Better Writing: How to Help Your Brain Get Great Ideas

Aug 25, 2020 | Better Writing

Graham Wallas is the sort of person who makes you realize how little you’ve accomplished. He wrote several books on social psychology. The best known of those is Human Nature in Politics. He was a cofounder of the London School of Economics. Then, in 1926, he wrote The Art of Thought. Chapter 4 in that book describes how we come up with ideas that lead to innovation.

I discovered Wallas’s work several years ago when I was on a team that developed a course in creativity and innovation for a major US company. I’ve used Wallas’s insights in a variety of settings. Recent neuroscience findings have confirmed what Wallas wrote almost a century ago.

When you understand “The Wallas Cycle,” you can get good ideas in any area of your life. Writing is only one example. There are four stages in the cycle. The first is “Preparation.”


Preparation is the work you do on a problem or opportunity. My experience and my work with clients suggest that there are two kinds of preparation.

I call one “general preparation.” It includes all the things you do to stay current and learning about your field and the world in general. New ideas almost always are combinations of old thoughts and examples.  Some of the best connections come from outside your field.

Enrich your inputs. Read widely and seek out new experience. It all becomes part of the compost heap in your brain that grows great ideas.

The other kind of preparation is specific work on an issue, question, or problem. Wallas describes the process with a phrase from Helmholtz, “Investigate in all directions.”

You’ll do your best work on this if you develop two things. Develop a process for attacking problems that you deal with regularly. For me, that includes writing. Then, develop a ritual to get yourself in the right frame of mind and condition to do good work.

When you’ve worked as much as you can on a project and you’ve thought about it consciously for a while, stop. It’s time for the Incubation Stage.


Incubation happens when you quit working on a problem or issue for a while. You quit conscious work. Your brain’s default mode network churns away beneath the surface of your conscious mind.

Incubation happens when you work on something else or don’t work on anything at all. Do something where your body is on autopilot and your mind is free to roam. Take a walk.  Garden. Take a shower. Go for a drive.

You can develop your own rituals. One of mine is eating pistachios. I love them. They’re best when you get them in the shell. Shelling pistachios and eating is perfect. Body on autopilot. Mind free to roam. Works for me.

Illumination comes next. But it’s not automatic.


Illumination refers to the eureka moment. It’s a flash of insight. It’s going to surprise you. You can’t plan illumination, but you can set up the conditions for it to happen. Shelling and eating pistachios works for me.

Great ideas will flash into your head, but they won’t stay long. You’ve got to capture them right away before you forget them. Make sure you have a way to do that. Carry a pocket notebook or index cards you can make notes on. I use a small Olympus digital recorder to capture the ideas that flash in my brain.

When you get that flash of insight, it will seem like you’ve got the problem solved. Don’t be fooled. There’s still work to be done.


The sad reality is that most ideas seem brilliant when we get them but become decidedly less so when we try to put them to work. New ideas need work. When I write an idea down, I’m forced to choose words and put things in order. That sharpens my thinking and makes the rest of verification easier.

Sometimes, like with a blog post, verification is quick. With other projects, it might take months or years. Alexander Fleming had his key insight (Hmmm, that’s interesting) in 1928. It took more than a decade to verify what he first thought. Then, it took several more years before the drug penicillin was available in quantity.

Ideas always take work before they start to pay off. Some of the best ideas seem crazy. You must protect your ideas in the early stages so they can grow up strong and healthy.


Enrich your inputs with wide reading and experience.

Develop rituals and processes for tackling a challenge.

Let go of the problem for a bit.

Insights are most likely to come when you put your body on autopilot and let your mind roam free.

Capture your insights immediately.

New ideas need work and protection.

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