writing distracted

How to Make ‘Doing Nothing’ Your Writing Superpower While You’re Homebound

By: Ann Handley, President, Wylie Communications

April 23, 2020

Editor’s Note: Some might have expected an extended home stay to be the perfect chance to finish an ongoing writing project or other creative endeavor. And yet, as our days become increasingly fluid, that expectation has flown out the window, making way for an anxious, distracted and disorganized writing environment. Below, writing coach Ann Wylie shares a method for jumpstarting creativity the next time you’re feeling stuck or unproductive.

Novelist Agatha Christie believed that the best time to write was while washing the dishes.

Author Harper Lee did much of her creative thinking while golfing. And artist Grant Wood said, “All of the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.”

Welcome to the wonderful world of incubation. That’s the third step of the five-step creative process—the one where you take your eye off the ball and let the back of your mind work on your project for awhile.

Then comes the miraculous moment when your brain presents a brilliant idea fully formed—aka the Eureka! or Aha! moment.

(The other steps: 1) forage, or gather information; 2) analyze that information; 4) break through with your big idea; then 5) knuckle down and implement.)

The spirit of the staircase

The French call it l’esprit de l’escalier—the wit of the staircase. That’s when you think of a great idea on your way down the stairs after the brainstorming meeting or the perfect retort the day after someone makes a snarky remark.

Where did that brilliant idea come from? I don’t know. It’s all part of the magical and mysterious juju of the creative process.

Here’s how to create the magic:

  1. Time it right.

That’s forage, analyze, then take a break. Incubation is the third step of the creative process.

My writing time is much more effective if I research and organize information the day before I write. The next day, I’m itching to get started. The reason: 16 hours of down time have really been 16 hours of incubation.

Kenneth Atchity, author of A Writer’s Time, calls this phenomenon creative pressure. You put off that first draft until you can hardly stand it anymore, until you can’t wait to get to the keyboard and let off some of that creative steam.

But incubate before you’ve foraged and analyzed, and you don’t have anything to incubate on.

Don’t let incubation become procrastination.

  1. Sleep on it—or move it, move it.

Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev reportedly established the periodic table of elements after waking from a dream one afternoon. British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that “Kubla Khan” came to him in a dream.

You might come up with better ideas if you got more sleep, too.

German scientists have demonstrated that our brains continue to work on problems while we sleep. After eight hours of rest, they’re more likely to come up with the right solution.

Other research shows that the best way to keep your brain working is to get outside and move.

  1. Multitask your way to incubation.

Don’t have time to sleep while a deadline is looming?

Instead of taking a break, move on to a new project. Forage and analyze Project A, for example, then forage and analyze Project B. While your conscious mind tackles Project B, your subconscious will continue to toil away at Project A.

Stuck? Don’t plow through. The best approach may well be to move on.

Don’t skip incubation.

Learn more about the writing process.

Ann Wylie is president of Wylie Communications. She works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. Get all of Ann’s tips here.

Copyright © 2020 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

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