How to overcome your mental blocks

For the past few days I've been preparing some work for Google, and Google being Google it's been reasonably taxing mentally.  There have been times over these last 48 hours where the laptop screen has been stared at vacantly, as I await inspiration to hit and the mental block to be overcome.  I'm sure such a scene is familiar to most of you.  So how can you overcome it?

It's not easy.  I tried taking a break to give my brain a breather in the hope that I'd return with the answer on the tip of my tongue.  This ability for the brain to keep working on a problem in the background whilst you distract yourself by doing something else is pretty remarkable and forms part of what's known as the Incubation Effect.

The incubation effect is well-known and was included in an early four-stage theory of creativity, put forward in 1926 by Graham Wallas, an English psychologist:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Illumination or insight
  4. Verification

The thing is, the incubation part isn't particularly well known.  You do some prep work, then go off and do something else, then hey presto the solution appears.  Bit like magic isn't it?  Except magic always has a logical explanation.

So why is incubation so effective at getting our brain working?


Well research seems mixed on the exact reason.  Many will argue that it's simply a matter of resting your brain.  When you're stuck your brain is tired and not at its optimum level.  You rest, recharge the brain and it's then fitter and better equipped to tackle the problem.  Of course you also allow yourself a fresh perspective on the problem by taking a break.  Maybe you even forget some of the problems that were slowing you down before.

Of course, as with many things, there are many in the psychological world that don't think that's the case. Instead they think the full story is explained by our unconscious.  The break doesn't just freshen you up, it gives your unconscious time to work towards a solution.

Whilst interesting in an intellectual sense, this has real practical implications.  I mean if it's just a matter of taking a break then our motivation for the task is irrelevant.  If not however motivation is key because we're telling our brain to keep working in the background because we'll be coming back to this problem again.

New research sets out to delve a bit deeper into this.  Participants were given a creativity test to complete, whereby the more creative uses of an item you could come up with in a defined timespan, the more creative you were deemed to be.

After the test they were given a maths problem to solve in order to keep their conscious minds active.  Here's the catch.  Some were told they'd be returning to the creativity task at the end of the maths test, whereas the rest were not told until the end of the maths task that they'd be returning to it.

Did it make a difference?  You betcha.  The people that were surprised to return to the creativity test didn't really do any better.  The ones that had prepared their minds however did improve. In fact they came up with more than twice as many novel ideas the second time.

So the moral of the story is that it isn't enough just to take a break from a task.  The key improvement comes when your unconscious brain is working on the problem whilst you do something else.

This means that breaking through a mental block is about more than just taking a break. It helps to be motivated and to know that you will be returning to the problem. It also helps if you are a creative person because this study found that people who were naturally more creative benefited more from the break.

At a time when we always seem to be in a hurry, we need reminding that taking a break is a simple but effective tool for boosting creativity. To come up with creative solutions to problems, your chances are increased by incorporating breaks into your work-flow.

Here are two more research-based hints to get the most from your incubation periods:

  • Prepare. Another boost for the incubation effect comes from preparation. If you've looked at the problem from more angles before you start incubating, there's more chance your unconscious can give you some answers.
  • Short breaks. Even relatively short periods of incubation can be successful. Studies have found that 30-minute incubation periods can be superior to 24 hours.

So next time you're stuck on a problem, you'll know what to do.

Adi Gaskell is a social media expert and management blogger.