Hare Brain & Tortoise Mind

written by Kat Bair
4 · 19 · 22
Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

How many times have you just stared at a blinking line on a white screen, trying to will yourself into creating something? 

We all have experienced the grinding, demoralizing feeling of knowing you need to solve a problem, write 500 more words, respond to that question, and find that spark of insight and inspiration is nowhere. 

Our response is often to try to bully ourselves into doing something that we know isn’t worth the electricity it takes to write it just so we feel confident that we retain control over our own minds. In his short book, Creativity, John Cleese (founder of Monty Python), perhaps unsurprisingly, opts for a more playful approach. 

Referencing the earlier work of Guy Claxton in Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, Cleese suggests that if we genuinely want to be creative, innovative, problem-solvers, we need to step away from the treadmill of productivity and allow our brains time to think the way they do more naturally. 

Have you ever been in the middle of a shower, or stirring dinner on the stove, or out jogging, and the answer to a problem you’ve been struggling with had itself materialize in your brain? Out of nowhere, like it was the most obvious answer in the world, and you’re shocked you didn’t think of it? 

That happens because when we walk away from a task and ostensibly stop consciously thinking about it, our brain continues to mull it over in our subconscious. This is a process that my family always called back-burner-ing or simmering, but which Claxton calls tortoise mind. He argues that this process of deep, subconscious, slow thinking is crucial to us making the best decisions and creative ideas because it allows those deeper subconscious connections time to establish themselves. 

This type of thinking can be distinguished from hare brain thinking, which despite its connotation, is not bad it’s just fast. This type of thinking is our conscious, problem-solving, analytical thinking that we imagine when we think of thought. This is also the type of thinking that sometimes seems to run out of steam even when we aren’t done with the task at hand. 

Cleese argues that innovation and creativity doesn’t come from just tortoise mind or hare-brained thinking but the rhythm of back and forth between the two. We focus on writing, or math, or problem-solving until we feel our brains tire, and then we stop. We go outside, we play a game, we do household chores, we exercise, we rest, and let the other levels of our brain work on the project. 

When we return to the hare brain work, we will find it easier but more fun, life-giving, and productive. 

While it isn’t revolutionary to take breaks, what struck me about Cleese’s idea (and therefore Claxton’s) was that the chores and walks and games weren’t breaks at all – they were part of the work. It’s easy to dismiss the idea of taking breaks, even if you’re told they would be helpful, because you just don’t have time. If you consider the intentional switching from consciously thinking about a problem to subconsciously thinking about a problem as part of your working process, however, then it’s much more difficult to blow it off.  

This understanding can be subversive and countercultural for those of us in the innovation space that is so often shaped by industry disruptors and entrepreneurs from fields like tech and finance. Productivity culture is the game of the hour. It suggests that you can hack, fuel, and optimize yourself into a perfect productivity machine, able to sustain 8-12 or more hours of consistent, brilliant work every day without a moment wasted. This culture suggests a few moments spent staring aimlessly out the window, throwing a ball against a wall, or, God forbid, actually getting up from your desk to chat with a co-worker or eat lunch outside, are all wasted moments that more productivity could be squeezed out of.

Tortoise mind suggests that it is those very moments of staring off into space, chatting with a barista at a coffee shop, or even sitting in traffic, that make the rest of the work possible. 

So what does that mean for us, as ministry innovators? 

  • First, we need to recognize that we are made in the image of a God who rested, took breaks, and celebrates play, joy, and laughter. 
  • Second, we need to recognize when we are being influenced by cultures that are not in line with our vision of who God is and who the church is called to be (Jesus was not prolific with his work, you don’t need to be either). 
  • Third, we can create space to step into tortoise mind during our day with a sense of guilt-free celebration that it is part of the process. 

The next time you hit a wall while writing, working, planning, fixing, instead of becoming angry or frustrated, embrace the tortoise mind and take some space to let it work things out its own way. It may take time for you to realize what activities help your brain unwind enough to do that work, but things like cooking, chores, driving and cardio are an excellent place to start (everyone knows you only need about 10% of your brain to do dishes anyway). 

We hope our whole community has had a wonderful Holy Week and are praying for resurrection truth to be present in all of your lives.


Kat Bair

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