The power of incubation – 5 steps to reach your breakthrough idea

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How do we get ideas? Where do they come from? Why do our best ideas suddenly appear in our mind, while we’re visiting the gym, taking a shower or walking the dog? The answer to all these questions is a simple procedure that explains the magic of getting ideas.

An idea is nothing more than the combination of old elements. It’s a new connection we did not see before. If you want to be creative, it’s important to have a broad interest in the world around you. The more knowledge is stored in your brain, the bigger the chance of finding that one brilliant new connection.

The process of getting ideas consists of 5 steps. Each step is responsible for one part of the procedure. If you follow these steps in the right order, you will have no difficulty getting the big idea.

1. Collect data

Dive into your subject. Learn everything there is to know about your immediate problem. Really understanding your subject in detail is hard work. It takes a lot of time and effort. Don’t give up too soon. Read and watch everything there is, every bit of information you can find. Give your mind something to chew on.

It takes a lot of discipline to stick to this first step. During this phase, people tend to wait for inspiration, while they should be hunting for all the information they can get their hands on.

There are two types of data you should gather: specific and general.

Specific data is the information directly related to your problem. For instance, if your problem is a decline in sales, the information you’re looking for should have everything to do with your product and the people buying your product.

General data is the information unrelated to your problem, it’s the information you use to make original new connections. It enables you to combine what has not been combined before. The more you know the easier it is to establish new connections and to create new ideas.

It’s important that you constantly enrich your storage of general knowledge. Pick up a magazine on a subject you know nothing about, read a book on an unrelated topic or watch a documentary on developments in a field that is not in any way related to your problem. Constantly fill your library of general knowledge, not just when you’re desperate for a solution.

2. Work with the information

Think long and hard about your problem. Come up with as many ideas as you can. Go over your material and think about every detail. Don’t give up. stretch your mind. Exhaust your brain until it hurts…

3. Forget about it and go do something else

Drop the subject. Clear your head and try to forget about your problem. This way you will start the incubation state, where you leave the problem to your unconscious mind. Be active, do something undemanding that distracts your attention. Go to a concert, do the dishes, take a shower, go to the cinemas etc. As long as you keep your conscious mind busy.

Keep the activity simple but active. Don’t do nothing, it’s a waste of time and will have a negative influence on the process. Make sure that your activity is not asking for too much mental energy either. Don’t try to solve difficult mathematical problems or think about the beginning of the Universe. (It will steal the attention of your unconscious mind and will absorb the energy it needs to generate new ideas.)

4. Eureka, the birth of an idea

Bam! An idea will strike you. It will pop up like a rabbit out of a hat. It will find you when you least expect it. While you are busy shaving, doing the dishes, half awake in the morning or in the middle of the night.

That’s why it’s important to always carry a notebook with you. At all times. Put a small notebook and pencil in your jacket, in your bag and next to your bed. You never know when an idea will strike you.

5. Shaping the idea

Share your idea with the world. Don’t be afraid, the world won’t bite. Share it directly with the biggest critics you know. They will help you to shape it into a more feasible idea. A good idea will stimulate people to add to it. Let them point out its weaknesses and flaws and try to fix these.

Now you will be ready to share your idea with the rest of the world. Good luck.


For more information on the Incubation process, read A Technique for Producing Ideas, by James Webb Young.


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Showing 2 comments
  • Jerry

    Hi Jeroen. How do I now that my unconscious mind is working on the incubation of an idea and isn’t just slacking on several different topics? Is there a way to check the progress it has made on a certain topic after I did the dishes or a night of rest?

    • Jeroen de Ruijter

      Hi Jerry, great question. It’s hard to predict when and where your idea will appear. However, you can put your subconscious to work. The way to ‘tell’ your subconscious that your problem has priority, is by thinking about this subject long and hard. Exhaust your brain. Then do something mundane. This is the signal for your subconscious to focus on the pressing matter.

      The only way to make sure that your unconscious mind is working on your challenge is to follow the five steps in the right order. Don’t worry about it. Just sit back and relax and you will see that your idea will come to you, no matter what.

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