Need a Fresh Idea? Prepare to “Incubate”


Often fresh, new ideas occur to you after a period away from your work. That’s why many authorities on creativity recommend taking breaks to let this process happen.  But just taking a break isn’t enough. How often have you come back, after a break, and been in exactly the same stuck situation as you were before?

The subconscious is not active — it can’t figure things out for you. You need to prepare your mind so the time spent away “incubating” can pay off. That means, take a few minutes to think about what kind of a solution you need.

For example, some years ago I bogged down rehearsing a new script. I knew I needed to speed up the process, but although  I took a couple of breaks, I didn’t get any new ideas.

I finally got the rehearsal process moving by doing some thinking on paper about what kind of solution I needed. I realized I was trying to combine rehearsal with editing (a bad combination — I should separate them) and that I wasn’t sure how to do the editing effectively. I needed a better way to keep track of changes for the script. Then I took a break to “incubate.”

An idea occurred to me. It may sound silly to you, but here it is: It occurred to me that I could use bigger pieces of paper to make notes on the problems. (I had been using little sticky notes.) This was exactly the encouragement I needed. I was able to settle down and go through the whole script in less time than I had wasted being stuck on just a small part of it.

What happened there? I set a very specific intention — figure out how to keep track of changes for the script. And I held it in the back of my mind during my break. As I recall, when I came back to my desk I saw the little sticky notes and felt a sense of frustration — they were messy and confusing. That observed fact connected with my intention, to generate the idea of using bigger pieces of paper.

The moral of this story is: new ideas don’t come by magic. They come when you prepare for them, by describing to yourself (in whatever terms make sense) what new ideas you wish you had. When you do this, you set up a “standing order” to your subconscious. Then, as you go through your day, something you run into by chance can trigger a new connection that is just what you needed.

This is why I put “incubate” in scare quotes. I agree the phenomenon exists (as I describe it here). But most people seem to think the incubation is some magical process that happens in the subconscious. I believe all the action is in peripheral awareness — with a standing order in the background that can trigger an idea based on some fresh observation.


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