Creativity isn't a light bulb flashing on or a bolt of lightning striking.

According to new research, it takes more time for good ideas to materialise.

In two experiments, researchers tested how incentives can aid the creative process and how it plays out over time. Then they developed an “effective formula” showing the benefits of producing an abundance of ideas and then stepping away to allow them to marinate.

“Creativity is not instantaneous,” said Steven Kachelmeier, the Randal B. McDonald Chair in Accounting at Texas McCombs and co-author of the study. “If incentives promote enough ideas as seeds for thought, creativity eventually emerges.”

Future skills

Unlocking how to foster originality is becoming increasingly important as technological advances reshape the contours of our working lives and redefine the jobs of millions of workers around the world. With labour markets undergoing major transformations, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report estimates more than half of all employees will require re- and upskilling by 2022.

 Moving up the list.
Moving up the list.
Image: World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report

Proficiency in new technologies is only one part of the equation, with demand rising for so-called ‘soft’ or ‘human’ skills, like analytical thinking, innovation, active learning and creativity.

So if creativity is going to be valued even more highly in the future, what does this latest study reveal about the best ways of fostering it?

Kachelmeier and his co-authors, Laura Wang and Michael Williamson, of the University of Illinois, asked study participants to create rebus puzzles – riddles in which words, phrases or sayings are represented using a combination of images and letters.

Some participants were paid by the number of ideas they generated, others just for ideas that met a standard for creativity, and a third group were paid a fixed wage, regardless of quality or quantity of ideas. After 10 days, those paid to come up with as many ideas as they could showed “a distinct creativity advantage” in terms of quality and quantity.

Let it stew

The researchers concluded that the “incubation period” is the key to success: combining lots of ideas and a break to reflect is the prime tactic, they said. As for the time taken to detach, that was explored in the second experiment, which concluded that a break of as little as 20 minutes – even just a short walk – resulted in more, and better, puzzles.

"You need to rest, take a break and detach yourself,” Kachelmeier said, in an article published in ScienceDaily. “The recipe for creativity is try – and get frustrated because it's not going to happen. Relax, sit back, and then it happens.”