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To become more creative, take more sabbaticals.

Downtime and rest aren’t luxuries – they’re necessities.

Periods of rest can be telling.

When we love what we do, a period of rest will leave us refreshed and eager to get back to work. We’ll have new ideas, insights, and often, the answers to questions that we had only recently been struggling with.

But when we dread our work, rest feels like a tease. Sunday nights are miserable and we find ourselves constantly counting down to our next escape.

So naturally, a person who is in the “dread” stage can’t quite understand why I initially began using sabbaticals –not as an escape – but as a way to drive and improve my creativity.

It started as kind of an accident. I took a quarter two quarters off last year. Yes, half the year. I was backpacking Southeast Asia, and then getting settled in South Korea, moving around so much, learning my new community, taking language classes – I wasn’t willing to shift attention to my business until I felt comfortable and had a routine. By the time I looked up, it was July. Whoops.

But something magical happened in July when I went back to work. All of the disjointed thoughts I had had grown into fully-fledged ideas. Things that I had been trying to figure out the entire year prior just clicked into place. I filled up half a dozen notebooks as I began fleshing out strategy and moving into execution.

The power of rest.

It turns out that I’m not alone. For many of us, long periods of downtime can lead to peak creativity, clearer insights, and higher-quality execution.

In fact, an article in Nautilus Magazine about neuroaesthetics, a line of neuroscience that aims to understand the relationship between beauty, our brains, and aesthetic experiences, noted that downtime is a critical step in sparking creativity.

According to Dr. Chatterjee, there are four stages of a creative act.

  1. The preparatory stage – When you’re building the skills necessary to do the creative thing, whatever it is.
  2. The incubation period – When you’re trying to problem-solve or “figure it out” but it's not quite happening. 
  3. Illumination – This is the mental “aha!” moment
  4. Elaboration – The documentation or sharing of the “aha” – translating what’s in your mind into a tangible thing, whether it’s through art, writing or any other medium.

Downtime is a form of "incubation to illumination." Meaning: by placing downtime between incubation and illumination, you’ll spark creativity naturally by creating a period of “low arousal” that’s responsible for creative insight.

This explains why we often get ideas or answers as we’re drifting off to sleep or waking up, or when we’re in the middle of a shower or taking a walk. The low arousal state is what creates the spark.

So what does that mean for us?

Treat rest like it’s part of the creative process because it is. At every level. If you’re in the middle of the workday, “rest” could be walking through the park instead of doubling down at your desk. If you’re on a deadline and struggling with a solution, rest could be disconnecting for the entire weekend. And if you’re working on a massive new Thing –whether it’s a new apparel line you want to create, or a book you want to write or a business you want to start - try taking a full-blown sabbatical.

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