The Gist: understanding the incubation effect of creativity can help you manage your PKM system and create better content.
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Have you ever noticed that you tend to get a lot of ideas when you’re doing mundane things like showering, walking the dog, or doing dishes?
It may seem random, and in one way, it is.
But in another way, it’s your brain working exactly as it’s supposed to.
Inside the creative process
Creativity might seem like a nebulous, spontaneous process culminating in a big “aha moment,” but it’s actually a fairly predictable neurological process.
Psychologist Graham Wallas published The Art of Thought in 1926, outlining the process he observed and researched during his 40 years as a social psychologist.
Coincidentally, those stages map pretty well to the knowledge management process, which probably has something to do with why and how PKM increases creativity.
The first step of Wallas’ process is preparation, which is essentially research, collecting dots to connect later, and processing ideas. They can be done through the first three steps of the PKM process, and actually engaging with your PKM system.
The next step is incubation, which is best done by stepping away from the work for a bit, particularly to do something that lets your mind wander.
That “aha moment” you’ve probably experienced when showering or trying to fall asleep?
That’s the illumination phase of the creative process, the lightbulb moment. You’ll want to capture that “aha” or new idea in your PKM system.
And then the final step, verifying the idea and fleshing it out, can be done through content creation, which we’ll talk about in our next issue.
But back to that incubation phase…
Doing nothing & the incubation effect
As I first learned in Manoush Zomorodi’s Bored and Brilliant, spending time “doing nothing” and letting ourselves get bored, creates the ideal conditions for your brain to incubate an idea.
Since the activity you’re doing in your brain’s “foreground” isn’t very demanding, it has more energy to work on processing and connecting the dots you’ve collected in the background.
It even does this when you sleep!
(Although it’s mostly focused on processing experiences and memories then.)
This is why it’s so important to balance out spurts of creativity and productivity with equal spurts of mental rest.
You need to spend time engaging with information and ideas, but you also need to spend time away from them before you’re done with them.
For example, when you first read an article, the main idea put forth may not resonate much.
But then you go out in the world again, and the knowledge gained from it bumps up against other information you come across and experience you have.
It all plays bumper cars in your brain, and you get a more fully formed opinion, whether it’s agreeing or disagreeing with the original piece.
Eventually, through this incubation and connecting different pieces of information, you come to a decision about your opinion in a moment of illumination.
An important example of this for me is how earlier in my career, I kept coming across examples of how Hustle Culture and the ideology of workaholism was harmful to different people and in different scenarios.
After enough of those examples and insights, and incubation time with them, I had the aha that Hustle Culture is harmful to everyone.
How a PKM system helps with incubation
So, if your brain naturally connects dots when you let things incubate, why bother formalizing it inside a PKM system?
It creates a dedicated space for all this to happen, for you to engage with ideas and information, the dots you’ve collected. The better you engage with the information in the first place, the easier the incubation phase will be. When the dots are clear, they’re easy to connect.
And taking notes and highlights, adding metadata, and other parts of managing a PKM system forces you to engage with the information more.
It also provides an easy-to-access place for you to capture your “aha” insights once you’ve reached the end of the incubation phase and reached the illumination step.
All of this comes together to create faster and better "aha moments."
And that helps you create better content.
Next week, we'll be talking about exactly how you can use a PKM system when it comes time for creating.
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