Creativity Element 11: Spontaneity and subconscious process

The uncertainty we perceive in the creative process doesn’t only apply to the way we handle the work, but also requires an acknowledgement of our internal, subconscious processing.

In other words, we shouldn’t adhere too strictly to a formal process, as it might hinder a moment of creativity happening “at the wrong time”. The process needs to be fluid and reactive enough to adapt to a new creative direction that is branching out as it happens.

Our brain requires time to process information, and moments of downtime are fundamental to support this subconscious work. They can take two forms:

  • Gaps are moments when we decide to stop working on something, and we decide to tackle it in a different moment maybe a few hours or days later. During these gaps however we go on with our work or life, and we can do other things. We simply let time pass.
  • Breaks can last ten minutes, an hour, or a few hours, and are moments where we decide to avoid doing anything. It’s a full downtime space when no other cognitive work happens. Common examples of this are having a shower, drinking some tea, or having a walk in the park.

While there are studies that are looking for the reasons why breaks are effective for subconscious processing, I find that one concept from the studies of memory and learning has interesting similarities: spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition happens when we learn something new (imagine a 2 hours study session) and then we take a break. It has been proven that a new concept can be memorized more effectively if there’s space between one recall moment and the next, and the space increases every time. For example if I learn something at 10am in the morning, the most effective moment to review that concept is in the evening, then once the next day, then three days later, then a week later, and so on. This phenomenon is incredibly useful to study more efficiently (i.e. 8 hours of continuous study are less effective than cycles of 1 hour each and breaks), but it also gives some insights as to why the same thing happens in terms of subconscious work in the creative process.

Give yourself time for breaks, and if you work in groups, plan for these breaks in advance.


This article is part of the Creativity Fourteen series.
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Product Design Director at WordPress.com / Automattic • Advisor • Coach • Speaker • BakerFramework.com Founder • Manifesto Ibridi Author

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