A teacher of mine used to look over my shoulder while I was doing my homework and ask with a grin: “Working hard or hardly working?”

Haha, I’d laugh (kinda sorta).

But is working hard–alone–enough? For me, sometimes the fuel-key-ignition of idea and inspiration (plus keep-butt-in-chair research) takes a while to turn over.

A recent report, “Incentivizing the Creative Process” out of Texas looked like a creative formula worth noting for writers. That the study was first published in an academic accounting journal seemed like a good muse for tax day!

The study found that idea generation was maximized when the participants were incentivized (with money) for the quantity of ideas they came up (not necessarily quality) followed by an “incubation period.” As the summary states:

There is an effective formula for unlocking employees’ creative potential, according to new research. Employers should incentivize workers to produce an abundance of ideas — even mediocre ones — and then have them step away from the project for an ‘incubation period.’

You can read the details of the Science Daily article that first alerted me to the study.

For my purposes, the study held a lot of parallels for writers. In short: It’s good to write a whole lot of words down–and then walk away to let it simmer. But don’t forget discipline and elbow grease first. Did you take good notes and collect details or organize your research? Maybe even take a photo of something you want to describe more fully later.

But, then, by all means, go ahead and walk away.

Besides, you never know when the muse will strike. For instance, aha’s don’t usually appear when I’m overusing adjectives and then deleting them to describe the cherry blossom tree that took my breath away. You may picture me cursing my inability to position the tree branches in the view of one of my characters.

Creativity is not always as pretty as that cherry blossom tree that inspired me. There are in-between phases. There are before-”I’ll never get there” walls and almost done-grrrr blockades.

The light-cracked-door in a project, the just-right details to bring a character’s body alive in a scene or the overall chronological structure for 27-jumbled-shorter narratives, tends to come for me exactly when I am biting into my peanut butter and jelly sandwich every time I don’t have my notebook right next to me at lunch.

Or when I am sleeping.

In fact, for one book project, the writing plan for a client woke me up as though someone had yelled straight in my ear at 4 a.m. I knew better than to go back asleep. So, I pulled myself up from the comfy pillows and got to my desk fast. I didn’t dare let my eyelids close until I wrote every single thought (complete with google link) and by that point there was no going back to sleep. It was 11:30 a.m.

No matter what break we need for ideas to coalesce, and we do need them, as this study reminds us, walking away is imperative–but so is being rewarded for cranking ideas out in an open and productive forum first.

So, make sure to reward yourself for each step of your journey, those five-figure-word days or the research puzzles you took fastidious notes on. Keep making concrete goals and generating ideas. But then walk away and chances are, more–even better– ideas will come.

BTW: Need an incentive to write that very first draft pre-pitch? Award-winning author of Naked, Drunk and Writing (a must-have-book on craft for memoir writers) Adair Lara suggests that writers pay themselves per word to maximize their daily output with only a hint of sarcasm.

As she says,”Whatever works.”

All I know is the next time I hear my teacher’s voice in my ear while I’m at my keyboard, I’ll just tell him straight up.