Incubate your ideas

Take a walk, take a nap, take a break

Novelist Agatha Christie believed that the best time to write was while washing the dishes.

Incubate your ideas

Give it time to grow Nurture your ideas by not working on your project. Image by Toni Cuenca

Author Harper Lee did much of her creative thinking while golfing. And artist Grant Wood said, “All of the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.”

Welcome to the wonderful world of incubation. That’s the third step of the 5-step creative process — the one where you take your eye off the ball and let the back of your mind work on your project for awhile. Then comes the miraculous moment when your brain presents a brilliant idea fully formed — aka the Eureka! or Ah-ha! moment.

The French call it l’esprit de l’escalier — the wit of the staircase. That’s when you think of a great idea on your way out of the brainstorming meeting or the perfect retort the day after someone makes a snarky remark.

“Turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep,” wrote James Webb Young, the pre-Mad Men-era ad executive who invented the 5-step creative process and put it down in a book called A Technique for Producing Ideas.

“When you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.”

Incubation works.

Throughout time, creative folks have come up with wonderful ideas by … doing nothing:

  • In his 1908 essay “Mathematical Creation,” Henri Poincare argued that the best way to solve complex problems is to submerge yourself in the issue until you hit a wall. Then, when you can’t go any further, you should distract yourself, preferably by taking a walk.
  • Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, preferred the relaxed atmosphere of … ahem … a topless bar. There, he would drink 7 Up, enjoy the entertainment and, if inspiration struck, doodle equations on cocktail napkins.
  • There’s a good reason Google puts ping pong tables in their headquarters,” says John Kounios, a cognitive neuroscientist at Drexel University. “If you want to encourage insights, you’ve got to also encourage people to relax.”

The French call it l’esprit de l’escalier — the wit of the staircase. That’s when you think of a great idea on your way out of the brainstorming meeting or the perfect retort the day after someone makes a snarky remark.

Where did that brilliant idea come from? I don’t know. It’s all part of the magical and mysterious juju of the creative process.

1. Time it right.

That’s forage, analyze, then take a break. Incubation is the third step of the creative process.

Put off that first draft until you can hardly stand it any more, until you can’t wait to get to the keyboard and let off some of that creative steam.

My writing time is much more effective if I research and organize information the day before I write. The next day, I’m itching to get started. The reason: 16 hours of down time have really been 16 hours of incubation.

Kenneth Atchity, author of A Writer’s Time, calls this phenomenon “creative pressure.” You put off that first draft until you can hardly stand it any more, until you can’t wait to get to the keyboard and let off some of that creative steam.

But incubate before you’ve foraged and analyzed, and you don’t have anything to incubate on. Don’t let incubation become procrastination. (My brother the famous comic book artist substitutes another rhyming word for procrastination here.)

2. Sleep on it.

Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev reportedly established the periodic table of elements after waking from a dream one afternoon. British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that “Kubla Khan” came to him in a dream.

Our brains continue to work on problems while we sleep. After 8 hours of rest, they’re more likely to come up with the right solution.

You might come up with better ideas if you got more sleep, too.

German scientists have demonstrated that our brains continue to work on problems while we sleep. After eight hours of rest, they’re more likely to come up with the right solution.

Other research shows that the best way to keep your brain working is to get outside and move.

3. Multitask your way to incubation.

Don’t have time to sleep — let alone hit the ping pong table or the topless bar — while a deadline is looming?

Instead of taking a break, move on to a new project. Forage and analyze Project A, for example, then forage and analyze Project B. While your conscious mind tackles Project B, your subconscious will continue to toil away at Project A.

Stuck? Don’t plow through. The best approach may well be to move on.

Don’t skip incubation.

Incubation may be the most misunderstood — and, therefore, the most frustrating — part of the creative process. That’s because it seems as if you aren’t really doing anything.

To Western eyes (and Western bosses) that can look a little … well … lazy. But the cost of going full bore on a project without a break can actually be creativity — even productivity itself.

So take a walk, take a nap, take a break — or just switch projects.

As Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, writes, “It’s only after we stop searching that an answer may arrive.”

  • Get to Aha!

    Master a creative process that works with — not against — your brain

    Want to come up with fresher, faster, more inspired story ideas and writing insights?

    Get to Aha! Master a creative process that works with — not against — your brain

    Welcome to the wonderful world of the creative process.

    At Master the Art of the Storyteller — our two-day hands-on creative-writing master class on Feb. 19-20, 2019 in San Diego — you’ll master a five-step creative process that helps you produce more and better ideas. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Write while washing the dishes: Find out why taking a walk, a nap or a break is actually part of the creative process.
    • Treat writer’s block, procrastination and formulaic thinking: When you understand the creative process, you can end-run some of the common problems that writers and editors face.
    • Avoid "creative incest": Stop creating communications that are dull replicas of the same thing you did last year — and the year before that.

________

Sources: Jonah Lehrer, “The Eureka Hunt,” The New Yorker, July 28, 2008

William McCall, “Learn While Dreaming: Sleep Essential for Creative Thinking, Sharper Memories,” Associated Press, Jan. 21, 2004

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