How to properly incubate your ideas

Photo by  Hutomo Abrianto  on  Unsplash .

I’ve long been a proponent for action as a crucial part of the creative process.

Action, I’ve often exclaimed, is a major trait which sets the daydreamer apart from the inventor, or the would-be artist from the gallery-featured savant. Ideas are plentiful and fairly easy to come by. You often don’t need much to stumble on a valuable or unique idea; sometimes you do. What’s vastly more difficult than having ideas or daydreaming about possibilities is doing something with the ideas you do have. You can’t simply sit around and expect your ideas to evolve into successes on their own. You can’t really know the value of an idea until you do something with it (to validate it or prove it wrong).

Today I still believe in the importance of action when it comes to creative ideas. If you want to be recognized (or even simply acknowledged) as a creative individual, you have to do something with the ideas you have. Ideas are worthless until we get them out of our heads to see what they can do.

But there’s another component to creativity that requires us to explicitly not act: incubation.

Incubation is a subconscious stage within the creative process, one of four to five total stages, depending on who you talk to. According to the renown creative theorist and psychologist Graham Wallas, incubation plays a crucial role in the first part of the process of creative thought. His model states that the four stages are, in order: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification. For incubation, work we immerse ourselves in is moved to the recesses of our mind’s processing. Wikipedia describes incubation as “a process of unconscious recombination of thought elements that were stimulated through conscious work at one point in time, resulting in novel ideas at some later point in time.”

On the outside, incubation appears to be a creative stage in which nothing happens. Because of this, incubation is often shunned or looked down on as laziness. The reality is far from the truth: the incubation stage of creativity is often critical to a preferable outcome.

Consider that the notion of incubation has been studied in-depth as part of scientific research and academic labs since the 1920s. Researchers test the role of incubation by often splitting research participants into two groups: one which receives a short break between creative tests or tasks, and another group which gets no such break.

Repeatedly studies have shown that a short break often results in more creative output; far more creative than if you do nothing at all or focus on daunting tasks. Getting time away from a problem or project, it turns out, often enables the subconscious brain to work on that project free of conscious pressures.

But incubation is a tricky thing. You can’t, for example, expect ideas to incubate if you distract yourself with cognitively heavy or difficult tasks. Nor will you end up with creative insights if you distract yourself with mind-numbing entertainment.

To properly let ideas incubate, you must participate in lightweight tasks which keep your mind engaged but not overwhelmed. This point has been demonstrated in many studies, including one by researchers from the University of California Santa Barbra and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive Brain Sciences. In the study—titled Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation—researchers note that when participants were instructed to complete a creative task they performed better if they were given a lightweight, simple task after being shown the creative task but before attempting to complete it. Those who were given a simple task between the work performed better than not only those who had to work on an arduous challenge, but also those who merely rested.

The researchers summarize their findings:

“The study reported here demonstrated that taking a break involving an undemanding task improved performance on a classic creativity task far more than did taking a break involving a demanding task, resting, or taking no break. Notably, this improvement was observed only for repeated-exposure problems, which demonstrates that it resulted from an incubation process rather than a general increase in creative problem solving.”

That is to say: the two conditions that yield the most creative results—at least for participants in the study—are first, being primed on the task at hand (immersion in the problem or work-to-be-done) and second, distance from the work or problem with a lightweight task, such as doing the dishes (or similar chores), going for a walk, reading a book, planning an outfit for the next day, making coffee, or journaling. Really anything that’s going to challenge your mind without putting too much pressure on it is what will provide the most value for incubation.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all creative ideas come from brute force (or the just as misleading myth that creative ideas come from “nowhere”), but we cannot overlook the value incubation plays on the process. In reality the best ideas come from being primed or deeply embedded in a space, task, or problem, followed by a short break that challenges the mind in a simple way before attempting to complete the task.

If you want to incubate your ideas: give yourself the time to step away from the task you need to add creativity to. You may find that when you come back to the task, you’re more capable of thinking differently about it than you were before. All because your mind has been primed to do the work, then given the space and energy to subconsciously “connect the dots” needed to do the work.

In this way, creativity is less the flipping of a light switch and more the painting of a picture. Slow and deliberate, with a lot more work happening beneath the layers we see at the end of the work.