Demystifying The Creative Process

This post, from Charlie, originally appeared on his Productive Flourishing site on 9/29/08.

“I’m not creative.”
“I wish I could be more creative, but I don’t have it in me.”
“Why are some people creative and others aren’t?”

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard those statements or questions…

The truth is almost everyone has creative potential. What separates good creatives (or dormant creatives that get lucky) is that they’ve learned how to walk through the creative process. The irony is that most of them don’t know that there is a documented process, yet they’ve developed habits and processes that allow them to walk through the process. On some brute level, they understand the process, though they don’t know how the process works.

A large part of the problem is that there is an air of mystery and mysticism around the creative process. Because people assume and reinforce the idea that some have creative potential and others don’t, those that do harness their potential and work through the process become all the more “different.” And because so few of us see that leveraging our creativity is inextricably linked to how we make money, we let our creative process devolve into a daily crap shoot.

So, let’s take a few minutes and demystify the creative process.

The Four Steps of Creativity

We’ve known for a long time that the creative process can be broken down into four distinct processes, most of which can be fostered and augmented. The processes are:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Illumination
  4. Implementation

I’ll spend some time on each step.


This is the first phase of what most call work. A writer, for example, prepares either by writing, reading, or revising earlier work. A musician plays scales, chords, or songs…a painter messes with paints or visits an art gallery…an entrepreneur researches problems to solve….a programmer plays with code. In each example, the creative is going through relatively mundane processes.

The reason I say most call this phase “work” is because these processes may or may not be inherently enjoyable. They’re also fairly mundane and tedious, but the creative has learned that this process is necessary to plant the seeds that lead to…


This would be the mystical process if there were one because you often don’t know that you’re percolating an idea, or if you do know you’re working on one, you don’t know when it’s going to come out. It’s at this phase that your conscious and subconcious mind are working on the idea, making new connections, separating unnecessary ideas, and grabbing for other ideas.

This is the phase that most people mess up the most with distractions and the hustle and bustle of daily lives. Modern life, with its many beeps, buzzes, and distractions, has the strong tendency to grab the attention of both our subconcious and unconscious mind, and as result, the creative process stops and is instead replaced by more immediate concerns.

However, from this phase comes…


This is the “Eureka” moment that many of us spend our days questing after. When it hits, the creative urge is so incredibly strong that we lose track of what else is happening. The driving impulse is to get whatever is going on in our head down into whatever medium it’s intended to go.

The most frustrating thing for me is that the “illumination” moments happen at the most inopportune times. They invariably happen when I’m in the shower, when I’m driving by myself, when I’m working out, or when I’m sitting in mind-numbing meetings that I can’t get out of. Of course, the bad part is as I said above: the impulse is to get the idea out as soon as possible, so it’s not at all uncommon for me to stop showering, driving, or working out and run to the nearest notepad – and, in meetings, I start purging immediately anyway. I’ve yet to gain enough clout to excuse myself from the meetings, but I’m working on it.

Read the rest of the post on Productive Flourishing.