Harnessing the stages of creativity for better work

Table of Contents


I’m currently reading Mind Management, Not Time Management by David Kadavy. Kadavy highlights work done on understanding creativity as stages. I was unfamiliar with this work, but it makes a lot of sense to me. I want to think more critically about how I approach creativity in my work, not so I can get more done but to enjoy the creation process more completely.

The Classic Four Stages

It seems everyone agrees there are at least four stages to the creative process. These were proposed by Graham Wallas in his book The Art of Thought. Some people divide them up a bit differently, adding more or reorganizing the process. I like this figure from Geeks for Geeks that shows the most commonly accepted four stages because it emphasizes that they aren’t always in order and can be repeated when creating. But, it’s easiest to conceptualize by moving in a linear fashion.

diagram of the creative process

1. Preparation

Creative work almost always begins with the preparation stage and will likely return to it multiple times before completion. In the preparation stage, we ponder the problem deeply and learn as much about it as we can. This is when we’re scouring books or reading blog posts. It involves potentially decades of experience honing your craft. It’s an interactive phase of taking notes and thinking very hard about the creative task at hand. This stage is often overlooked in retellings of genius but it’s always there.

2. Incubation

I’ve noticed in my work that I often need to take a break after the preparation stage. It turns out that’s pretty common. We have to let the ideas explored in the first step incubate and grow. This is a more passive stage where we let our subconscious brains continue working while we do other things. Maybe as short as taking a walk or as long as stepping back from the creative task for a few weeks. Recognizing and embracing this stage avoids burnout and frustration. Breaks are essential to the creative process.

3. Illumination

After we’ve let an idea incubate, there could be a sudden “eureka moment” or a slow realization of the best approach. Either way, that’s illumination. It’s when we piece together the work into something that makes sense or has a cohesive structure. We try out ideas that come to us.

4. Verification

“Eureka moments” can be wrong or misleading. It takes many incorrect solutions or ideas to get to the one that works. In the verification stage, we evaluate the results of illumination given the preparation we’ve done. We revise and modify the idea to see if it truly fits.


One go around of this creative process doesn’t always result in a great work. For example, writing a book will require repeating the process many times: for each chapter, for each page, for each sentence. We might spend more time in some stages than others depending on the creative task. We might skip some steps altogether sometimes.

Incorporating the steps into my work

Different people will excel at different stages of the work. I find I get energized by new ideas during illumination or preparation but it can be challenging to revise them during verification. In addition, I can forget that incubation is critical and push myself so hard I miss great solutions. Projects require people who have strengths in different parts of the process.

Questions on which to reflect

  • What part of the process am I on right now in this creative task?
  • Would more preparation or incubation help me in this work?
  • Am I clinging too much to an idea and missing others?
  • Who can I talk to about this work to get more perspective?
  • Am I avoiding the task of verifying? It can be a challenge to revise your own work.
  • Am I rushing the process?

Next steps

I’m going to read Wallas’s The Art of Thought (assuming it isn’t too technical) and see what more I can learn about the creative process. It might be nice to look for related texts that emphasize these ideas in the context of software development or scientific research since those are most relevant to me.

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