Creativity: Where Work and Rest Ethic Collide

Last week I wrote about my shift in thinking regarding work ethic and time. This week, I’ll share how that shift in thinking has strengthened my creative muscle (and why it can for you too).

But first, it’s important to define the creative process. To do that, we’ll borrow the definition from Graham Wallas’ book, titled “The Art of Thought.” Though published in 1926, his definition stands the test of time. The Creative Process, according to Wallas, has four distinct stages:

  1. Preparation – where you sit down and do the hard work
  2. Incubation – where you allow your conscious mind to focus elsewhere, either by resting or on another task
  3. Illumination – when you arrive at highly sought-after aha moment
  4. Verification – where you do more work to confirm your revelation has merit

What this framework shows us is that creativity is nothing more than a balance between two tensions – work ethic and rest ethic, time on (Preparation and Verification) and time off (Incubation and Illumination), Chronos and Kairos.

In the past, I often only focused on the Preparation stage of creativity. This is where the hustle takes place. Yet, since rethinking time and rest ethic, I’ve come to see that it’s not the only step and doesn’t lead to the breakthroughs I’d hoped for.

Setting work aside allows our conscious mind to rest and focus elsewhere. Incubation in our subconscious happens when we give ourselves space and distance from the problem at hand. This can happen when we immerse ourselves in high-quality leisure, like time in nature or deep work on another unrelated problem.

If you’re like me and revered the hustle, the mind shift to slow down and create space for creativity feels blasphemous. It’s easy to naively believe that incubation will just happen eventually or when we find time. This is nothing more than magical thinking. We must make time for it, we must be intentional with it. This is why a good rest ethic is essential.

Happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table…they came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.

Graham Wallas

Rest is a fundamental factor in the creative process. The type of creative work that’s required of most knowledge workers (that’s most of us) is not linear or additive. The amount of time put into the work does not correlate to the breakthrough insight we hope to achieve.

A mastery of the creative process is a necessary skill for anyone who hopes to do great work. Creativity requires constant unlearning (another reason it’s important to hone your learning and growth practice). The creative process is inherently destructive. It requires us to break things – to go against the status quo. Exploration is the means by which we develop a greater willingness to break things.

In order to tap into the creative process, we must take a disciplined, yet balanced, approach between our work ethic and rest ethic.

Here’s hoping you’re taking the time to develop your own rest ethic. And as usual, make sure you enjoy the ride!

Much love,

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