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Overcome Habituation by Hearing the Background Noise

You might miss the next game-changing innovation because you don’t see it. Maybe you don’t see the problem anymore. Maybe you’ve been desensitized by habituation – you’re so used to the world as it is that you can’t distinguish the idea from the background noise. You go on with your activities and c

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
3 min read
habituation background nose

You might miss the next game-changing innovation because you don't see it. Maybe you don't see the problem anymore. Maybe you've been desensitized by habituation – you're so used to the world as it is that you can't distinguish the idea from the background noise. You go on with your activities and could be missing something truly extraordinary.


Habituation has to do with the human tendency to let ideas or perceptions slip into the background when they become too ordinary. You tend to pay more attention to things that are new and novel, because those things demand your attention. You've already settled the things in the background. In this way you are like the caveman on a hunt. You look for a novel rustle in the trees or something that shouldn't be there. You have no time for the places you already passed by. Yet hidden in your footsteps right behind you may lie the very thing you were looking for as you traveled.

You don't feel the itch because you itched for so long, or you feel it but you let it go. You have no time for itches you’ve felt for so long. What could be important about them? Well, maybe the itch is really a long dormant inspiration. Maybe the small discomfort is saying, “you missed something.” It is a tiny voice but maybe it shouldn't be ignored.

We've been desensitized by habituation – we're used to the world as it is and can't see ideas from the background noise.

Phil McKinney

Irritating Ideas

That's the thing about new ideas. They want to get in your path as you drift along. They can be irritants that you just want to brush away. Inspiration often comes out of the things you do every day: you feel there’s a problem, that there ought to be a better way, but ignore the feeling in favor of your familiar path. Sometimes the irritant appears over and over in your sleep. You wake up to an annoying dream. You might just dismiss it, wanting to stay in your cocoon of comfort and familiarity.

Actually seeing problems is the stuff of inventive genius. However, most of us don't do that. If things generally work, we say, that's ok. Simple inventions like the bendable power strip, which has sold half-a-million units to date, came about because someone was unbearably irritated with the way adapter plugs couldn't fit into power strips. The doorknob replaced the latch because someone was annoyed at how latches kept sticking.

How do you change your habituated state?

The first way is to change your setting. Re-orient yourself so that old things seem new again. In order to break the tendency to ignore what is in the background you have to try to bring the background into the foreground by making the background novel again. When you do this, try to notice all the frustrations and irritations about your environment.

You may want to go to a completely unfamiliar place. If you are habituated in your environment so things go flat, you may want to travel into a different culture, outside of your comfort zone. See how different people do things. See how they cope with everyday annoyances.

Get Past The Background Noise And Seeing With New Eyes

“The real act of discovery,” Marcel Proust once said, “consists not of finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” Design consultant Tom Kelley put the thought in business terms, writing about “the sense of seeing something for the first time, even if you have actually witnessed it many times before.”

Make an effort to listen to people who complain. They are your real help-mates. Sometimes this is very hard. It's often much more pleasant to seek the solace of silence. However, in the complaints and annoyances may lurk the seeds of important new ideas that can make a big difference. Don't forget, you are different from the average listener. You actually have the ingenuity and wherewithal to make real change.

A very good example of the game-changing effect of unfamiliarity is illustrated in the movie, “Topsy Turvey.” The film takes its name from William S. Gilbert's one-act operetta written in 1874 called “Topsyturveydom,” and dramatizes a pivotal era in the partnership between Gilbert and Sullivan. As the film opens, the duo has been producing lucrative, but repetitive operas: the old plotlines are running thin and audiences are beginning to look elsewhere. The critics predict the end of their creative careers. The team is about to split up.

One day in the midst of this, at his wife's urging, Gilbert ventures a visit a Japanese exhibit in London. The vision of Japanese culture in the exhibit leads Gilbert to write the parody, “The Mikado.” The musical satirizes British society through the lens of the distant culture of Japan: the exhibit allowed Gilbert to adopt a fresh perspective on his own surroundings. This new perspective launched Gilbert and Sullivan into an entirely fresh start. To many, “The Mikado” remains their greatest work.

Don't let the ordinary cause you to look past what could be that next great idea.

BlogHow Toact of discoverybackground noisecreativityextraordinaryHabituationInnovationirritantsordinaryseeing

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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