8 Steps to Optimizing Your Creative Process and Boosting Creativity
February 10, 2021
[Guest author/musician Sayana originally published this post to her official blog at SayanaMusic.com]
If you’re a creative person, you’ve probably experienced the two faced nature of creativity: there are times when you feel inspired and ideas seem to flow out of you, but there are also times when you feel stuck, blocked and unable to create anything.
As a musician and writer, I struggle with this more often than I’d like to admit. With the intention to help myself be creative on a more reliable basis, I looked into the concept of the creative process. I set out to find out how creativity happens and how we can tap into our creative selves more consistently.
What is the Creative Process?
The most popular model for the creative process seems to be the one introduced by social psychologist Graham Wallas in his 1926 book on creativity titled The Art of Thought. According to Wallas, creativity happens in four distinct stages:
- Preparation: we identify a problem and gather ideas and inspiration for a possible solution.
- Incubation: we step away from all we’ve gathered to let it “marinade” in our minds.
- Illumination: we experience an “Aha!” moment and are suddenly presented with a clear solution or path of action.
- Verification: we take action and transform an idea into a body of work.
This process looks simple on paper, but in reality it’s not always as structured as the above model suggests. For one, the preparation stage often happens completely subconsciously, without us even realizing, as does the incubation period.
Plus, in my experience, the stages don’t always follow this exact pattern. I’ve often started a project after an “Aha!” moment (illumination), went to try and create something (verification), only to realize that I need to go back to the drawing board (preparation) and then sleep on it (incubation) before proceeding.
My biggest concern with this model, however, is that while it gives a nice framework to creativity, it doesn’t actually shed any light on its practical application in our day-to-day lives. How can we, as artists and people who depend on creativity to make a living, overcome creative blocks and produce high quality work almost on demand?
How Do We Optimize Creativity?
In this post, I’m suggesting eight practical tips for optimizing your creative process.
I can’t say that I have mastered these tips myself — personal development as an artist is a life-long journey — but I have noticed that when I try to intentionally incorporate them into my life, my creative work sees massive improvements.
So let’s dive in!
1. Take Care of Yourself
It’s time we ditch the “starving artist” mentality. Whoever came up with the idea that being broke, sad and alone helps artists be their most creative and prolific must have been looking for an excuse to be broke, sad and alone.
In reality, in order to make our best art, we need to take care of ourselves first. This includes all aspects of life, such as our finances, living space, physical and mental health, work-life balance, relationships, and everything in between.
It’s true that adversity in life can inspire great creativity, but it only acts as a spark. The fuel that helps you see a project through to completion comes from somewhere else. I, for one, have written some of my best lyrics right after a break up, but while in that state, the last thing I wanted to do was put in all the work that goes into turning those lyrics into an actual song. That part came much later, when I was feeling happy, inspired and motivated.
So before you criticize yourself for not producing anything you can be proud of, take a look at what aspects of life you might be neglecting. Focus on fixing those first and you’ll find yourself creating because you love it, not because it’s an outlet for years of pent-up emotions.
2. Take Care of your Artist Child
In her 1992 book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron likens our artist self to a child. When it comes to our creative work, we can be extremely sensitive, self-conscious, easily defeated by criticism and in constant need of reassurance and validation.
The sad truth is that we tend to be quite hard on ourselves. I don’t know about you, but my self-talk used to include phrases like “Your dreams are stupid and you’ll never achieve them”, “You’re unproductive and lazy” and “Nothing you create is good enough”.
Imagine for a second that you have a nine-year-old daughter who wants to be a musician. How would she react if you talked to her this way? My guess is, she would crawl into a corner, bury her love of music under a pile of self-esteem issues and never touch another instrument ever again.
We have to think of our artist selves in the exact same way. Treat your artist child with kindness, offer encouragement and support, don’t work them to the bone and give them time to explore and play.
If you’re having trouble working on your craft, you may be dealing with a neglected artist child. Take some time to identify anything that might have upset them, any false beliefs about your abilities that have been ingrained in you, or any fears that stop your artist child from showing up and being creative.
3. Consume with a Creator's Lens
The first stage in Wallas’ model of the creative process is Preparation. Though this sometimes needs to be done deliberately, more often than not we gather ideas subconsciously throughout the day. Inspiration is all around us — in movies, books, songs, podcasts, social media posts, conversations with family and friends, a walk to the grocery store and virtually anything else we experience in our day-to-day life.
So how do we take advantage of all this inspiration instead of letting it pass us by? The key is to look at everything like a research project. With anything you consume or experience, ask yourself questions like:
- What was the creator’s intention with making this?
- What problem does this solve?
- What does this remind me of?
- How is this relevant to my own life?
- What common themes do I recognize here?
- What was done really well?
- What could be better?
- If I were creating this, what would I do differently?
The list of questions you can ask yourself is endless. The point is to question everything you see and experience in order to understand yourself better as a creator and compile a bank of ideas to work with that are relevant and authentic to you.
4.Take Notes Relentlessly
The above step can be tremendously effective in getting your creative juices flowing, but only if you make a habit of capturing your thoughts and answers to those important questions.
So my suggestion is: take notes. Take notes all the time about anything and everything. Our minds are very forgetful, and with the craziness of everyday life, it’s easy to let a good idea slip by because it got buried in your mind in between all the to-dos and grocery lists.
On that note, don’t just write down good ideas, write down everything — the good, the bad, the mediocre. It’s not up to you in this moment to judge what’s worth writing down, that’s a job for later.
When I sit down to write a song, I never start by brainstorming. Instead, I pull out the notes app on my phone and go through the ideas I wrote down over the past few days, weeks and months. There, among piles of objectively bad lyrics and rhymes, I can, without fail, find a gem that will be the foundation of my next song.
Try this for just a few days and you’ll never again find yourself stuck without any creative ideas.
5. Show Up Consistently
If you take yourself seriously as an artist, you have to treat your creative work as you would any other job. This means showing up every day at a specific time and staying focused until the time is up.
It’s far too easy to say “I just don’t feel like it today” or “I’m waiting for inspiration to strike”. These kinds of excuses are what separate a professional artist from an amateur.
Creativity is like a muscle — it’s a habit that needs to be trained and nurtured. By showing up consistently, you allow yourself to practice being creative, eventually making it easier and easier to create your best work in less time.
So decide on a schedule that works for you and stick to it no matter what. Even if you just sit there and don’t actually come up with anything, it’s important to honour the time you’ve carved out for yourself. Your creative time is sacred, so treat it as such. Apart from real emergencies, don’t let anything get in the way or override your schedule.
6. Have a Dedicated Space and Create a Ritual
Something that goes hand in hand with a dedicated time to do creative work is a dedicated work space. There are a couple of benefits to this.
For one, having a dedicated space means you can walk into the room and start working right away. You can have your tools, equipment and supplies ready and waiting for you to start using them. On the other hand, if before you can start working you have to set up, move things around and plug things in, you’ll be much less likely to show up consistently.
The other thing is, having a dedicated and consistent space to practice our work helps train the creativity muscle. Our brains like habits, and habits are reinforced with external cues. If you set up your creative space to have a specific view, lighting, aroma and temperature, everytime you walk into this space, your brain will receive a cue: it’s time to be creative.
Some artists even go as far as creating a ritual that marks the start of their creative time. Author Steven Pressfield, for example, starts each writing session by reciting a prayer, the invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey.
My own ritual for writing goes something like this: I make a cup of decaf coffee, fill a water bottle, light a candle, put on a scented hand lotion, dim the lights, put on headphones along with some jazz and coffee shop background noise, turn on a timer and start writing.
A ritual not only acts as another cue, but it can put you in the right mindset, help you set aside the problems of everyday life and focus on the task at hand.
7. Start with a Plan
Before you start your work, it’s important to create a rough plan of what you hope to accomplish and how you’re going to do it. Before you say “But creative work is so spontaneous!”, hear me out.
Yes, creative work can go off in any direction at any given point, and you should always give yourself the freedom to explore and be spontaneous. However, sitting down to work with no framework can be extremely counterproductive.
The thing is, without a set course of action, our minds tend to wander off and get easily distracted. When we set a big goal but no clear plan on how to achieve it, we get overwhelmed and end up procrastinating on it. Similarly, we need a set of steps to follow in order to stay focused on our creative project. These steps can change and evolve overtime, but it’s imperative to have at least something in place before you begin.
I don’t know about you, but if I don’t know what my end goal looks like and what milestones I can look forward to achieving, I tend to get bored pretty quickly. That’s why I never start writing a blog post without an outline, and I never work on a song without planning what the story is about and how it’s going to end.
8. Finish Every Project
I’ll be the first to admit that I start a lot of projects, and only a handful of them turn into something I can be proud of. With most of them, I can tell pretty early on that they won’t be my best work, but I try to finish them anyway.
Ed Sheeran once shared in an interview that he finishes every song he starts, even the bad ones. For him, it’s a way to get the bad song out of his system, so it doesn’t seep into the next one.
Finishing projects we don’t like is an important skill. For those of us who struggle with perfectionism, it’s a chance to learn how to overcome this debilitating mindset. It’s an opportunity to practice our skills without the pressure of putting something perfect out into the world. It’s a way to learn about ourselves, what we should do more of and what we should avoid in future projects.
So there you have it. Like I said, I definitely don’t always remember to incorporate these tips into my own creative process, but when I do, it makes a huge difference in my work, fulfillment and overall well-being.