Solve Creative Problems by Avoiding Them—Temporarily

How procrastination and creative problem-solving go hand in hand

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

If you want to improve your creativity, you can listen to happy music, go for a walk, or do nothing—at least, not right away. Professor Vishton explains.

Older man walking in park by himself
By briefly procrastinating while working on creative problem-solving, you can come up with an answer as your brain works on thought associations while you are not concentrating on the problem. Photo By SasaStock / Shutterstock

Creativity and Procrastination

Take some time to think about the problem or your general goals before you seriously undertake the work of addressing them. This is also good advice for dealing with procrastination. Ironically, Professor Vishton suggests that you engage in a short-term procrastination in order to boost your creativity.

For the purposes of creativity, there’s good evidence that temporary procrastination can also help avoid the opposite problem. Precrastination is the tendency to begin work on some important task for the sake of getting it done and out of the way, even when that immediate commencement of work is detrimental to overall success. 

It might be that the best way to make progress on some large and important task is to wait for more important information about it. You could leap in and start doing the work, but doing more research or just thinking more about it can sometimes lead to a better outcome. 

A few studies have found that so-called procrastinators often come up with more creative solutions to problems. They spend more time thinking about them, and so perhaps they’re not merely procrastinating. Additional thinking leads to more creativity, in general.

As with many things, the optimal strategy here seems to be to seek a balance. If you want to think about a project for a while before diving into the work of it, it would be hard to argue that that’s a bad thing. On the other hand, when you’re thinking about the project, don’t panic—you are working on it.

Incubation Effect

It can also be good to stop working and spend time thinking in the midst of solving a problem or working on a creative project. Several studies have found evidence for something called the incubation effect. 

The general model of these studies is to give people a problem to solve—a hard one that will take several minutes. Here’s a sample problem developed by Karl Duncker that’s been used in these types of studies. 

Participants are brought into a mostly empty room. On a table in that room, there’s a candle, a box of tacks, and a book of matches. The task that the experimenters give the participants is to figure out how to attach the lit candle to the wall in such a way that it won’t drip wax onto the table or floor.

What would you do first? If you’re like most people, you consider how a thumbtack, or perhaps several thumbtacks, might be used to attach the candle to the wall. That won’t work, however—the wax is still going to drip onto the floor. 

In an incubation study, half of the participants would be randomly assigned to a control condition and given several minutes to solve the problem. Some would solve it; some would not. 

The experimental group participants would be given half as much time to work on the problem and then forced to take a break. The experimenters would give them another task to perform during that time and specifically instruct the participants to not think about the problem during the break. 

The filler task would be challenging to minimize further work on the problem as well. After the break, these participants are allowed to work on the original candle problem again for a few minutes. At the end of this second work phase, both the control and experimental participants will have had the same amount of time to work directly on that problem.

The Power of Pausing

In many studies, more of the experimental participants solve the problem than control participants. During the break period, the experimental group participants aren’t explicitly working on the problem, but many have argued that their brains may still be implicitly, unconsciously chipping away at it. 

The break period is often referred to as time when the problem solution is incubating. Maybe the neuronal circuits involved in solving the problem remain active, continuing to search for associations and possible ways that the problem can be solved.

Across a wide range of different types of problems—easy, hard, short, long—taking a break and getting away from the problem seems to help in finding a creative solution. If you’re stuck trying to find a creative solution to something, Professor Vishton recommends working at it for a while, but then take a break.

The actual solution to that candle problem is simple once you know it. You empty the tacks out of the box and dump them onto the table. 

You use the tacks to stick the box to the wall. Then you put the candle onto this little shelf you’ve just created and light it. That’s it—problem solved.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.