10 Tips for Optimizing the Creative Process

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Today for Week 6 of the Creativity Challenge I would like to share some helpful tips for optimizing the creative experience. Engaging in the creative process can be one of the most rewarding activities in life and can provide much meaning and spiritual nourishment to us and those around us.  Yet there are many difficulties and pitfalls and it is not always an easy process, especially if gone about in a less than optimal way.  In this article I will share strategic and philosophical ideas for producing creative work and how to go about the creative process in the best way.  Of course everyone is different and some strategies will work better than others for some people. However we are all human and have many similarities also, and the Creative Unconscious that we work in partnership with belongs to all of us.  Therefore I believe that most of these strategies will be useful for most people if employed diligently and properly.

First of all, what does optimizing the creative process mean?  Here is my definition of Optimizing the Creative Process:

To work towards reaching our full potential as artists with the production of more finished creative work of higher quality and self expression while enjoying the process, staying healthy, having long prolific careers and benefiting society as a whole.

Those are my goals as an artist, and if you share those goals will me these tips will probably work for you.  If you have different goals that involve external “success” like being famous, rich, to satisfy your parents, be better than other people, etc, then these tips may not work as well for you and you will probably have an unhappy and less successful creative life.  Extrinsic and selfish motivation rarely leads to the harmony with the creative spirit required for the creative process to flow correctly.  For those of us who love art and music and creativity and who want to live their lives more in harmony with that spirit, please read on for my 10 Tips for Optimizing the Creative Process:

1: Focus on the First Creation

Everything that is created is created twice. The first time is inside the mind and the second is in the physical world.  Most people spend most of their time focusing on the real world work and neglect the first creation. I have certainly been guilty of this many times in my life, of working very hard but without a very clear idea of what I was trying to do exactly. This kind of work is comparable to building a house without a good blueprint.  It leads to all sorts of problems.  An incomplete, poorly thought or sloppy first creation amplifies mistakes in the second creation process. Weak first creations lead to much wasted time, artistic wrong turns, backtracking, incoherent expression, wasted money, frustration and artistic blockages.

This is a universal principle and one of life’s most important.  We must know what we are trying to create.  Stephen Covey identifies this principle in the second of his Habits of Highly Effective People: “Begin with the end in mind”.  It is not easy, especially for those of us who usually rush in and start working right away (I am one of those people for sure).  Working on our vision requires time, focus, and patience.  Do not rush this step. It is the most important step of the creative process.

2: Be Conscious and Unconscious when Building the First Creation, but Never Divided

We can divide up human brain activity into 3 states of mind. Conscious, Unconscious, and Divided.   The Conscious and Unconscious states of mind are both necessary for the creative process, but not the Divided, which we also excuse and try to justify with the name “multitasking”.  A divided or multitasking mind is the natural mind state of the modern age and is one of the chief causes of personal unhappiness and ineffectiveness. When we try to keep a bunch of ideas in our mind at once we confuse ourselves, sap our mental resources and produce crappy work.

Instead it is a good strategy to alternate periods of intense focused work with periods of rest and relaxation.  While we have the creative flow we should work like hell, and then when we get stuck we should go rest and relax and empty our minds.  The solution will come easily that way.  Rest does not mean Facebooking or some other OCD of the modern age.  Instead, go for a walk, take a little catnap, do some yoga, meditation, Qigong, wash the dishes, take a bath, go to the beach, or sit under a tree.  This strategy works.  It worked for Sir Isaac Newton (tree), Archimedes (bath), Tesla (walk), Descartes (nap) and The Buddha (tree) just to name a few.

3: Have a Clean and Well Prepared Creative Work Space

In our Practice Labs the first big realization our groups have is that having a work space ready to go with everything we need and nothing we don’t is the first thing we need to work on to get top artistic productivity.  If our work spaces are cluttered with a bunch of other things that what we are working on then it’s just like our minds- divided.  Much better is a desk or desktop with only what we need for that project on it.  *On a computer that means closing all other windows and putting your PDA on airplane mode while we work on a project. *It is also a great idea when working on creative projects to turn off our PDAs and phones, etc, and find a location free from distractions from other people. Many great creators have retreated into a more natural setting to work, away from the day to day regular life pressures.  Keep your mind and your environment pure and the ideas have much more room to come to you.

Also if we have a creative inspiration come to us suddenly we want to be able to rush to our work space and get it down quickly before the idea fades.  The work space should be ready to go at any time. We cannot predict when inspiration will come.  If you want to paint more, set up your easel and paints somewhere so you don’t have to waste time and motivation to take everything out and set it up.  Getting started is the most difficult part, and this setup barrier kills millions of creative ideas every day all over the world.  So just set it up and leave it up.

4: Don’t Worry about the First Draft

Another sticking point for creative work is the pain that comes with first drafts. They suck.  It is a fact of life for most of us. There are the rare exceptions like Mozart that are almost perfect in their first drafts, and that is due to the excellence of their first creation visualization skills. It may look effortless to the rest of us, but they have just done all the work inside of their minds, and since their first creation is so good, the second comes seemingly effortlessly. However for the rest of us, including many of the all time greats such as Beethoven, the creative process involves many drafts and revisions and a lot of blood, sweat and tears.  It is ok.  The most important thing is to get the first draft down, no matter how bad it is. The act of making the first draft tunes us more closely to the creative idea. We then can put it down and go for a walk and let our Unconscious work out the next steps for us.  Then when we sit down to revise, it is usually quite easy to make big improvements easily.  So just do the draft without judging yourself and then put it down for a day or two before you revise and let your Unconscious work things out effortlessly.

5: Take Many Micro Breaks or Catnaps

When we are in the creative flow, we can lose ourselves to normal perception of time and work tirelessly for long periods of sustained creativity.  However, when things start to feel a little foggy, a micro break is in order. A quick 1-20 minute break can work wonders when our mind gets a little too full and our bodies get a little stiff.  Once again, this is not a time for multitasking, it’s a time for relaxation.  A quick walk, micro yoga or meditation session, or 10-20 minute catnap can really reboot the system.  There is a natural ebb and flow of the attention span that is somewhat personal to each individual, so pay attention to when your mind starts to lose focus and take a break. Our minds are like very fast cars if operated properly, but they tend to overheat if run continuously, so take a pit stop when it starts to feel too hot.

6: Sprint to the finish!

When we are close to finishing a project and we can see the end in sight, I suggest it is best to sprint to the end. Seeing the end is a powerful motivator, and I have found that when we see it is is good to put our heart and soul into finishing the project for a short burst of focused and almost manic intensity.  Most great art is finished this way.  The end of a good book usually writes itself.  A final strong push to the end can mean the difference between finishing a project in two weeks versus a year.  So reschedule your appointments, stay home and work work work! Order food delivered or ask someone to bring you a sandwich.  Finish it up!

7: Give Yourself Public Deadlines

A good way to make this practice reality is to give yourself deadlines. This can result in dramatically increased output as we realize we can complete projects much more quickly. Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”  It is so true: if we have a week to do something, we will do it in a week. If we have a month, that’s how long we will take. If we have no deadline then we may never finish.  So promise to someone that you will show them your output on a specific day and see how it improves your results.  This is one of the only times where Facebook can help us with our creativity- if we post “Facebook Universe, I promise to publish a creative work next Monday” then we will most likely have something on Monday we would not have motivated to do by then otherwise.  This is one of the main reasons I am doing this Creativity Challenge so publicly.  It’s making me produce much more material than I would without weekly deadlines.

8: Don’t be a perfectionist. Publish and get on with it!

The most important part of the creative process is the process, not the result.  Of course we want good results, but we will never be perfect and an unnecessary high standard will slow our overall progress and deprive the world of much creative output. All we can do is give it our best for what we are capable of at that stage of our career.  Then when it seems like the improvements making more and more revisions are significantly declining, we finish the project, publish, declare victory and move on to the next project. The next one will be better than this one as we learn from the creative process. We cannot make masterpieces before first making a lots of bad, then so-so work, then pretty good work, then excellent work. Only then will the masterpieces come. No one ever started out making masterpieces. First we must pay our dues and learn learn learn. So just publish and get started on the next project!

9: Have fun and be happy while creating. Enjoy the process!

The best thing about the properly applied creative process is how good it feels. With the right mindset, motives, and techniques an artist can find daily joy and spiritual nourishment from the creative process. It is good for our health to be creative, but we have to let go of the result and enjoy the process.

I believe to have the best artistic career it is better to be happy, healthy, grounded and centered. The tortured artist archetype surely has been romanticized in the media, and certainly there have been many great artists who were quite troubled and tortured. I  would argue that for many tortured artists that the creative act for them was in not the source of their internal struggles but in fact their only relief from it.  Creativity is a powerful energy that can provide great therapy to the suffering. However it also enhances the lives of those who are considered healthy in today’s society, and can make the healthy into super healthy and the happy into the ecstatic.

Creativity is fun! It’s one of the most fun things there is, if we let ourselves enjoy it.  We do that by focusing on the act of creation and not worrying about the success or failure of it, and especially not other people’s opinions.  Let’s just have fun, play instead of work at creativity, and enjoy our lives as creative artists.

10: Above all, Create for You. Find Your True Voice.

Creativity only works when we express our true vision.  Making something because we think it will be popular, or to satisfy someone else in some way is a trap many artists fall into.  Creative blockages are caused largely by worrying about the audience instead of the art. If we worry too much about the reaction of how our work is received, it leads to us losing the true thread of creativity in a futile attempt to be popular or accepted.  Changing our work to try to satisfy an audience leads to inauthentic work, and inauthentic work is unsatisfying for the audience and painful and difficult for the artist. It’s like some parallel universe that looks like a creative life from the outside but actually can become a hell of self-loathing, with feelings of inadequacy dishonesty.

Instead, we must work towards the most accurate and honest self expression. Then the powers of creativity and self expression can flow freely, and the honesty of the work can often enjoy great popular or critical success, but as a byproduct of the creative process, not as a ultimate goal. Be yourself! Creative energy is the energy of self expression, but only of our true selves.  We must find our true voice in order to maximize our true creative potential, as individuals and as a society at large.

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