11 Steps to Decode the Creative Process

Updated: February 25, 2013

Harish Kumar

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Imagine passing through a metro station in Washington DC at rush hour. Imagine watching a violinist with an open case and with a few dollars thrown around and playing a classical tune. Imagine thinking about a street musician making a living by playing music at the subway. Imagine reaching out into your pocket and throwing two quarters into the case as you hurry to catch your train.

Nothing remarkable about the above scenario except that the musician is Joshua Bell, one of the world’s greatest classical musicians. And the whole setup is an experiment in context and frameworks conducted by the Washington Post.

None of the passersby except one recognized Bell that day. His total earnings: around $32, not including a $20 bill given by the only person who recognized him. To put this in context, Bell is a musician who draws $100 tickets for the inexpensive seats. At the very least, this experiment demonstrates the importance of context and frameworks to our creative process.

  • What creativity structures, rituals and habits do you have in place to inspire your creative process and how do you place them in context?
  • Do you believe that only a few people are blessed with the good fortune of frequent visits from the muses of inspiration?
  • Do you believe that creativity is a process and a system that needs a nudge in the right direction to start flowing or should you wait for inspiration to strike?
Let us unlock the mysteries behind the creative process…

1. Belief, awareness, and persona of a creator

"When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be." — Patanjali, The Yoga sutras
If you do not believe that you are creative, chances are that you will be discouraged to create anything of significance. This process is similar to stepping into a new role, a new power that always exists deep within you but something that you may have forgotten. If you want to be an artist, you need to feel and act like one.

We are all creative without exception. If you want to be a writer, you need to stop second guessing your work and start writing! The real question is: how much resistance do you have that hides and blocks the glitter of your creative genius?

In the movie from the classic books by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, Lord Elrond advises Aragorn to give up the ranger and step into the role of the King and save middle earth from the dangers that had befallen it. He says to Aragorn, “Put aside the Ranger. Become who you were born to be.”  Lord Elrond also presents Aragorn with the re-forged sword of Anduril, a symbol of vast power and past glory.

The story from The Lord of the Rings is a powerful reminder to us to cast aside our previous conditioning and step into the role of a creator of our genius work.

Take one small action today that puts you outside of your zone of comfort. Begin with a small creative project that you have always wanted to complete and go through from start to finish even though you might be terrified of the result.

2.  The Target

Do you know where you would like to go in your creative process? If you can identify very clearly where you are at currently and where you would like to be at the end of your creative process, you create structural tension according to Robert Fritz in his wonderful book, The Path of Least Resistance.

According to Robert, structural tension has a tendency to move you towards completion of your work. I have experienced this structural aspect in my own creative process. If I was not within the confines of a creative tension framework, my creative focus was diffuse, and hence the manifestation and completion of my creative work was weak.

3. Creativity fostering Habits

Creativity is a process that needs a structure with different parts that fit together and woven along with the repeated effort and the unique style of the creative individual.

Framework:  What habits do you have in place that support your creative endeavor? Creativity is like a spontaneous experiment within the confines of a controlled framework. You need to establish first what the parameters are for your framework.

What are the rules and conditions of your framework? And what are the creative elements and aspects of your experiment? What are you trying to bring together or synthesize and what is the process or journey that you choose to take?

You need to be able to channel your creativity and your creative products into a meaningful framework where your work is recognized and supported. You want to make sure that you are not wasting your time on rush hour traffic with little engagement similar to Joshua Bell’s story above.

4. Creating the right mood to create

Some people create best in the morning while others create best in the evening. Do you write at a particular time everyday or have a ritual to get you into the creative mood? Prolific writer Anthony Trollope regularly rose at 5:30 am and wrote till 11 am and penned 46 novels in his career.

Do you create your best work with gentle music or do you prefer silence? You need to test what works for you and then implement it. Taking a walk in nature is a very effective way for some people to get their creativity flowing. Understanding your natural ebbs and flows are key to getting creative and staying creative.

Set up a creative space, a desk to write or a small studio area where you can escape into and unleash your creativity. It is similar to having running shoes and clothes ready that you can quickly put on and begin the ritual or practice of running. It is much more difficult to get out of the door if you need to find everything.

Create a space for the repeated and spontaneous expression of your creativity. Make it simple and functional. Whenever you look at your own creativity space, you will be inspired to create!

5. Set up the right tools to create

You are limited by the quality of tools that you use to create your work. If you have done any DIY home project, you know how frustrating it is to work around the limited availability of the right tools. Also, beyond the right tools, having high quality tools can make all the difference to your work.

Ask yourself if you have the right tools to do the creative work that you desire to accomplish. Research the field and understand the latest and the best tools others in your field are using. I usually use both electronic and non- electronic tools to capture ideas and express my creativity.

6. Eliminate or minimize distractions

Distractions can be a lot of fun or even essential while taking a break but if we check our social media messages and engage in other distractions so frequently that we are unable to focus on creativity, it may be time to reduce the distractions.

Single tasking is mindful, engaging and very satisfying. Doing just one task at a time heightens your chance of getting into a deep focused state of flow.

We have all entered into that amazing state of flow at some point of our lives. According to Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from his wonderful book Flow:

“Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we use this energy. Memories, thoughts and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under control, to do with as we please; hence attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.”

7. Working in small intense chunks and taking short breaks

I find working in small intense bursts of 30 to 45 minutes very meaningful and productive. Between bursts of creative work, I take well-deserved breaks for small periods of time where I can recharge my creative batteries.

8. When the inspiration strikes, be ready

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk, she talks about her encounter with the extraordinary poet Ruth Stone who described the creative process as a poem thundering towards her and the only thing she could do was run to a paper and a pencil and collect it. If she did not get to the paper in time, the poem would barrel through her and move on to someone else.

Be ready with notepad and pen in hand when inspiration decides to pay you a visit. Have a method to capture the inspiration that comes to you and a system to meaningfully implement the ideas.

9. Inspire yourself with eclectic interests and by breaking assumptions

We all learn and understand information in different ways. Incorporating different styles of learning such as visual, auditory and kinesthetic may turn out to be of great benefit to our learning process.

Inspiration can arrive in many different eclectic forms and being open and receptive to ideas is a wonderful way to be creative after allowing the ideas to mix and brew in our minds.

In her book titled inGenius and her TED talk, Stanford creativity researcher Dr. Tina Seelig talks about how reframing ideas, connecting and combining different elements and ideas together and breaking assumptions are great ways to increase imagination. In an exercise to students to assess the value of trash, she has them combine contents of a trashcan into relevant pieces of work.

Students have come up with amazing pieces from the trash exercise such as a quilted sweater from old socks and a mural from yard waste.

10. Sleep, daydream, exercise & charge your creative batteries!

Amidst all the information about the creative process, a very important part of the puzzle often remains unanswered. The greatest masters of the arts understand very well that the gaps and the open spaces and the periods are often as important as the presence of the artistic expression.

White space is critical in a design, punctuations are essential in prose and periods of silence make or break a musical piece. The spaces or gaps between intense periods of creative activity are also critical for synthesis and to come back at the work with a new fresh perspective.

We need to recharge our creative batteries on an ongoing basis to prevent creative exhaustion. It means allowing the time to daydream and drift freely into the world of creative imagination.

Thomas Edison, one of the most prolific and highly creative minds used to frequently daydream and take power naps.

There is scientific research that shows how exercise enhances mood and creativity. Exercise is a great way to break the monotony of working for extended periods of time and get the creative juices flowing.

11. Release your creativity for the world to enjoy and relinquish attachment

“You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” ― Maya Angelou
Are you pushing the creative ante, taking risks and expanding your creative comfort zone?

All creative people have experienced the fear of rejection of their creative work. A lot of highly creative work gets tossed out with the premise that it is not good enough.

Ancient Indian wisdom teaches us that we should not hesitate to take action and do our very best work. But once that has been accomplished, we need to relinquish our attachment to the creative work.

If you are a farmer, you sow seeds and take care of your fields but the fruit of your action is beyond your complete control. If you obsess over the outcome of your work, it becomes just another distraction that prevents you from doing your best genius work.

There is much wisdom in letting go of attachment to the final outcome and allowing your creations to speak for themselves.

What are the different parts of your creative process and how do you put them together in a meaningful framework?

Let us know in the comments below this post.


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