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A Break for a Breakthrough: Why Incubation Is Key to the Creative Process

Novelist Agatha Christie believed that the best time to write was while washing the dishes. Author Harper Lee did much of her creative thinking while golfing. Artist Grant Wood once said, “All of the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.”

Welcome to the process of incubation — the part of the creative formula where you take your eye off the ball, step away from the keyboard 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 — the eureka 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.

Where did that brilliant idea come from? No one really knows. It’s all part of the magical and mysterious juju of the creative process.

1. Time it right.

Incubation is the third step of the creative process — after research and organizing.

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? Sixteen 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.

2. Sleep on it.

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

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.

3. Multitask.

Don’t have time to sleep — let alone milk a cow — 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. 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 break, take a nap. As Jonah Lehrer, author of “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” writes, “It’s only after we stop searching that an answer may arrive.”


Ann Wylie works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. Learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services at WylieComm.com. Get more of Ann’s tips at FreeWritingTips.WylieComm.com. Email: ann@WylieComm.com

Catch Your Readers: Would you like to learn more techniques for writing leads and other story elements that draw readers in and move them to act? If so, please join PRSA and Ann Wylie at Catch Your Readers — a two-day persuasive Master Class on Nov. 13-14 in New Orleans. PRSA members: Save $100 with coupon code PRSA19. APRs: Earn four maintenance points.

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Ann Wylie

1 Comment

  • As someone who oftentimes neglects the incubation period, I enjoyed reading about why taking time to incubate is so important. On those days where I do make a point to incorporate an incubation period into my creative process, I have found that ideas flow easier. While, at first glance, it might seem that building time into our creative process to incubate might seem counterproductive, we must remember that it is when we stop thinking so hard that the best ideas come. – Justine Groeber, writer/editor for Platform Magazine

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