No pessimist has ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.

Helen Keller

Creativity can be induced and frustration can be minimized, if you understand the natural flow and dynamics of the steps within the creative process:

Preparation – This is the data gathering phase. You collect all the information, do the research and analysis.

Yet when you are done, the answer to your problem or dilemma often will not immediately come forth. You feel stymied, frustrated and stumped. This is when you need to walk away from the problem; take a break and do something different.

Incubation – All the raw material and information gathered in the preparation phase begins to percolate on an unconscious level and insights begin slowly to seep into your consciousness. It’s a critical phase, which involves letting go of the problem (consciously or unconsciously), putting it on the back burner and letting your subconscious chew on it for awhile. When you have studied a problem and you say to yourself, “I’ll sleep on it,” that’s the correct strategy. Allow your subconscious to take over and process the data you have collected in your conscious state.

Illumination – This is the “AHA!” stage in achieving breakthrough insights. You never know when it’s going to occur. Albert Einstein said, “Why is it, I always get my best ideas while shaving?” Remember the Boy Scout motto – always be prepared? Be prepared at all times to catch ideas. There is no way to predict exactly when a great idea is likely to pop into your mind. Some of my best thoughts have occurred in the most unlikely place or at the most inconvenient time:

  • Dreams can be a great source for insights and creativity; I keep a pencil and paper on my nightstand to capture those middle of the night ideas.
  • The shower, bathing, brushing teeth, the toilet: Creativity knows no boundaries and doesn’t punch a time clock.
  • In the kitchen while cooking, commuting, out to lunch (both interpretations are valid – eating or daydreaming), at a coffee shop, playing sports or working out at the gym.

Ideas are thoughts and thoughts are ephemeral. Unless you make the effort to capture your ideas, you will lose many of them. If you are serious about not letting your good ideas escape, carry a recording medium with you at all times. A starting point would be a pencil and paper. You could also use 3×5 index cards (they are easier to sort and categorize.) After having a near miss while driving, I learned that it’s not always convenient to take written notes. I decided to augment my basic system of note taking. I purchased a little micro-cassette-recording device that’s much smaller than a pack of cigarettes and has a chip that can record up to 5 minutes of dictation or conversation. This makes for safer driving.

I have heard of creative people that have a device that allows them to jot down their thoughts while taking showers.

My wife and I purchased some software from 3M that allows you to paste “Post It Notes” on the computer monitor. This is real handy when you are in the middle of a computer session and you think of something you need to write down or the phone rings and it’s a message for your spouse. The post it note reduces the risk of the message being lost (it’s also legible; sometimes I’ve hastily jotted down a phone message which was indecipherable even to me.) Kathy and I always know where to find our phone messages.

Kathy also mails herself emails from work to home as reminder notices for things requiring further attention. If you have a cell phone, you can leave messages on your voice mail system or answering machine.

When you become rich and famous, you can hire a personal assistant who follows you around recording all the profound and creative things you are thinking. If you haven’t achieved that level of success, maybe you can con your spouse or one of your kids to play the role of dutiful assistant. (I shudder to think what would happen if I made that suggestion to my wife.) The point is to be prepared at all times to catch ideas.

Once you have established the habit of carrying idea-catching material, you will be surprised at what your mind produces and how creative you are.

A final word on the illumination phase. Have you ever had an insight or creative idea while driving to work and said to yourself “I’ll follow up on this tonight when I have more time.” Evening comes and you discover that you can’t recreate or connect meaningfully with what you were previously thinking about. Emerson said, “Look sharply after our thoughts. They come, unlooked for, like a new bird in your trees and if you turn to your usual task, disappear.” Sudden flashes of inspiration or insights have a vividness and certainty, that is lost if you try to recreate or reconstruct the moment at a later time. This is why it’s essential to capture the thought in its original and most creative form.

Verification – This is the last phase and simply involves trying out the solution to make sure it works.

When you understand the 4 steps of the creative process, you become more attuned to and find it easier to go with the creative flow. It also gives you confidence not to panic or become overwhelmed when you are stuck in the data-gathering phase.


About Riley Harrison

Likes to write (books- Are You Stuck? (is life passing you by), Getting Unstuck & Dare To Date), loves to travel and is married to a wonderful woman (Kathleen Baxter)
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  1. Hey Riley,

    I always considered myself to be an excellent critical thinker but not very creative. I guess it was this believe that kept me from being creative! After reading some great books on creativity I have come to view the benefits of creativeness and intuition a lot higher than I have in the past.

    Two books which sparked the development of my creativeness were:
    – Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko – a handbook full of creative-thinking techniques.
    – The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron -a book about how to unblock your creativity.

    Have you read them? I found them both to be very useful (along with a couple of Edward De Bono books).

  2. Hi Brenton,
    I haven’t read Thinkertoys but The Artist’s Way is my favorite book on creativity. I don’t have the discipline to do morning pages every morning but I am a big believer in journaling. Mind mapping (Edward De Bono) is a great tool. I am in the process of writing a book and I have a big mind map to help tie together the data I’m collecting.


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