The ability to generate good ideas is perhaps one of the most valuable assets in business. But what if you're feeling uninspired or blocked?

First, you need to understand everyone has the ability to be creative. It's not a special gift only certain people--brilliant marketers, improv actors, serial entrepreneurs, and the like--possess. But if that's the case, how do you turn creativity on when you need it?

What the Research Shows

According to, a team of researchers led by Sophie Ellwood at the University of Sydney recently found evidence that incubation--taking a break from a problem to focus on something unrelated--can increase creativity.

The researchers split 90 psychology students into three groups and tasked them with listing as many alternative uses for a piece of paper as possible.

The first group generated ideas for four minutes straight. The second group was interrupted after two minutes and told to generate synonyms for words (another creativity-related task) and then given another two minutes to come up with alternative uses for paper. The researchers also interrupted the third group after two minutes but asked students to take the Myers-Briggs test, something unrelated to creativity or the original task, and then gave the students two more minutes to get back to listing odd uses for paper.

The third group--the one given time for incubation--hatched the most ideas, an average of 9.8. The second group averaged 7.6 ideas, while the first group came up with an average of only 6.9 ideas. In short, the numbers show an incubation period--even a short one--can increase creativity.

"Taking a break from the problem and focusing on something else entirely gives the mind some time to release its fixation on the same solutions and let the old pathways fade from memory," writes David Burkus, assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University. "Then, when you return to the original problem, your mind is more open to new possibilities--eureka moments."

Creative Ways to Incubate

It's a strategy that works outside of research, as well. One chief creative officer I recently interviewed says getting out of the office and walking around Manhattan helps him make new associations. The idea for his hugely successful company actually came from an old-fashioned 24-frame lenticular--one that uses a sequence of images to create an animation--he found in a store in 1997 during one such walkabout.

Playing with children's toys is another variant of incubation that works well for a lot of folks. "I'm not the least bit self-conscious about my toy collection," writes research psychologist Keith Sawyer. "If you walk into just about any supercreative company, you'll find toys all over the place."

Cultivating mindfulness is yet another way to step away from a problem and return to it later better able to spawn good solutions. Book author and corporate consultant Michael Gelb helps business people foster creativity by training them to appreciate beauty and do things such as listen to music, admire art, thoughtfully taste wine or chocolate, as well as write poetry.

It's a matter of paying close attention to what's happening right now. Not only can it help you be more creative, it's the key to enjoying life, he says.