The 10% Myth and How to Put Your Creative Process on Autopilot

What if we could eliminate noise and give our brains space to do harder work or process different things?

The Costanza Principle

There's a particularly funny episode of Seinfeld titled "The Abstinence," where George abstains from sex because his girlfriend has Mono, and strange things begin to happen to the serial underachiever. He appears to utilize more of his brain and becomes mentally sharp. He remembers where he left things years ago. He starts to read and understands math. He becomes more intelligent. Of course he ruined it all in a weak moment with a comely waitress.

That comedy sketch summarizes a simple and persistent myth that has stuck for years—that we use only 10% of our brain. That number may have more to do with 10 percent of our potential or capacity rather than 10% of brain use. But the idea sticks, I think, because of that hopeful notion of doing more than one thinks she is capable.

I thought of the Seinfeld sketch while I was reading Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice and it put me on a separate train of thought about creativity and productivity. What if we could take the idea of eliminating noise in order to give our brains space to focus, to do harder work, or to process different things?

Schwartz says that in effect we do this every day when we go into autopilot to take care of our morning routines—bathing, shaving, brushing, etc—because we don't need or want to waste time and effort considering choices all the time. So it started me wondering how this idea translates to the work I do.

The are two ways I thought this idea could have some benefit for me: first as a tool for freeing my mind in everyday creative activity, and second, as a tool for users of the things I design not to feel overwhelmed with choice and decision making.

So I started listing how I might make this idea work in each of those contexts. For now, I'm going to focus on how this relates to my creative process, and what I try to do that now seems related to this idea.


If I learn and use a technique or process, I write about it and when necessary turn it into a set of tools that support the process. I record the steps in the system for re-doing without having to re-learn. I modify what I learn and borrow from others when what I've gleaned limits my ability to get things done.

I've done this over and over with all of the information architecture and interaction design practices that I employ. I just stand on the shoulders of those who pioneer and test these processes, making use of what makes sense, and discarding aspects as needed. This is one of the aspects of agencies that I think is really great. Processes are so well defined for those inside and outside the agency to understand that it becomes part of the common language of the team.

Tool Sets

I find toolsets and frameworks for nearly everything I do, or I create them when I can't find them. They add rigor to my process, and allow me to re-use without thought. I break out of the frameworks as necessary, but start with a sense of the complete framework, even if only in concept, and expand to satisfy my use cases and needs.

One of the things I learned early in my career from Perl programmers I worked with is that code libraries help you to be lazy. Laziness can be a virtue if it means you don't want to sweat the routine and small things so you can focus on the bigger ideas. Designers also do this with design pattern libraries and component libraries. I don't limit myself to only what libraries provide, but I do exploit them when they're useful and save me time and effort.

So what does this buy you?

I think to sum up, this all comes back to the idea of freeing your mind from the tyranny of small decisions, so you can focus on the bigger, more intellectual or creative ones. A lot of this isn't exactly auto-pilot, or may not feel that way in the beginning. But after years of developing and evolving these things, I feel some of the routines or toolsets I've created have become a part of my vocabulary. The only problem is maybe that other things compete for the open space I create. I have more to say about that, and the issue of focus, but will leave that to another entry.

I'll end as I often do with a question. What kinds of things are you doing to put your work life on autopilot?