Flowing through the 5 stages of the creative process
and avoiding the agony phase of self-doubt and frustration
The creative process works in mysterious ways: after the initial excitement of a new brief, contemplating the limitless possibilities of creating a new song or an online course, we often crash into the agony of self-doubt and frustration as we go through the process. We tend to become defeated and want to give up. Then after some time, the epiphany arrives out of nowhere, and the right ideas finally start to flow.
Can you relate?
How does that all work?
Although creativity can look messy from the outside, it follows some basic rules. And the good news is that you don’t have to go through the “down” phase. By understanding how the creative process works, you can surf the wave instead of resisting it, and enjoy the whole ride.
Practice your craft a little bit every day to build your skills, and learn from your mistakes.
The creative mind, like any mental ability, is a muscle. So use it in small ways every day in order to develop it. As human beings, we are all creative machines: you are using your creative mind when you’re cooking dinner, solving a problem, taking pictures, playing the guitar, or creating a business…
The creative process becomes easier as you engage often in creative activities. At first, it’s best to focus on the quantity rather than quality. Why? Because repetition is key to master a skill and building automatisms. Also, by trying and experimenting a lot, you will become less attached to the pieces of work that you’re producing, freeing you from fear of judgement and self-doubt, allowing you to explore other paths and getting used to thinking outside the box.
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
― Maya Angelou
However, the idea that you need 10 000 hours of practice to master something is not true at all. You need a bit of practice regularly, and overall, don’t forget to make mistakes: analyse them and correct as you learn. This is how you actually progress. Try “Deliberate Practice” to learn more efficiently.
“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”
― Gretchen Rubin
What are the 5 stages of the creative process?
Stage 1: Preparation
So you have this new brief, someone is asking you to solve a problem, or you are ready to create some new content. Maybe you are all pumped up to create some artwork. It is a time of exploration, when the basic information or skills are assembled.
- Find a quiet space and remove all distraction
- “No” is not allowed in the room
In the preparation stage of finding ideas, it’s good to let yourself explore and experiment freely without rejecting any thought. Just have fun, let the ideas flow freely on paper, even the “bad ones” so they don’t keep looping in your head.
Get inspired to absorb as much information as you can. Take time to expose yourself to diverse art, music, and books.
“These things inspire you to make unprecedented connections. The thought is that productive people never read fiction. You lose yourself in pursuit of having to justify productivity. Give yourself to play, practice coming up with ideas.” Rahaf Harfoush
Stage 2: Incubation
- Be aware of negative self-talk and frustration
This might be the most important part of the process that most tends to dismiss. We overwork ourselves, thinking that if we don’t keep going we will lose momentum. Actually, when you start feeling that self-doubt is crippling you, this is the sign that you need a break. It might sound counterintuitive on the moment, but remember that your brain acts like a muscle and it needs rest. If you push through too much, then it’s agony: nothing seems to work, you feel useless and lose the spark.
- Let go!
Creativity needs space, time and quiet to assimilate what you learn, test ideas and let the subconscious bring forth its superpowers of connecting the dots.
From a neurological perspective, the research shows that you need big gaps of doing nothing to nurture creativity. It’s called unconscious processing. It’s when you stop thinking about the problem you’re trying to solve and leave it aside to your subconscious. This is why you often find your best ideas while in the shower or washing dishes.
Your brain needs its daily dose of daydream and sleep, therefore cutting on sleep is detrimental to creativity.
Time and space nurture creativity. Taking breaks allows the subconscious mind to process the information and generate ideas.
Stage 3: Illumination
This is the a-ha! moment when you suddenly see the solution(s). Most people think this is Creativity, but it’s actually just a small part of the process.
- Practice a low-level activity
To increase insights, practice a relaxing activity: go for a walk, take a bath (Eurêka!), meditate or practice yoga.
- Change scenery
Changing your environment also plays a role, so go out in nature or change the settings by working from a café or a co-working space.
Stage 4: Verification
The creative idea is subjected to evaluation.
- Get some feedback from your peer group
Be careful in picking people who will give you constructive feedback, and not crush you with mere negative comments. Your objective is to know which idea is worth pursuing.
Stage 5: Production
- Start testing and implementing
It’s a time when the insights are put into a useful form.
“Now you’re crafting the raw idea to be more strategic and purposeful. Your skill and training really begins to shine through, as you hone and reﬁne your concept into the best possible execution. Now you gain momentum with focused, purposeful engagement. The goal is in sight.” Sally Hogshead
And don’t forget to celebrate your (big and small) victories throughout the 5 stages. Happy creation!
Creativity—the unconscious foundations of the incubation period by Simone M. Ritter and Ap Dijksterhuis
A Journey into Chaos: Creativity and the Unconscious by Nancy C. Andreasen, M.D., PhD
The Incubation Effect: How to Break Through a Mental Block by Jeremy Dean, PhD