Art is hard. Creative insights are hard to predict, and just when it gets difficult, your mind immediately jumps to a distraction: something easier to do, an excuse, a scapegoat.
To get the most out of your creative energy, carve out space for creative work. To make that space, you need to make space for the other types of work, too. The key to this is understanding how creative insights happen.
The four “stages of control” that build creative insights
In 1891, German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz—whose accomplishments included inventing the ophthalmoscope—was honored with a party for his 70th birthday. He got up to make a speech, and shared how he achieved his creative insights:
Often … [ideas] arrived suddenly, without any effort on my part, like an inspiration.… They never came to a fatigued brain and never at the writing desk. It was always necessary, first of all, that I should have turned my problem over on all sides to such an extent that I had all its angles and complexities “in my head.” … Then … there must come an hour of complete physical freshness and quiet well-being, before the good ideas arrived. Often they were there in the morning when I first awoke.… But they liked especially to make their appearance while I was taking an easy walk over wooded hills in sunny weather.
Thirty-five years later, social psychologist Graham Wallas cited Helmholtz’s speech, and proposed four “stages of control”: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification.
- During Preparation, you’re learning everything you can about the problem, or, as Helmholtz would say you’ve “turned [the] problem over on all sides” so that everything about it is “in [your] head.”
- During Incubation, you’re allowing your unconscious mind to work on the problem. It happens while you’re “taking an easy walk over wooded hills,” or while you’re sleeping. Whatever you do to achieve “complete physical freshness and quiet well-being.”
- When Illumination happens, the solution comes to you. As Helmholtz said, it doesn’t tend to happen while you’re sitting at your desk. It might be when you’ve just woken up.
- During Verification, you ensure that the idea meets up to your standards. Does it solve the problems you identified during the Preparation stage?
These four stages have been cited in thousands of research papers on creativity. As neuroscientists Mark Beeman and John Kounios wrote in their book The Eureka Factor, Helmholtz’s observations still stand up more than 120 years later. The unconscious mind “Incubates” the information collected, and finds connections that lead to “Illumination.”
The creative mistake most people make
The mistake most people make when trying to do creative work is they don’t work according to the stages of thought that lead to creative insights. We sit down and try to write a blog post or a novel, or just daydream about starting a YouTube channel. But then we just get overwhelmed.
There’s always a distraction within reach. It’s more satisfying in the short term to check our email, or sit on the couch and watch Netflix.
But if you work with these stages, creative insights can come more easily, with less discomfort. You can work with the ebbs and flows of your creative energy so that you work like a perpetual motion machine—each action feeding the next, and your energy being replenished before it’s drained.
The seven categories of creative work
If you arrange your creative work according to these seven categories, you can ease creative insights through the four stages of control. You can avoid getting blocked, and avoid getting distracted or burnt out.
- Prioritize: To have the space for creative work, you need to have a clear picture of what you’re doing in any given moment. The clearer your priorities, the more focused you can be on the task at hand. The Getting Things Done system can keep distractions out of your head, and in a “trusted system.” A “weekly review” (also a GTD concept) can help you feel in control. Maintaining creative habits helps clear space, too, because they take away uncertainty about what you should be doing while you’re carrying out your habit. When you Prioritize, you clear mental space to Generate.
- Generate: Many people ascribe mystical properties to creative ideas. They think a “Muse” floats down from the heavens and whispers in their ear. Believe it if you want, but it’s still nonsense that can get in the way of having control over your creative process. Great insights certainly come randomly, so this is why you need to roll the dice as many times as possible. Build a creative habit. Make a daily deliverable, whether it’s 100-words a day, a 30-second song, or a new twist on a Negroni. When you Generate, you give a chance for all of the other pieces of creative preparation to come together.
- Explore: There’s a special power in curiosity. It can fuel you to work harder, it can take you to uncharted territory, and following your curiosity can replenish your creative energy. Take the time to Explore things you’re curious about, because they can collide with other things to make explosive ideas. When you Explore, you collect the raw materials for the insights you’ll have when you Generate.
- Research: To solve a creative problem, you have to learn whatever you can about that problem. When you Research a problem before you Generate, you set the context for solving the problem. When you Research after you Generate, you answer the questions you encountered while trying to solve the problem.
- Recharge: You’ve heard about 10,000 hours to mastery, but you haven’t heard about the 12,500 hours of rest you need, too. When you rest, you allow your unconscious mind to work on your creative problems. You also refuel your energy to Prioritize clearly, and Generate smoothly.
- Polish: A great idea won’t work if you don’t execute it well. You need to make sure that bold skyscraper design won’t collapse, and your novel better not have too many misspellings. When you Polish, the crusty rocks you mined while Generating, transform into gleaming gems.
- Administrate: Real Artists Don’t Starve, but most of us can’t afford servants to keep our lives and businesses running while we focus on our craft. There are bills to pay, invoices to send, and lightbulbs to change. When you Administrate, you make it all work, so you can keep doing what you’re doing.
The three stages of becoming a perpetual creativity machine
In a perfect world, you’d know exactly what time of day, and exactly what time of week your energy is ideal for each of these seven categories of creative work. By focusing on one category at a time, you would keep yourself from procrastinating.
You could write a rough draft of your novel (or Generate), confident that you’d eventually get the dialogue right for 1890’s England (which you would later Research). You wouldn’t get distracted when you suddenly remembered that you were almost out of hand soap, because you’d know you’d get it taken care of at another time (or Administrate).
In reality, implementing these categories is an ongoing process. Start by protecting a tiny bit of time to Generate. Then, as that crack grows, arrange the other pieces of your life and work to serve the best use of your creative energy.
- Build a tiny creative habit first. Find the time of day when you have your best creative energy. Surprisingly, it may be when you’re groggy. Make your daily deliverable so small, you can’t stand to fail.
- Take time to Prioritize. Once you’ve established a habit, dedicate an hour a week to a “weekly review”. Clear mental energy to make your art.
- Rest with a purpose. Once you’ve started practicing Prioritization, establish times during your day and your week when you’ll do something that Recharges you. Write yourself a prescription if you have to. Disconnect from creative problems, and let your unconscious work on them. Take sleep seriously.
Once you’ve grown through these three stages—the creative habit, taking time to Prioritize, and resting with a purpose—other elements should start falling into place. You’ll get a feel for when your energy is right for Researching or Polishing, and you’ll establish a system for keeping Administrative details from interfering with your best work.
Doing creative work can feel like banging your head against solid stone. But if you manage your energy for persistence, and recognize the stages of creative insights, you can find the rhythm that would carve a tiny crack of creativity into The Grand Canyon.