The Bar Napkin: A Common Feature of Winning Organizations

Long live the squadron bar. For those of you that do not know to what I refer, there is a storied tradition of United States Air Force flying squadrons possessing a well-stocked bar that hosts Airmen after a duty-day. I have also found the practice alive and well in the private sector in the form of office bars or team happy hours. Let me just clarify that the environment (time, place, and motivation) are the important features of happy hours and not the beverage of choice. My early days spent in Air Force flying squadrons implanted a habit of encouraging any team I was a part of to get beyond the office in order to build better relationships, instill trust, and increase the likelihood of “bar napkin moments.” I will loosely define a bar napkin moment as an epiphany reached after normal officer hours, beyond the office walls, and within a more relaxed environment. A lingering question of mine has been why? What is it about the post-duty time and setting that make ideas seem to be more abundant? And is there any empirical evidence that supports that observation? Over the New Year’s holiday, I received some clarity on those questions.

Daniel Pink, author of Drive, released an essay in the WSJ a couple of weeks ago which detailed the importance, scientifically speaking, of timing (adapted from Mr. Pink’s “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing”, which is due to be published tomorrow, January 9, 2018). Humans transition through patterns throughout the approximately 16 hours of the day spent awake (Pink’s caveat: humans who claim to be night owls usually follow this pattern in reverse order):

1. Peak: late morning/noon (ideal for analytical and high focus tasks)

2. Trough: early to midafternoon (ideal for trivial, administrative tasks)

3. Rebound: late afternoon to early evening (ideal for creative tasks)

In addition to inspiring me to never schedule another doctor’s appointment in the afternoon, the WSJ article details the research that supports breakthroughs (bar napkin moments) having a greater likelihood of occurring in the evening than the rest of the day. Citing two American psychologists’’ 2011 work, Mr. Pink discusses an experiment where 428 people fared much better on “insight problems” (requiring “creative, rather than algorithmic thinking”) later in the day (rebound) as opposed to the more analytical peak of the morning. The reason for this, Mr. Pink explains, is that during the rebound

…most people are somewhat less vigilant than during the peak, but more alert and in a better mood than during the trough. That combination has advantages. A boosted mood leads to greater openness. A slight reduction in vigilance lets in a few distractions — but those distractions can help us spot connections that we might have missed when our filters were tighter. So we should move brainstorming sessions and other creative pursuits to the rebound stage.

Interestingly, I had picked up a book at the local library titled Origins of Creativity by Edward O. Wilson. The author, citing neurobiology, psychology, and anthropology (to include study of the Ju/’Hoansi tribe of Botswana and Namibia) is able to add more color to our seemingly rhythmic creative rebound stage. Wilson chronicles our evolution from primate ancestors to humans, including the timeframe when homo erectus (direct ancestor of homo sapiens) began acquiring and utilizing fire in the evenings coupled other group-based, tribal behaviors. On the same day, I read the WSJ article, I read the following lines in Origins of Creativity:

…the forming of the campsite and control of fire brings the group together…in the long evening hours before sleep…. [Researchers] found differences between “daytime talk” and “firelight talk”…daytime talk is focused on practical aspects of travel and the search for food and water….In the evening the mood relaxes. In the chiaroscuro firelight the talk turns to storytelling, which drifts easily into singing, dancing.

In other words, daytime is littered with algorithmic thinking about tasks such as acquisition of food and water, while the evening, under the protection of Prometheus’s fire, we relax enough to create. We let our guard down to open our minds, make connections, and explore our creative processes. We are evolutionarily predisposed to creating and innovating in the evening, during the rebound, and beyond our desks, not during our 9am-5pm.

So should organizations mandate creative hours or force people to more mandatory-fun events? No. That would be counter-productive. Remember, Pink and Wilson describe the cause of our more creatively inclined minds as being more relaxed and open-minded. The existence of squadron and office bars (or game rooms, or lounge areas) should not be seen as a symbol of superfluous excess, but a venue for bringing a relaxed, creative mindset to some of the most complex, least obvious problems your organization faces. By providing this venue as a resource for your teams, you are increasing the likelihood of different approaches being applied to those problems. Knowing the science behind this phenomenon should allow us, as leaders and team members, to be more deliberate with our time and space. Millions of years of evolution and circadian rhythm development point to future breakthrough moments happening beyond the typical office workspace and time. The odds seem to favor those breakthroughs happening on a small, white, bar napkin.


Wilson, Edward O. The Origins of Creativity. 3 October 2017.