How to Be More Creative: Stop Working and Let Your Ideas Incubate

In 1976, John Reed, then the head of the new Consumer Services Group at CitiGroup, went on vacation to the beach. He needed to get away from the stress and turmoil of his high-impact position, which started in 1974. 

He thought he was taking vacation to rest and recharge, but what happened on this trip to the beach would forever transform the banking industry.

While lounging at the beach, John suddenly was hit with inspiration.  Quickly, he grabbed a pen and some paper and began transcribing his thoughts.

In this brain-dumping of ideas, John outlined a new vision for consumer banking, believing that it would become a core business that could not only help his company grow, but one that would deeply benefit society in general. 

"As you may know, I make a pretty good effort to use my vacation time to do nothing. That turns out to be hard. So from time to time I jot down notes and thoughts relating to different things that are going on. The following comments are not particularly well organized - and are certainly not exhaustive - but do reflect some of my concerns about our common effort in the Consumer Services Group..."
"We are creating something new," he wrote in 1976. "I refer to a fundamentally new business starting with a dedication to the consumer, and to the proposition that we can offer a set of services that will substantially satisfy a family's financial needs under terms and conditions that will earn the shareholders an adequate profit while creating a healthy, positive and straightforward relationship with the customer."
Written on vacation, this document became known in Citicorp annals as the "Memo from the Beach."

In his memo, John outlined the vision that eventually brought consumer banking services and ATMs to the world - a true domain-changing innovation. So what is the lesson here with the John Reed story?

You actually need to stop working and find time to relax to let your most innovative ideas happen.

The workaholic mindset that most us operate with will ruin your creativity if you don't watch out. If you are a manager or supervisor of any sort, running your employees ragged with busy work and no time off is most likely hurting your bottom-line.

Creativity and innovation are not linear and predictable processes - creativity and innovation  happen irrationally, unpredictably, and in a dynamic fashion.

In order to get your best ideas, you need to allow your brain time to decompress by taking breaks from your work.

Relaxation and distancing yourself from your work encourages incubation, a cognitive state where your mind is free to process the enormous amounts of information that you have been feeding it. When the mind is relaxed and free to unconsciously process everything, it can lead to abrupt moments of insight, just as John Reed had while at the beach.

How does incubation work?

Incubation has been scientifically shown to work in terms of eliciting novel insights because:

  • It gives people’s minds a rest
  • It provides an opportunity to become less fixated on incorrect solutions and approaches towards solving a problem
  • It provides time for spreading activation in the unconscious mind, and
  • It provides opportunities for opportunistic assimilation – as you go about your day, you may randomly “notice” something that is related to your problem and use it to your advantage.


What can I do to encourage idea incubation?

I offer 3 things you can do to facilitate incubation and generate better ideas in my free e-book, How to Become a Creative Badass: A 9-Step Guide to Mastering the Creative Process. Get it today and also receive a free copy of John Reed's "Memo at the Beach," the document that revolutionized the banking industry that came about from incubation at the beach.