Incentives + Incubation = Better Insights

New studies show that mindful breaks boost creative insight.

Posted Apr 23, 2019

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When it comes to generating novel and useful ideas, we often feel pressure to create—pressure to generate not just a new idea, but a great, original idea. We also feel pressure to produce these great ideas in a designated time frame. Let’s say you have a glimmer of an idea for your business, a book, a podcast, or a team challenge. It’s a full-fledged idea. It’s not even half-baked. How do you keep track of that idea to refine, maybe discover an aha! solution, and then execute on that idea to completion? How do you do so, especially amidst deadlines, expectations of clients or managers, and high-stakes pressures placed on the ideas themselves?

Welcome to the seeming mysteries of the creative process at work—the methods by which we go about exploring an idea, gaining insights that refine the idea, and mustering the means to execute the idea into an actual project or endeavor.

As a creator, business owner, visionary, leader, or employee responsible for innovating, you can learn to refine your own process for developing better ideas in a consistent process. There’s no direct path to bringing an idea to fruition. However, new studies corroborate that one key factor of the creative process boosts the capacity to gain insights.

A new study conducted by the Combs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin and the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has found that incentives for ideas (good or bad) can help individuals produce higher quality ideas, so long as there is an incubation period.  Incubation refers to the time needed for a process of development to occur.

We know that Mind Breaks are beneficial. A Mind Break is is a shaped space that allows you to merge your creativity and workflow. They can help you refresh your brain, clear out the debris, and bring a new perspective to the task at hand.

But incentives combined with incubation lead to better insights. Pieces of motivation or encouragement play a role in the creative process, and how this combination can help you gain better insights and act on them.

Incentives Breed Insight

The study “Incentivizing the Creative Process: From Initial Quantity to Eventual Creativity” shows some interesting results regarding incentivizing and incubating ideas.

The first part of the study focuses on incentives. Participants were asked to do the same creative task, but were offered one of the following:

  1. pay based on the number of ideas they produced
  2. pay based on the number of ideas they produced that met a creative standard
  3. a fixed pay regardless of the number or quality of ideas

The results found that regardless of the incentives, none of the groups outperformed any of the others. However, the participants abandoned their projects during an incubation period, and returned to them ten days later. They found that the participants who were paid for the number of ideas they produced (good or bad) outperformed the other groups with “a distinct creativity advantage.”

The incentive alone did not alter the participants’ ability to produce great ideas, but the incentive to create any idea (regardless of its quality) combined with what I call a “deliberate Mind Break” or Wonder Intervention led to more high-quality creative work. What does this tell us?

Incentives can be beneficial if we leave room for breaks. Without the break from the task at hand, the participants showed no remarkable difference. But as soon as they stepped away from the projects, they brought a fresh perspective to the creative work--and this likely motivated them to return and produce even more ideas.

Quantity Over Quality?

If you asked an author how many books they’ve written, you’ll like get one of two answers. You’ll either get a list of how many books they’ve published or they’ll tell you the truth: that they’ve written many, many books that have never seen the light of day.

Producing bad ideas is simply part of the creative process. Persistence is the key to achieving creative success and persistence requires continuous creative practice which will inevitably lead to a combination of both good and bad ideas.

The more you engage with the creative process and with refining what works for you given your constraints, the better you’ll actually become at gaining insights and acting on them. It’s no different than practicing a sport or practicing a speech. If you fixate on the innovation of new, brilliant ideas, you’ll like encounter more stress, more pressure, and less imagination.

As the study shows, producing ideas—regardless of their quality—eventually leads to more creative work. This is why leaders need to encourage creativity, of any kind. Not only can bad ideas breed good ideas, but the act of producing can lead to more persistent creativity.

Deliberate Mind Breaks Support Creativity

When a novelist generates a new idea for a novel, she may draft an outline or produce a whole first draft, and then, just as quickly, push the project aside for days, weeks, even months. This may seem like a bad idea, but actually this “incubation period” leaves room for reflection, for separation, for a new perspective.

Tommy Orange, author of There, There, told Entertainment Weekly, “Some of the deeper solutions to the novel and how everything fit together would come to me when I was running, and only then. Running actually became part of my writing process because it became so essential to figuring out some of the deeper solutions to the problems.”

Deliberate Mind Breaks are an integral part of Orange’s creative process—and often, we neglect them, not realizing how crucial they are. In 1927, Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik researched the importance of interruption on memory processing and found that interruption during a task or project that requires acute focus can actually help a person better remember the task or project at hand. This concept is known as the Zeigarnik Effect.

This same process can be used to foster a more meaningful creative practice, as Orange, and many of the study’s participants demonstrate. Taking a break and going for a mindful walk (Wonder Walk) or putting aside a creative project for a longer duration (and embracing the benefits of time and space) can lead to more meaningful creative—and a more successful (high-quality) creative flow.