Creativity is hard work (but not harder than that)

Looking for creative ideas? Then surely you should not push your team too hard. Creative ideas are born out of freedom instead of hard work, right? Well… no.

When managers are looking for creative ideas, one thing they love to do is organising a ‘feet on the table’ session. A light-hearted, fun afternoon in which participants can freely fantasise about possible solutions. The idea seems to be that generating creative ideas can’t possibly be serious business. Hard work, rules and structure are rarely associated with creativity. Unfortunately, this complete misconception of creativity leads to many wasted hours …and very few feasible ideas.

Hard work
Contrary to popular belief, generating creative ideas is hard work. In the advertising classic ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’ (first published in the 40’s, but still every bit as relevant today) James Webb Young already explained why you should think long and hard when you’re looking for creative ideas.

You should collect information about your challenge and think about solutions until you are completely stuck. Don’t give up too easily. Keep on trying to find brilliant ideas, until your head starts to hurt. Then, and only then, let go. Stop thinking about your challenge altogether.

It won’t be productive to keep tormenting your brain, trying to solve the challenge. Doing so will only lead to frustration. Instead, let it go. Find something else to do. Go to the cinema, go for a stroll in the woods or do the laundry. Anything to keep your conscious mind occupied.

But don’t do anything too demanding. The trick is to do a small and easy task. This will make sure that your unconscious mind is free to start working on the challenge, while you are consciously busy with something else.

The result? The famous Eureka-moment. You’ve probably experienced it before; you are standing under the shower, doing the dishes or walking the dog… and suddenly it strikes you. A brilliant idea, seemingly out of nowhere. Of course it didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from your unconscious mind, picking up where you left off. The moment you stopped the hard work to relax, a hidden part of you continued the process.

Research has confirmed what James Webb Young already knew a long time ago. Creativity is hard work …but not harder than that.

If you’d like to know more about this curious process, known as ‘Incubation’, check out the BBC documentary ‘The Creative Brain; How Insights Work‘, or read the article ‘5 Steps To Reach Your Breakthrough Idea’.


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