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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

How to Create While Doing Nothing or What to Do in Product Time When You’re Incubating

frustrated writer canstockphoto10465155 (2)Frustration is the hallmark of Incubation, the stage between active investigation/research (Saturation) and the aha moment/ flash of insight (Illumination).

In the research stage, you had a pretty good idea what to do: go look for answers, look for related questions, look at what others have done. You knew whether you’re doing your research or not.

By the time you get to Incubation, you’ve finished the research or reached a point of diminishing returns that tells you it’s time to move on. But until you reach Illumination, you don’t have the insight to move on with.

You have so much information in your head from all that research, but you can’t yet see the new combination of the pieces that will create a cohesive new whole.

You need to move, but you can’t. You want to move, but you don’t know where. Hence the frustration.

Look Away

The more you focus on the problem the less you can see a solution. This is not hyperbole, it’s a brain fact.

Outward focus on the problem is antithetical to the brain state needed to receive the insight. You need alpha waves; struggling to solve the problem generates beta waves. Research shows that the brain generates alpha waves 8 seconds before we become conscious of the insight.

Which is why the best thing to do in Incubation is some form of nothing. And oh how we struggle to do nothing! (This is another reason Process is so valuable – it teaches us how to do nothing playfully.) Incubation is a Zen or Yoda-like state of being where you do-without-doing.

What Does Nothing Look Like?

Staring into space is better than pushing for an answer. Leaving to take a walk would be even better.

Staring into space is better than pushing for an answer. Leaving to take a walk would be even better.

When you’re in Incubation, Product Time can include:

  • going for a walk
  • taking a nap
  • daydreaming
  • taking a shower (warm water is very conducive to alpha waves)
  • swimming
  • dancing
  • staring out the window
  • or other ways of “procrastinating.”

It could also include freewriting or brainstorming, but only if you can do that in a dreamy, diffuse way, not with laser focus.

Sometimes explaining the situation to someone else can help. But again be wary of the desire to solve the problem.

Your conscious mind will probably resist and dismiss these kinds of Product Time activities. So many of them feel like a waste of time, it’s tempting to do something else instead. “If I can’t do anything productive on this project anyway, I may as well go focus on something else.”

But if that something else engages your conscious mind, you generate beta brain waves and still can’t get the alpha waves you need to reach Illumination.

Protect Your Nothing Time

It’s essential you preserve Product Time while you’re incubating.

The most effective approach to generating the alpha waves that precede the aha moment is to consistently, intentionally give yourself 15 minutes to do “nothing.” Don’t succumb to the temptation to do something “productive.”

For more information about the stages of the creative process, see Chapter 4 of Around the Writer’s Block. For more information about the alpha wave connection, see Chapter 2 of Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works.

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2 Comments on “How to Create While Doing Nothing or What to Do in Product Time When You’re Incubating”

  1. Joel D Canfield July 19, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    This is vital.

    Appreciate the specific book references. I’d love to see those more often. Nice to get an overview in the post, then be able to follow up with more details when I’m ready.



  1. Are You Blocked or Hibernating? | The Bane of Your Resistance - July 23, 2013

    […] you read the previous post and thought there isn’t enough productive work in Incubation to count as Product Time, you’re […]


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