The creative process can look a bit odd from the outside. Sometimes it looks as though we’re doing nothing at all – strolling in the park, lazing on the beach, staring into space while the rest of the office is busy being busy – yet this can be the most productive time we spend all week, when ideas are bubbling away under the surface, waiting to burst into consciousness. Creativity theorists refer to this as incubation, as if the artist or thinker were some kind of chicken waiting patiently for the eggs of inspiration to hatch.
Yet at other times our apparent inactivity conceals an even more profound inactivity. We look as though we’re doing nothing, because we really are doing nothing. We’re wasting our time. We have better things to do. Procrastination has reared its ugly head.
So how can we tell the difference between the two? How do we know whether we’re doing just the right thing for our creative process, allowing brilliant ideas and inspiration to incubate quietly – or whether we really ought to be rolling up our sleeves and producing a little more perspiration?
In my job I’ve been lucky enough to observe plenty of creative people at close quarters, at the various stages of procrastination, incubation and inspiration. I’ve also spent far more time than I really should have procrastinating over creative work and probably not enough time incubating and giving my imagination a chance to work things over without interference.
I’ve come to the following conclusion about the difference between incubation and procrastination:
Procrastination happens before hard work
Incubation happens after hard work
Procrastination is an avoidance of work and creative risk. It is usually accompanied by anxiety (we’re not looking forward to the work) and guilt (we really should have done it by now). And it happens to the best of us. Here’s the world-famous, award-winning poet and novelist Margaret Atwood:
I used to spend the morning procrastinating and worrying, then plunge into the manuscript in a frenzy of anxiety around 3.00 P.M. when it looked as though I might not get anything done… The fact is that blank pages inspire me with terror. What will I put on them? Will it be good enough? Will I have to throw it out? And so forth. I suspect most writers are like this.
Incubation takes place when we have worked ourselves to a standstill, when we’ve tried our best and reached the limit of what we can achieve with conscious effort. Sometimes we give up in despair, at others with relief and maybe even a hint of anticipation – experienced creators come to recognise the tell-tale signs that it’s time to take a break. One of the most famous accounts of incubation comes from the mathematician Henri PoincarÃ©:
There is another remark to be made about the conditions of this unconscious work: it is possible, and of a certainty it is only fruitful, if it is on the one hand preceded and on the other hand followed by a period of conscious work. The sudden inspirations… never happen except after some days of voluntary effort which has appeared absolutely fruitless and whence nothing good seems to have come, where the way seems totally astray. These efforts then have not been as sterile as one thinks; they have set agoing the unconscious machine and without them it would not have moved and would have produced nothing.
He gives examples of this process from his own mathematical work:
Then I turned my attention to the study of some arithmetical questions apparently without much success and without a suspicion of any connection with any preceding researches. Disgusted with my failure, I went to spend a few days at the seaside, and thought of something else. One morning, walking on the bluff, the idea came to me, with… the characteristics of brevity, suddenness and immediate certainty, that the arithmetic transformations of indeterminate ternary quadratic forms were identical with those of non-Euclidic geometry.
I’m sure we all know what PoincarÃ© means.
So next time you find yourself in an idle moment on a creative project, unsure whether to push yourself harder or chill out in search of inspiration, ask yourself the following question:
Is the initial phase of hard work in front of me or behind me?
This is an extract from Mark McGuinness’ book Productivity for Creative People – a practical guide to getting your real work done amid the demands and distractions of modern life.