Eureka! yelled Archimedes on discovering the principle of fluid displacement while soaking in the bath; inspiration struck Sir Isaac Newton on the head as he sat in a field pondering gravitation, and Post-it note inventor Arthur Fry had his epiphany in church, when his bookmark fell out of his hymnbook. It's no coincidence that these great intellects had their moments of inspiration in a place where they were free to think, their minds unfettered by the constant demands of others.
Original thoughts, creativity and problem-solving all come easier when the body is relaxed and the mind free to wander. It's fact Neuroscientists have isolated the brainwaves that occur when someone has an original thought, an 'aha' moment, as they call it. The aha! brainwave is a feeble one, easily overwhelmed by stronger thought traffic. Finding sanctuary is essential for the weak signal to connect and the eureka thought to occur.
Allowing the space for those moments is a priority for the four leaders pictured here; they were photographed for MT in the places where their minds work best. Bryan Sanderson, chairman of Standard Chartered, BUPA, the Learning & Skills Council and Sunderland FC, spends much time juggling his four hats. 'It's important to find peace to think,' he says. 'When I first went to Singapore, I bought an old Chinese painting of eight fish.
The script says that if you wish to be wise and make good decisions, you must be as quiet and peaceful in your mind as these fish floating in the stream.' The picture has pride of place above his desk.
The need to escape the everyday pressures of work to find tranquility is a recognised problem for Britain's managers, as the June 2003 MT Workspace Satisfaction Survey showed: 56% of respondents wanted break-out areas as a refuge from the pressures of the desk - it was top of their wishlist - yet only a fifth have access to such spaces. Senior managers grab their thinking time when they can - a run to work, a lunch-time swim, a car journey, a quick coffee - as long as it's away from the desk, where modern life is a non-stop bombardment of e-mails, phone calls, meetings, text messages and memos.
So where do we retreat to? We turn to nature for contemplation and sport for relaxation, it seems. This is true for many of Britain's bosses. Richard Branson resorts to Necker Island, John Pluthero, Freeserve founder and CEO of Energis, chooses to swim, and David Prosser, group CEO at Legal & General, takes a couple of hours out to ponder and listen to the radio when mucking out the stables at the weekend. Sir Roy Gardner, CEO of Centrica, walks his dog.
Finding space to clear your head is a constant struggle, but it's achievable.
'It's not difficult if you give it priority. Put it at the top of your list,' advises Sanderson. And you never know when the next aha! moment might strike.
GERRY MULVIN PARTNER - BAIN CONSULTING
'I go running nearly every day. I run for more than an hour, before work, first thing in the morning. I think about what I'm working on, about the problems that I face, and ways of sorting them out. I have all my bright ideas when I'm running - I do all my problem-solving between Regents Park and Hyde Park. When I'm running, my mind is freed up to think more laterally; it broadens my horizons. I arrive at work feeling great and ready to tackle things. When I need space to think during the day and I can't go running, I go and hide in someone else's office, just to get away. We do have a dedicated space for thinking in the office, but people come and go and I need to be left on my own.'
SIR JOHN STEVENS COMMISSIONER - METROPOLITAN POLICE SERVICE
'Walking in St James's Park gives me a great sense of calmness, a sense of putting things into perspective, a sense of history. I find it a delight to go there. Sometimes, I just walk through, other times I stand on the bridge and take time to look at birdlife. I like seeing the animal life in the park, watching the cycle of little babies working its way through. I like the idea that life moves on. I walk through on the way to or from work. I sometimes slip out during the day - I go whenever I need to clear my head. I'm usually not in uniform. If I am, I'm with other officers. It's massively important for leaders of very large organisations to have time to think through strategic issues and how they plan to achieve their vision.'
JANA BENNETT - DIRECTOR OF TELEVISION BBC
'When I need to think creatively, I go down to the BBC canteen and have a cup of coffee. There's a buzzy feel about it. I quite like stuff happening around me, I like to have that stimulus of other people's activity - it makes me think. It comes from having grown up around a big family. For long-range thinking, I like to go hill-walking and mountain-climbing. I like the way physical exertion relaxes my mind; I find that really stimulating. It makes my mind expand, because the little things don't matter. But I can still do that kind of thinking if I'm in a busy place, as long as I'm anonymous. I fight an oversubscribed diary but I always try to keep clear spaces for thinking. It's something I talk about but it's very hard to do. I tend to grab the time rather than plan it.'
BRYAN SANDERSON - CHAIRMAN STANDARD CHARTERED, BUPA, THE LEARNING & SKILLS COUNCIL, SUNDERLAND FC
'I don't go anywhere in particular when I need space to think, I just need somewhere peaceful. That's the key driver, it's not location. I prefer to think somewhere that's very quiet. I spend a lot of time on the road, and have the luxury of a chauffeur-driven car, so I sit back, put on Classic FM and think. I'm a keen gardener and there's a particular area of my garden that has a Japanese feel; it has a courtyard and fountain. It's amazingly quiet and very conducive to thinking. What interests me is strategy, oblique policy, establishing what the right direction is. The more senior you get, the more important it is to find space to think, otherwise in these days of e-mail you become a tired reactive. You go home very weary, not having done very much.'