?

Enter the Pomodoro

In the last 18 months, I went from working 60-100 hours a week to much less than 40. And I became more productive, more creative and healthier in the process.

The backbone of my time transformation was based on the Pomodoro Technique which is centered around four overarching principles:

  1. Work with time, not against it.
  2. Eliminate burnout
  3. Manage distractions
  4. Create a better work/life balance

The system is super simple:

  • Choose a task;
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes;
  • Work on your task until the timer rings, then put a checkmark on a tracker;
  • Take a five minute break (you just completed your first Pomodoro!); then
  • Repeat steps 1-4 three more times, followed by a 15 minute break.

Yeah, but how does this help with creativity??

One of the added benefits of the Pomodoro Technique is the 5 or 15 minute breaks that you take after each session. Many times I use these breaks to do activities that are going to help foster creativity. The beauty of this is that I know they are "free time" (since I just completed 25 minutes of working) and as a result, I don't feel any pressure to be productive or really be anything during that time.

Each day my goal is to do 8 Pomodoro's (which sounds soooooo easy but it's actually quite challenging). If I'm following the system exactly (which I admitedly never do) that breaks down to 200 minutes of focused working and 1 hour of breaks. The breaks wind up being more than 23% of your time!

Here are some of the activities that I will do during break time:

  1. Go for a quick walk
  2. Read
  3. Write down a list of ideas
  4. Write down what's ever on my mind (with pen and paper)
  5. Take a shower
  6. Take a nap
  7. Stretch
  8. Meditate
  9. Mindless web surfing
  10. Watch a short motivational video
  11. Listen to some music
  12. Walk to get a glass of water

As you can imagine, some of these take longer than 5 or even 15 minutes but that's okay. By having a definite goal (based on how many Pomodoros you want to accomplish in a given day) you can allow yourself more "free time" when inspiration really strikes.

As noted science writer Jonah Leher points out:

"When you look at where insights come from, they come from where we least expect them. They only arrive after we stop looking at them."

Out of the eight or so breaks that I take each day, I might have only have one or two insights that are even worth giving a second thought to. And that's awesome!

The beauty of this system is that accounts for "unfocused" work. I spend another 20-25 hours on calls, meetings, networking on- and offline, and other less-focused tasks or just straight up downtime. And in that downtime, the real magic can happen...

A famous example of this was Scottish inventor James Watt who was working hard on perfecting the steam engine (which would later trigger the Industrial Revolution). He kept hitting roadblocks and getting stuck.

So he went for a walk and while he was walking in Glasgow Green, he was struck with inspiration. Suddenly "the most powerful idea in the world" came to him that enabled him to perfect the steam engine and forever change industrial production.

What do you do that helps to spark creativity?

Published on: Jan 29, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.