Do you wish you were an innovative person? Someone who routinely finds elegant creative solutions to puzzling problems.
Well, I have good news for you: being innovative is not a fixed trait but a skill you can master. It involves creativity, and today we’ll see a 5-step methodology to trigger your aha moments.
Let’s jump in…
It’s not magic, there is a recipe
Did you know that the “creativity” word did not exist in ancient languages like Greek and Latin? This is because people believed the gods were the origin of our greatest ideas. So we were not really making new ideas but merely “discovering” what the gods whispered to our ears.
Fortunately, the world has changed. In 1927, creativity became a word thanks to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. And in 1948, advertising executive Alex Osborn published his national bestseller: “Your Creative Power”.
Nowadays, we understand much better how creativity works. And it turns out having genius ideas involves one particular skill: allowing the subconscious mind to come up with solutions to our problems.
Let’s see how…
To say the least, creativity is a counter-intuitive beast. Contrary to deductive reasoning, creativity does not involve focusing on a problem but rather un-focusing from it.
It’s often disconcerting that you can’t use a direct, conscious analytical strategy to come up with great ideas. In fact, the best way to generate genius ideas is to take a break from your work.
Yes, you have to detach yourself completely from the problem at hand to allow a breakthrough idea to emerge. Just forget about the problem. Let your subconscious mind take the lead on connecting the dots.
How do you hand over the work to your subconscious mind? The answer lies in doing relaxing activities.
For me, it often involves cleaning tasks like washing my hands, shaving, or doing the washing up. Others have found success in repeating activities like knitting or origami.
Thanks to these kinds of activities, you break prior thoughts and emotional patterns. And your subconscious mind comes into play in the background and leads you to a breakthrough idea.
The 5 stages of creativity
Now let’s see a 5 step methodology to put this into practice.
It is inspired by the book “The art of thought” by Graham Wallas (1926) and “The breakout principle” by Dr. Herbert Benson (2001).
Here are those 5 steps:
Step 1: A hard mental or physical struggle
First, you need to set the stage for your breakthrough idea to emerge. It involves filling your mind with the knowledge of the problem and playing with different potential approaches to get to a solution.
Step 1: Fill your mind with the pieces of the puzzle
This preparation phase is often strenuous. You will experience cognitive overload. You will get confused by conflicting ideas. You will stall, just like when you experience writer’s block.
This is expected. Just trust the process.
Step 2: Taking a breakthrough pause
Then, you take a break from any conscious attempt to solve the problem. Let your subconscious mind connect the dots. Under the hood, this is the default network of your brain at work.
The process is also known as coherence. This is when distant regions of the brain interact more completely with each other.
To achieve this, you will need to break free from previous mental patterns by doing a triggering activity. This can be a repetitive physical activity like knitting, a walk, or doing the washing up.
Don’t do a mentally taxing activity like playing a video game. It wouldn’t work. It should be a calm relaxing activity.
Last but not least, don’t expect guaranteed results. This is not a sure-fire way to come up with exciting ideas. Let go of any urge to solve the problem as your mind needs to be in a relaxed state.
Step 3: Shazam!
Here comes the moment of illumination. After your subconscious mind has finished slowly synthesizing all your ideas in the background, the new creative idea appears in a flash.
It comes whole and complete, gift-wrapped, so to speak. Anatomically, this is the salience nervous system making your most promising idea emerge into consciousness.
This aha moment is accompanied by a deep sense of well-being. It’s the same feeling you get when you recognize a pattern. Your brain rewards you for it as recognizing patterns is such an essential mechanism for survival.
According to Dr. Herbert Benson in the book “The breakout principle”, this moment involves the release of dopamine from the reward network and nitric oxide (NO), which counters the negative effects of the stress hormone norepinephrine (noradrenaline),
Step 4: Verifying
Once your idea has emerged in consciousness, you get back to analytical thinking. Now you need to use critical thinking and follow conscious rules again to validate or invalidate the value of the new idea.
Think about verifying a Mathematics theorem. The solution appeared in your mind, and you’re so excited about it! But how will you make sure it is sound? How can you prove it to your colleagues?
The great mathematician Henri Poincarré spoke about this verifying stage in his book “Science and Method”:
It never happens that unconscious work supplies ready-made the result of a lengthy calculation […] All that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations.
Step 5: Getting to new heights
Here’s a final step that occurs as a consequence of the relaxation resulting from the breakthrough pause.
Of course, a pause from your work can’t last forever. After a pause, you need to go back to the world of strenuous/stress-inducing work. And as we mentioned, the pause may or may not result in a breakthrough idea. It is not a silver bullet method.
But you will now be in a better position to raise to new heights in your productivity, thanks to the restoration of your mind-body faculties. In particular, you will feel lighter, more alert, and able to exert more willpower to persevere in your work.
The peak experience of having a breakthrough idea will raise your confidence to the top, feeding a virtuous cycle that will increase the chances of having additional breakthrough ideas in the near future.
Examples of activities likely to trigger a breakthrough idea
The best way to trigger a breakthrough idea is to do a calm, physical, repetitive activity. It should be a relaxing activity to allow your subconscious mind to work in the background.
Dr. Benson has listed an exhaustive list in the book “The Breakout principle”.
But here is a summary you can use for inspiration:
- Repetitive activities: needlepoint (knitting), gardening, origami, …
- Spiritual activities: repeating an inspiring word like “peace” each time you take a breath, praying, tai chi, …
- Cleaning/housework: shaving, doing the washing up, taking a shower or a bath, folding clothes, …
- Physical exercise: walking, running, stretching, yoga, exercise, …
- A sensory experience: watching the landscape from your balcony, listening to the rain, listening to baroque or repetitive music (My favorite is As far as you can from Alpha), smelling sticks of cinnamon, …
- Animal/pets: observing fish in an aquarium, sitting quietly with your dog, …
Producing breakthroughs with group activities
Most activities I’ve listed previously are solo activities. But sometimes, you can get the same effect with group activities.
Dr. Benson calls these “breakout networks”. One of the most common forms is to take a pause with colleagues and have a good laugh.
It works very well. Before the Covid-19, I would often use this technique. After a good laugh, I would often get exciting ideas on how to tackle the problems I was struggling with.
Another one I have noticed involves doing check-ins with an accountability partner. I often do a weekly online meeting with my accountability partner.
Usually, we discuss each other’s problems that prevent our progress on our goals. This triggers important breakthrough ideas in how to improve our respective productivity.
You can also find great examples of such group activities in the book “The breakout principle”.
For example, Dr. Benson mentions:
Brainstorming is a bit tricky because it involves peer pressure, which stifles creativity. I know that brainstorming typically involves telling the group to “suspend judgment”, in order to fight peer pressure. But studies (this one for example) reveal group brainstorming is typically less effective than solo brainstorming.
If you really want to brainstorm with a group, it’s best to use electronic brainstorming, that is: each member brainstorms individually, before meeting with the group to share their results.
In popular culture, being creative is often considered a gift. It’s true that you can’t solve a creativity problem by conventional deduction. But being more creative is not an obscure art.
To make a breakthrough idea, you need to set the stage for it. That’s what we did using the 5-step methodology I mentioned.
The central element is the breakthrough pause. To make a breakthrough idea emerge, you need to hand over the work to your subconscious mind. This typically involves relaxing activities that help you break your previous mental patterns.
They are typically physical and repetitive, like needlepoint for example. Keep in mind there is no guarantee that this will produce a breakthrough idea every time. But if you practice it often enough, it will greatly improve your rate of discovery.