4 min read

How to Have Creative Breakthroughs

Research shows that only 16% of creative breakthroughs happen while working on a project. So when do most breakthroughs happen?

written by -
Kevin Palmer

How Do Creative Breakthroughs Happen?

(Key Takeaway)

Research shows that only 16% of creative breakthroughs happen at work. Most creative breakthroughs happen during mental recovery. The key to having more creative breakthroughs seems to be spending time in deep, focused work, followed by a time of relaxation.

Plot Twist: This is also true of breakthroughs in learning.

Whether you’re trying to learn new chords on the guitar, or figure out a math problem with new concepts; spending time focusing on the problem and putting real effort into trying to figure it out, followed by time away from the problem, leads to faster breakthroughs in learning.

Why is this?

(Going Deeper)

The brain is extremely complex but it can be simplified into two fundamentally different modes.

Focus Mode - (state of concentration - The brain is working and making connections while focused and thinking through a problem)

Diffuse mode (state of rest) - The brain continues working and making connections in the background after you’ve stopped thinking through a problem)

When you’re in focus mode, your brain is making its way through the well-worn pathways in your brain. All the familiar ideas, thoughts, and memories that you’ve developed and used the most over the course of your experience.

As you’re thinking deeply, your brain (in focus mode) is trying to make connections in this familiar territory. The results are the ideas you come up with while in this mode.

When you’re in diffuse mode (turning attention away from the problem - resting state) your brain continues to work, but it branches out into the less used pathways to try and find new connections that may not be sitting top of mind. It continues to connect the dots after you’ve moved on and turned your attention elsewhere.

This continues to happen while you sleep.

“Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious mind.” -Thomas Edison

More On Creative Breakthroughs

(Down The Rabbit Hole)

One important thing to keep in mind is the importance of deep concentration during focus mode.

In the book, Willpower Doesn’t Work,  Dr. Benjamin Hardy states, “Creativity comes from making distinct and useful connections. Those connections can’t be made if you haven’t thought intensely, and pushed yourself deeply into the project or problem, and then rested.”

Some of the world’s most creative artists and thinkers have intentionally set a time for mental rest as part of their creative process including:

painter, Salvador Dali would hold keys in his hand as he drifted into a relaxed state after working on a painting. Just as he was drifting off, the keys would fall and hit the floor waking him back up. He was intentionally trying to get his brain into diffuse mode to unlock new connections of creativity.

Thomas Edison is said to have done the same thing, but he would hold ball bearings in each hand instead of keys.

Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, Emmy, Tony Award-winning composer, lyricist, and actor, Lin-Manuel books time at vacation spots  when he is working on a project so that he can take time to rest and “daydream” (as he calls it) to get new ideas to come to him. He started doing this after most of his breakthrough ideas were coming him as he was relaxing by the pool.

I also schedule time to relax after working on a creative project (I love to take long drives down beautiful back, country roads) and have lost track of the number of ideas I’ve had while enjoying the beauty of nature.

I’d love to know what your experience has been when working on a creative project or trying to learn something new. Send me an email at and let me know!

I hope you have a great week!


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