Traditional theories of creativity suggest that an important part of generating creative ideas is incubation. After you have defined the problem and worked on it for a while, it seems to be important to let that idea sit for a while to generate the best ideas.
That is where the holidays can help.
As tempting as it may be to squeeze in a little work over Thanksgiving or in that period before New Year’s Day, there is a real benefit for your creativity to leaving work behind for a bit.
Here are three reasons to use your break time to get away from work.
Reset your memory
It turns out that memory is the engine of creativity. To find the knowledge you need to solve a complex problem, that knowledge has to be in your memory somewhere. And chances are, there is something you know that that will help you solve your problem. You just haven’t been able to access it yet.
Memories compete to be accessed. Information that pertains to the situation you are in leaps up wanting to be called to mind. At the same time, each memory also tamps down or inhibits competing memories. That means that the knowledge you have been using so far to solve a problem has been crowding out other things you know that also might help you to solve that problem.
By getting away from work for a few days, you give your memory a chance to reset. Knowledge you have that has been inhibited gets a chance to rise back up. That makes it more likely that when you return to work, other things you know will insert themselves into the creative mix.
You may have experienced this on a small scale with the tip of the tongue phenomenon. Suppose you are trying to remember the name of an actor or musician. You know that you know the name, but you just can’t access it. Try as you might the name just won’t leap to your grasp. If you resist the urge to scan the internet, you might find that the name pops into your head when you are doing something else, because all of the competing names have stopped inhibiting it.
Leave room for serendipity
Other times, there is knowledge you need to solve a problem, but that knowledge comes from a different domain of your experience than the area that defines the problem. You may not normally think about traffic as being like the circulatory system, but it can provide a good analogy. Likewise, you might not think that cockleburs offer much insight into the world, but they did provide George DeMestral with the inspiration for Velcro. And, of course, there is Archimedes stepping into the bath and seeing the water level rise, which helped him develop the law of displacement.
When you are not working on a problem overtly, you give yourself a chance to notice things going on around you that might just change the way you approach that problem. You can’t plan these chance encounters, but you can put yourself in a mindset to be open to them.
This is particularly true at holiday times when you end up having conversation with lots of family and friends who do not share your interests. And offhand comment at the dinner table just might be the ticket to a new approach to an old problem.
Broaden your horizons
You might not be working on a problem right now that requires a creative solution. That doesn’t mean that holiday time can’t still help you. Work often slows down at the end of the year as people get in the holiday spirit.
Use that time to read something new. You might pick up a nonfiction book in an area you don’t normally read to expose yourself to great work from another area. The most creative people are the ones who have the broadest bases of expertise.
Even picking up a novel can help. Many of the problems that you face in the workplace are not hard technical problems, they are people problems. You might be trying to find ways to motivate your colleagues. You might be looking for new approaches to connecting with customers.
It is hard to step outside your own social group and to really understand how someone quite different from yourself sees the world. Novels allow you to see the world through someone else’s eyes. The empathy you get from a great work of fiction can pay dividends later in your improved understanding of the people in your world.
So, don’t feel guilty about curling up with a good book. It might just be the source of your next great idea.
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