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Ding! Your Idea is Done – Incubation Effect

Ding! Your Idea is Done – Incubation Effect

I think we’ve all been there. Sitting there, struggling over a particularly difficult problem. Pulling out our hair. Asking ourselves What the HELL are we going to do about this?

It feels like we’re making absolutely no progress.

And then we take a break. Do something else. Y’know. Goof off.

And after a bit of time away, we revisit the problem. And immediately feel stupid.

Of COURSE. It was so OBVIOUS. How did we not see this the first time?

This phenomenon, getting past a mental block when we revisit a problem after taking a break from it? It’s well documented in psychology.

It’s called incubation effect.

Incubation effect made its debut in psychology in 1926 when English psychologist Graham Wallas posited a 4-stage creative process in his work The Art of Thought. In that work, Wallas describes that process as:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Illumination/insight
  4. Verification

Over the near-century since Wallas’s model was written, dozens of studies have been done both to establish that incubation effect exists (it does). And to figure out why it works, so as to best use incubation to our advantage.

Two key factors that have improved the results of incubation effect have been:

  1. Spending a longer time with the problem in the preparation phase.
  2. Doing something that’s not mentally taxing during the incubation period.

So if you’re struggling with a difficult problem? It’s good to spend a while thinking over possible solutions. But after a concerted effort, take a walk. Do something else. Go to lunch. Listen to music. Something light. Give your brain a rest.

Using Incubation Effect to Your Advantage

I find knowing about incubation effect to be quite helpful when trying to approach problem-solving difficult situations in relationships.

To use incubation to your advantage:

  1. Spend time carefully thinking about the situation. All the people involved.
  2. Write down your frustrations, possible concerns of all those involved, etc.
  3. Outline pros and cons of various actions you could take and their potential outcomes.
  4. Take a break. Do something fun.
  5. Revisit later. Google Inbox has reminders you can set to notify you after a certain period of time has passed.  And I’m sure some of you have other great tools you can use to remind you (feel free to comment below with those).
  6.  Have profound eureka moment!


Featured Image: CC BY – scjn