When Ideas Don’t Come: Patience

By Ryan W. Quinn

One of the things professors like me dread is an email that says that a paper you submitted to a journal for publication has been rejected. We dread this because our careers depend on publishing (hence the saying “publish or perish”). In my field, a research paper can take years just to get from the initial idea to journal submission. Then you wait for at least two months until an editor writes back to tell you that your paper has been rejected or, at best, invited for resubmission after a major rewrite. In either case, the journals often send you pages and pages of negative feedback, pointing out everything you did wrong.

As you can imagine, journal submission can be a stressful process. A week or two ago, my coauthor and I got a rejection email from an editor after waiting for six months. I was disappointed, of course. But then I reread the paper and thought, “This is a good paper. It needs to be published, even if those editors did not like it.” I was less discouraged than I sometimes become. We needed to turn the paper around and submit it to a different journal. The big question was “What journal should we submit it to?” I wanted to turn it around quickly. Time is of the essence in my career right now.

Intentionality and Problem Solving

My coauthor and I contacted a number of trusted mentors for advice. We traded emails about it. It was on my mind often. The pressure I felt to turn it around was strong. None of our approaches felt quite right. At the same time, life kept happening. I had some personal things I needed to address that took me away from the paper for a day or two. I also received some emails from people about other projects that I needed to address.

Unintentional Problem Solving

Then one night, after being away from the problem, I was thinking and praying before going to bed when an idea popped into my head about what to do with the paper and what journal to send it to. With this idea, everything changed. The idea connected some of the emails I had received that were unrelated to our paper in ways that I had not considered before. This new approach felt doable and right. I was able to move forward. A few days later, the paper was revised and submitted to a new journal, and we felt good about it.

Quintus Jett and Jennifer George wrote about this phenomenon in a paper they published:

Gaining sudden insights in the shower or on the drive to work may be thought of as clichés, but studies of creativity and anecdotal evidence on the creative process suggest that deliberately taking time away from work, engaging in an altogether different activity, or ceasing to think about a task or problem can aid the creative process, since the subconscious continues to operate and make connections between seemingly disparate streams of thought (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi & Sawyer, 1995; Leonard & Swap, 1999; Smith, 1995).


I have had this happen to me countless times. Just a few days ago, for example, I had an idea in the shower for a research project that I think could be a powerful one. It came when I had stopped thinking about the research problem my idea would solve. The funny thing about taking time away from a problem is that even though I know it works, I often neglect to do it. That pressure to work, perform, and advance my career overwhelms my faith in a process that I have endless evidence telling me it works. My problem is impatience.

Here are some ideas of ways to build patience in when new ideas are needed:

  1. Schedule it. Install a scheduling/time management routine into your life and deliberately schedule breaks between times when you work on projects.
  2. Write down stories of times when you’ve had good “in the shower” ideas—what the problem was, why it was hard to solve, how you took a break, where the idea came, what difference it made. Refreshing your mind on these stories can increase your patience and faith.
  3. Put reminders up. On your wall, on your computer, on your bathroom mirror, saying things like “Pause.” “Take time away.” “The answer will come.” Or whatever is meaningful to you.
  4. Instill this idea with your mentors and friends. Ask these people “When I come to you for advice, will you please remind me to take some time away from the situation?”

If you have other ideas that would help with this, we would love to hear them. Please leave them in the comments box below.



Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Sawyer, K. 1995. Creative insight: The social dimension of a solitary moment. In R. J. Sternberg & J. E. Davidson (Eds.), The nature of insight: 329363. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jett, Q. R. and George, J. M 2003. Work interrupted: A Closer Look at the Role of Interruptions in Organizational Life. Academy of Management Review, 28(3): 494-507.

Leonard, D., & Swap, W. 1999.When sparks fly: Igniting creativity in groups. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Smith, S. M. 1995. Getting into and out of mental ruts: A theory of fixation, incubation, and insight. In R. J. Sternberg & J. E. Davidson (Eds.), The Nature Of Insight: 229251.Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.