Many popular theories about creativity break the process into stages. The most mysterious of these intervals is incubation. Over the years, psychological studies and real life breakthroughs have come to suggest the best ways to use this step.
In general, creative thinking starts when you identify an issue and prepare to tackle it. Next, you hit an impasse and decide to take a break. Then, the answer comes to you while you’re taking a shower or getting up from a nap.
That productive rest period before the Eureka moment is called incubation.
Guiding Principles for Effective Incubating
1. Prepare carefully. This is the time to do your research and engage in critical thought. Figure out the challenge you want to solve and state it precisely.
2. Plan ahead. Incubation is more effective when you remind yourself that you’ll be returning to your dilemma later. Look forward to coming back feeling refreshed and full of new answers.
3. Slow down. Think about coming to a gradual stop rather than slamming on the brakes. Allow your body and mind to quiet down. Take a few deep breaths. Relax your neck and shoulders. Observe your thoughts without pursuing them.
4. Choose non-demanding activities. If you spend your break studying calculus or the Peloponnesian War, it’ll be difficult to get anything else done. Devote your time to routine tasks that require little thought.
5. Let your mind wander. Relax and let your thoughts flow. Free yourself from any expectations and see what happens.
6. Play more. Clowning around stimulates your imagination. Lighten up and have a good laugh.
7. Keep it brief. You may find that the results you want are already close at hand. Short breaks often work better than taking a whole day off. Take it easy for about a half hour.
8. Appreciate the value of sleep. REM sleep unleashes creativity in amazing ways. When you dream, you form associations and consolidate memories. You’re able to see things differently and spot new opportunities.
Practical Strategies to Encourage Incubation
1. Take a nap. Get work done while you sleep. You’re likely to perform better after you lie down for 15 or 20 minutes.
2. Keep a journal by your bed. If your day job keeps you on your feet, make the most of your overnight slumbers. Have a pen and paper handy to jot down your thoughts when you wake up in the wee hours.
3. Meditate daily. Meditation and sleep have similar effects on the brain. Carve out five minutes to sit down and calm your mind.
4. Play with kids. Cut back on weekend appointments so you can spend time goofing around with your kids. Toss a Frisbee or throw a tea party.
5. Get a dog. If you sometimes get too busy to remember to play, a dog will help you get back on track. They like sharing their toys.
6. Exercise outdoors. Connecting with nature always helps. Break out your ice skates or bathing suit depending on the season.
7. Develop a new hobby. Lots of great artists and scientists have engaged in pastimes that created an atmosphere conducive to their accomplishments. For example, Emily Dickinson baked cakes. You may get inspired doing needlework or repairing clocks.
8. Clean house. Just doing the laundry or vacuuming the living room carpet may reveal your inner talents. Find chores at work and home that keep your hands busy and your mind free.
When it comes to triggering creative insights, not all rest is created equal. If you want to boost your creativity, make time to play and harness the power of your dreams. You’ll be surprised with the incredible payoff.