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Creative Process Explained

Creative block doesn’t exist. Once you realize creativity isn’t magic and adjust to the intrinsic creative process, you start to get more great ideas.

The creative process is like a life purpose. People can spend their whole lives trying to figure it out. Seeking an understanding of how creativity and idea creation really work. Fortunately, unlike our own individual sense of purpose in life, the creative process is universal and has already been captured by many authors. And when you read through the different explanations, you’ll see the essence is always the same.

That’s because the true and original, intrinsic creative process is constant. It’s an abstract concept, not something artificial. It resembles a day. Both concepts have their own distinct stages: there is a beginning (sunrise), a middle (noon) and an ending (sunset). And these stages repeat over and over again.

The point is – the day already has a natural structure which we can‘t change. Creativity is the same. It already has its own stages, which occur in a specific sequence. The only things you can do is to understand them, synchronize yourself with them and optimize them with your own methods.

A double-edged sword

The fact that there is already an original creative process is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it means you can build your creative process on top of it and you don’t have to start from scratch.

But it’s also a curse. If you don’t know about the existence of the original process, you may try plenty of methods, but most of them won’t work. And when they do, they usually only work sporadically. That’s because even when you use the right methods, you might be using them at the wrong time.

So you abandon these methods and look for different ones. At some point you may conclude that it doesn’t matter what you do, because the ideas seem to come as they please. If they come, great – you’re creative. Congrats! And if they don’t, you’re creatively blocked. What a bummer. But it’s ok, because everybody experience it, right? Nope.

Creative block doesn’t exist

I can honestly say that since I understood how the creative process works, I haven’t had any instances of creative block. Zero. In the past, I usually experienced this on weekly or even daily basis. Now I’m convinced creative block doesn’t exist. At least not in the form most people tend to think about it.

When you view creativity as a magical light which is either turned ON or OFF and at the same time you can’t control the master switch, then yes – in that case, the OFF state could be considered a creative block, because the flow of ideas has indeed stopped.

But once you understand how creativity works, you’ll realize there is no master switch. You’ll see that you actually have complete control over your creativity, not the other way around. And because you can’t be blocked by something that you have control over, the creative block will in effect cease to exist.

It’s really just a matter of giving your creativity the right fuel. And when you provide your creativity with what it needs, it’s impossible not to be able to get you at least a few miles farther.

And the more and better fuel you pour in, the more and the better ideas you get. Nothing will block you anymore. You can only block yourself – usually by being out of sync with the underlying process. I’ll get back to synchronization later.

Back to creativity

In its essence, creativity is really just a conversation between your conscious and your unconscious mind. Most people are mere listeners and usually just wait until the voice suggest some ideas. I’ve been a listener for the better part of a decade. But once I knew how creativity worked, I realized it’s supposed to be two-way communication. Specifically, it’s a type of IF-THEN communication: if you fuel me, then I give you ideas.

The main reason why even listeners get ideas is they usually have some residual fuel left in their tank. Maybe they’ve solved similar problems in the past and they remember a little of the original research. Maybe they haven’t solved anything similar, but they just know something about the topic (from school, TV, conversations, Google, etc.).

In any case, there are some fragments of information with which the unconscious can work, but it has to work really hard. You may come up with a few ideas, but they’re nothing compared to what you get when you provide the right fuel in right doses at the right time.

Understand the underlying process

So what does the creative process look like? My favorite interpretation comes from James Webb Young. In his short book, A Technique For Producing Ideas, Young elegantly described how ideation works. This book immediately altered my view of creativity and changed the way how I approached it.

He proposed the following model: immersion digestion incubation illumination verification. I think it’s a brilliant simplification. But I’ll rephrase it for the sake of our unconscious-feeding point of view:

  1. Gather the fuel – do some broad but shallow research and gather plenty of relevant resources.
  2. Fuel your unconscious – dive deep into studying the resources you gathered.
  3. Detach from logic & let your unconscious process the fuel – gently stimulate your mind.
  4. Receive an idea – a.k.a. an insight or the Eureka moment (you can’t force Eureka to happen, it just happens).
  5. Execute the idea – make it a reality: sketch it, write it down, say it out loud, etc.

That’s it. That’s the creative journey to an idea. You just need to gather the right fuel until you feel you have everything you need. Then you feed it to your unconscious until its tank is full. You’ll recognize it, trust me, you’ll be mentally spent. That’s your cue for leaving your unconscious to process everything you just learned, so that it can connect the invisible dots. For your unconscious to do that, you need to let go of your focused and analytical thinking and embrace a relaxed and creative state.

Sometimes this stage takes a few hours, sometimes it happens overnight. You can let go completely, or you can boost this stage by stimulating your unconscious. Either way you’ll reap the rewards. The last thing you do then is check to see if the idea actually works and whether it is the right one. If not, it’s time for a few more eureka loops.

The mere act of acknowledging the existence of this underlying process should be very comforting and illuminating. At least it was for me. It may sound a bit mystical, but it gave me some kind of faith in the creative process. I immediately felt less scared and more confident. I now knew that if I gather the right fuel and let my unconscious do its work, the ideas will come. And they always do.

An important side note for those of you who like to cut corners: there are no shortcuts. You can’t skip or swap any of these steps. You can stimulate your mind and accelerate some stages to some extent, but nonetheless, the ideas need time to mature. And it’s fine, because the reward is worth the wait.

Ok, technically, you can skip or swap anything you want, but the process is going to wait until you complete all of these steps anyway. If you ignore them completely, you’ll have a hard time hitting on good ideas, because your unconscious simply won’t have the fuel it needs for your creative process to reach its full potential.

Do you think I am exaggerating? Or that such a creative process doesn’t concern you at all? Maybe. Or perhaps you’re just aiming at easy targets. Check out the comments below by Andrew Wiles, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, about how he overcame the highest hurdles and obstacles in his path to discover the solution of Fermat’s Last Theorem:

“Sometimes I realized that nothing that had ever been done before was any use at all. Then I just had to find something completely new — it’s a mystery where that comes from. Basically, it’s just a matter of thinking. Often you write something down to clarify your thoughts, but not necessarily. In particular when you’ve reached a real impasse, when there’s a real problem that you want to overcome, then the routine kind of mathematical thinking is of no use to you. Leading up to that kind of new idea there has to be a long period of tremendous focus on the problem without any distraction. You have to really think about nothing but that problem — just concentrate on it. Then you stop. Afterwards there seems to be a kind of period of relaxation during which the subconscious appears to take over and it’s during that time that some new insights come.”

The Eureka loop

The process I’ve just outlined includes only one eureka, thus it leads only to one idea. But you usually want (or should want) more ideas to choose from. And in order to get to more ideas, you need to cross the eureka checkpoint multiple times.

Fortunately, you don’t have to repeat the whole process. The tank is still full, because it probably has been just a couple of hours or days since you’ve done the gathering and fueling part. So you can skip the first two stages and jump right into the detachment stage. To be specific, you can go right before the eureka moment.

Detachment is about freeing yourself from a logical state and embracing the creative state. This is essential since the eureka moment only strikes when you’re in that creative, relaxed, open-minded and stimulated state. This means that once you get an idea, you’re in a ready-for-another-eureka-moment state.

That is, unless you ruin it. How can you ruin it? Well, by doing the right thing: proceeding to the last step of the process, which is the execution. But the more time you spend on executing that winning idea, the farther from the eureka checkpoint you get and the harder it will be to get back to your creative state.

So if you just quickly sketch or jot down the core point of your idea and quickly return to stimulating your creativity and chasing another eureka moment, you’ll be fine. However, if you dive too deeply into executing, then you shift from a creative to an analytical state. That means that after executing the idea you you must shift back from an analytical to a creative state in order to tap into your creative source.

And that shift takes time and energy. Yes, it gets faster and easier with practice, but it’s so much better to generate ideas first and develop them later. After you get the first idea, more of them will usually follow. I see it like hitting a gold vein. You wouldn’t run off with just first few nuggets. You’d stay and mine as much gold as possible. So I advise you do just that: collect as many of the various ideas as possible.

Yes, with time, both the quality and quantity of ideas will decrease. For me, the ideas on day 1 aren’t that great, but they open the gates for better ones. The peak of quality and quantity comes on day 2. Day 3 is still great, but I feel the decline. I rarely continue sketching on day 4, because the chance of getting a groundbreaking idea is, from my own experience, almost zero. But I’m pretty sure the eureka-window will last differently for different people from different fields. So don’t take my example as a something cast in stone.

For those of you who might benefit from having a visual image of this, here’s a recap scheme of how the standard creative process looks like.

Creative Process Stages

Time to sync up

Now, since you understand the process and know for a fact that it runs this way every single time, you should be able to recognize at what stage you’re in at any given moment and then act accordingly. In other words, now you can synchronize yourself with the process.

Synchronizing at the beginning of the process is easy. You just start gathering. The hard part is to stay synchronized until the end of the process. And once you go off track, the process becomes a struggle.

So how can you tell if you’re slipping out of sync? Observe your mindset. It took me a long time to realize it, but every stage of the process requires a different mindset. The sequence looks like this:

  1. Gathering = Explorer mindset – taking a broad view; discovering what’s out there and collecting resources.
  2. Fueling = Student mindset – narrow focus; studying the resources thoroughly.
  3. Detachment = Relaxed mindset – creative & open-minded state as opposed to logical & analytical.
  4. Eureka moments or a Eureka Loop occur as a result of perfect conditions, when your relaxed mindset reaches its peak.
  5. Executing = Maker mindset – narrow focus again; realizing the idea.

By simply being self-aware and observing the mental shifts inside your head, you can deduce whether you’re in the right state at that moment. If you’re not, correct the state. I know it’s easier said than done. Some of you may think: how exactly am I supposed to assess my mindset?

It‘s really just about observing the changes in your feelings. You’re experiencing mindset shifts on a regular basis, you just maybe aren’t paying any attention to it.

For example, when you browse through blogs, scan articles for keywords and bookmark them for later, you have one kind of mindset. When the time comes to read one of these bookmarked articles and you decide to take your time and carefully read it and truly understand it, your mind switches to a totally different state.

We experience the exact shift as we transition from the gathering stage (explorer) to a fueling stage (student) of the creative process. I mention this shift specifically, because it’s the most slippery area and it’s very easy to slide off track and get out of sync.

There are two main problems with (de)synchronizing:

Problem #1: Oscillation

This is the slippery area I mentioned. Instead of shallowly scanning and gathering, many people tend to oscillate between the explorer and student mindset. They gather for a moment, then stop, dive deep into studying some of the resources, return to the surface and gather some more resources only so they can dive deep again in a few moments.

What’s the problem with that? Besides getting out of sync, the mindset shifts are tremendously mentally exhausting. It depletes your willpower, which reduce your focus and hence interfere with the overall process. And it gets worse with every unnecessary mindset shift. You’ll have less and less mental resources for concentrating on what’s in front of you. And your unconscious will suffer too, which basically means less energy = fewer ideas.

The solution? At the beginning, dedicate the time to do thorough research that is broad but shallow. Don’t dive deep into anything. Just research and gather whatever you may need later. Only then you should dive into studying and, ideally after that, don’t look back. I say ideally, mostly because it’s practically impossible to not google a few more things during the process. The point is to be mindful and careful not to get into endless researching when the right step is to move on to studying and creating.

And most importantly – don’t go back to the gathering or fueling stages during your eureka looping. Your unconscious is still connecting the dots at that time. If you start pouring more dots into your brain, you’ll mess things up. You will stop the processing and kill your relaxed and creative mindset with the analytical and focused thinking almost instantly. Don’t do that unless you have an extremely good reason for doing so.

Problem #2: Rushing

Another common problem is that many of us tend to rush the process. Either we don’t gather enough resources and are just barely scratching the surface. That means we don’t have enough fuel. Or we gather a lot of resources, but look at them only briefly and then hope for the ideas to simply arrive – but they won’t, because we didn’t fuel the unconscious properly.

Or some may even skip the detachment phase entirely so they can get to work already. It doesn’t make any sense. How can any idea come unless you grant your mind the state that is required for the idea to take form in the first place?

In most of these cases we are out of sync with our creativity. We may think we have deceived our inner creativity and saved some precious time and trouble, but it’s usually not true. Our inner creativity is a very rigorous little thing and it just won’t move unless you give it what it needs. If you neglect its cravings, it’s gonna be very hard to get any great ideas at all.

You may recall something you heard, seen or read and build a new idea upon it. But the really outside-the-box ideas are reserved for those who nurture their unconscious with a proper level of care. So, for your own good, don’t rush the process.

Boost your process

Now that you know what the process looks like, how to sync up with it and how to avoid the common pitfalls, you are ready for the fun part: the optimizing.

You can optimize every part of the process, but by far, the most important of them is the detachment stage. That’s the stage that starts up the glorious eureka loop and that’s where your main focus should be. Even little modifications can have a huge impact. The main areas you can optimize are the creative state and the idea stimulation. The former sets the stage for the latter.

I won’t go into too much detail, because I’ve already put together an extensive Creative Checklist that is all about promoting the creative state and stimulating idea formation. So I recommend you check it out and I’m confident it will inspire you in many ways.

The creative state

As I mentioned earlier, the eureka moment strikes when the conditions are perfect. It’s a state of perfect detachment. It’s a state of being physically and emotionally relaxed and freed from everything that isn’t part of creative state. Specifically, but not limited to, being freed from:

  1. Logic – making the switch to intuition and associative thinking.
  2. Focus – focus means having a narrowed vision, you need to widen the boundaries of your thinking.
  3. Negativity – it prevents you from being open-minded, try to get into a positive mood.
  4. Fear – caring is fine, but being scared narrows one’s thinking and actually blocks creativity.
  5. Stress – creativity needs a state of complete relaxation, not tension. Just relax.
  6. Judgement – stop judging and comparing ideas. You can evaluate them later, now is the time to be open.
  7. Control – stop controlling the flow of thought. Let your mind wander freely.

The more you can detach yourself from these non-creative factors, the closer you get to the creative state. So, as princess Elsa would say: Let it go. That is the true magic of preparing for the eureka moment(s).

I’m not going to bother giving you examples of methods for letting go of every single abovementioned state, because that’s a totally different topic. I’m sure you either have your own methods for dealing with these factors and if not, there’s always uncle Google who will be happy to help you.

But since you’re here, I‘ll share at least one tip: move. I got many of my best ideas between sets at the gym, or while running, or during a walk. Exercising is magical. It boosts your mood, so you annihilate negativity, stress and fear. You’re also kind of free during the movement, so you let go of control. You also drop your logical thoughts, focus and judgement for a moment and be in the zone.

By giving yourself a chance for movement, you’ll pretty quickly free yourself from all of the 7 non-creative factors. In other words, exercising supports creativity. And as an additional bonus, your get an endorphin rush and you also pump more blood into your brain. So for a few moments, your brain is virtually on steroids. And because your unconscious mind is somewhere in that brain, it’s good for it too. You even get access to ideas hidden in your unconscious.

So whether you decide to stimulate your brain (coming up next) or you decide to fully let go of your problem and let your unconscious deal with it on its own, I recommend you treat yourself to some form of exercising during that time. You’ll thank me later.

Idea stimulation

Once you’re in the perfect creative state, it’s time to stimulate your creativity. This is the most exciting part of the process. This is where you can try dozens of methods for encouraging your creative thinking. One important note though: be careful not to get too logical.

For example, let’s say you try the method: How would a 6-year old tackle your problem? It’s easy to slip into logical thinking and start imagining the 6-year old situation to the smallest detail and try so hard to come up with the perfect answer. But this is not what we’re looking for. It’s not about the perfect logical answer, rather it’s about the intuitive answer.

You shouldn’t feel anxious during any of the methods used for stimulating ideas. Ideally, you shouldn’t be thinking at all. What you should aim for is filling your head with a stimulant (such as the 6-year old point of view) and then act as you would during a meditation – just let your thoughts flow freely in their natural associative fashion. Don’t judge them, only observe them and if you spot anything interesting, jot it down and then get back to ideation as quickly as possible.

As for more stimulation methods, you can find them in my Creative Checklist too. Just have fun with it. Experiment with my tips and search for some other methods that might work for you. For example, you can buy the Creative Whack Pack. It’s a set of 64 cards filled with stimulation methods and it has led me to hundreds of creative ideas.

And of course, you can even come up with brand new methods yourself. There are no limits to stimulating creativity. Just don’t get too logical, relax, have fun and you‘ll eventually reach your full creative potential.

And if a particular methods stops breeding ideas? It’s ok. It doesn’t mean you’re blocked. It just means that particular method is depleted. Switch to another method and the ideas will start flowing again. It works for me everytime, I’m sure it will work for you too.

My before & after

I wasn’t sure how to wrap up this article, so I’ll just give you a bit of proof that what I am talking about really works. I‘ll show you a comparison between the amount of ideas I had during my work on a regular project before and after I knew there was an underlying creative process and started to optimize it.

I’m a logo designer, so for me, it’s mostly about sketches. The digital realization is mechanical, sketching is where the magic happens. Before I knew about the process, my ordinary sketch paper used to look like this. It usually contained just a few variations of several ideas:

Creative Process (before)

I think there are pretty good ideas among them, but I would have loved to have more ideas to choose from at that time. Unfortunately, more ideas just didn’t come, because my creativity got blocked. Now my typical paper looks like this:

Creative Process (after)

Or sometimes even like this:

Creative Process (after, upgraded)

I consider this a decent upgrade. During these newer projects, I get stuck too. I generate a few sketches and then the ideas stop. But unlike in the before project, I don’t say „ok, that’s it, I’m done“. I say „ok, this method isn’t working anymore, let’s try another“. And then I sketch another 5, 10 or 20 sketches. Then it stops again, so I try different method again. And so on. This repeats until I feel a significant drop in the quality and quantity of what I am producing and that’s when I stop.

The beauty of it all is really that once you realize creativity isn’t magical, you magically start to get more and better ideas. Or rather you now know that you can influence the coming of ideas itself, which opens the door for optimizing. You stop waiting for an inspiration and instead begin to cooperate with your inner creativity and work out solutions together – side by side.

All of that then leads to that big upgrade you’ve just been shown above. I hope that I’ve passed enough of my experience on you and I wish you all the best in upgrading your own creative process too. Good luck and enjoy your creative journey!

Tom Vachuda, December 27, 2018

Logo-designer who loves to tell complex stories through simple shapes and also to blog about creative stuff.

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