You know those days when you have been working on a project for such a long time that nothing looks right? Your frustration is apparent in the chewed pen caps strewn about your desk. There are probably a few empty coffee mugs by your laptop and a half-eaten bag of M&Ms hidden in your top drawer. You sit staring at the ceiling (or at your friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s facebook page because at this point, you are looking for ANY kind of distraction). You have hit a wall and a solution seems unreachable. But then your phone rings, and a friend convinces you to take a coffee break. You grab a fresh pair of pants and head down the street to JavaCity to chat about your friend’s relationship troubles. When you return to your desk an hour later with a clear mind and a stomach full of chai and biscotti, you are able to look at your project in a different light. The main obstacle is suddenly an opportunity. You know the solution!

That moment of clarity is often called the “Aha! Moment.” Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, in his book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, says that the “Aha! Moment” is stage 3 in the 5 stages of the creative process.

Here are Mihalyi’s 5 stages:

  1. Preparation. This is the pen chewing, coffee drinking stage. During this stage we immerse our self in a problem that we find intriguing. Sometimes we do not even realize that we surround our self with the issue, but somehow we are making observations or learning about something of interest to us.
  2. Incubation. The problem or issue quietly sits in our subconscious (it is simmering on the back burner). The incubation period is important because we are not thinking about the problem directly and therefore, we do not apply our normal linear thought processes. Instead, our mind sorts through the problem in an unstructured manner and we make unexpected connections. This stage can take place over a few hours (long enough for a visit to the coffee shop) or a number of years. There is not a limit to how long the problem simmers.
  3. Insight. This stage is often called the “Aha! Moment.” It is that moment when the solution appears and we understand what must be done to reach the goal or solve the problem.
  4. Evaluation. During the evaluation stage we ask whether or not the insight is worth pursuing. Is the insight worth the time and effort it will take to explore? This stage can be emotionally difficult because we must self-criticize and trust our own judgment.
  5. Elaboration. This is the stage where the work begins and we translate the idea into action.

These five stages are only a skeleton for the creative process. In reality, your process may skip stages, repeat stages, or cycle from stage 1 to 5 and back numerous times. Regardless, it is important to familiarize yourself with the creative process in order to understand your stages and the factors that influence them. You may want to take a look at Tony Schwartz’s creative process in this Harvard Business Review blog post, How to Think Creatively. Tony uses 4 rather than 5 stages. They are 1) Saturation 2) Incubation 3) Illumination and 4) Verification. Decide which set of stages works for you and evaluate your process. What helps your process of discovery?