Demystifying the Creative Process

“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. (Click to share – thanks!) 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 subconscious 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.

I was speaking to a friend a few weeks ago, and I told her I was frustrated because I was pregnant with ideas and didn’t have time to get them out. Keeping with the analogy, when a Eureka! moment hits, it’s much like labor – you’re done with incubating, and it’s time for…


This phase is the one in which the idea you’ve been preparing and incubating sees the light of day. It’s when that written piece comes out, when that song flows, when that canvas reveals its painting, and so on. It’s also when a good creative starts to evaluate the idea and determine whether it’s good or not – but only after they have enough to see where it’s going.

Most of the creatives I know or work with get really frustrated with others at this phase. Other people only see the creation at the end – they don’t recognize or care much about the process that generated that idea. This is especially true with some supervisors and bosses who expect the end product on a certain schedule – the process does not work that way. Creatives know that for every good idea, there’re at least a few that don’t work out, but they can’t know ahead of time what’s going to work out and what won’t.

The creative process begins with work and ends with work. The take-away point here is that creativity is not just percolating and Eureka – it’s percolating and Eureka sandwiched between work.

Debugging Your Creative Process

Understanding the creative process helps you start figuring where your bugs are. My contention here is that everyone is capable of creative thought and originality, but some people are more creative because they’ve learned either how to let their process work or how to augment the creative process. Everyone else short-circuits their creative process.

I should add a caveat here which some may find empowering and others may find frustrating. Intelligence and creativity are loosely related – some really intelligent people are not very creative, and some creative people aren’t all that intelligent in the way that we standardly view intelligence. Creativity favors intelligence, but that has almost everything to do with two facts: 1) the more intelligent creative can prepare more quickly and more broadly than the less intelligent creative, and 2) the more intelligent creative generally has managed to secure employment that allows her more autonomy in her schedule.

In case you want numbers, most psychologists conclude that people with an IQ of 120 or above have plenty of potential to pursue creative thinking and lifestyles – under that, they’ll struggle. There’s also very little correlation between education and intelligence, so don’t think you can’t be creative because you didn’t go to college or grad school – some of the smartest people I know never attended college.

In my experience and work with others, the two areas most people mess up their creative process is in the first two steps. Part of preparation is working on things that interest you, and most people haven’t really sat down and figured out what interests and motivates them. This is especially true since our culture both exalts creatives and hates them at the same time and a lot of people haven’t found their creative outlet. They think either that they’re not creative or that creative pursuits are a waste of time.

Another area in preparation where many people go wrong is by not being aware of how social the creative process is. Few great ideas come from a person sitting and thinking by herself – true, that’s part of the incubation phase, but the seeds are planted in the preparation phase. Talking to people interested in the same things you are or who are just plain creative helps you become more creative, and this explains why creatives tend to be attracted to areas with a high density of other creatives.

(Aside: What many consultants don’t tell you is that part of the reason they love consulting is because they get as many ideas from you as you do from them. Many of them get frustrated with consulting not because they don’t like it, but because they don’t have time to work on the ideas they get from talking to their clients.)

Also, as I discussed above, many people don’t let their ideas incubate. Creatives throughout history have always spoken against working for someone else because doing so has a tendency to stop your own incubation process – when your boss tells you to change directions on a project or reassigns tasks, your incubation process is stunted. Additionally, when you don’t understand that your well-being (and employment) depend on your ability to leverage your creativity, you’re less likely to take this important part of the process seriously. Hint: that you work for someone else has little to do with your creativity or the fact that you are employed due to your creativity.

With these two phases of the process short-circuited, it’s no wonder why people aren’t manifesting their creativity. It’s not because they don’t have the capacity to be creative and has everything to do with their creative process being buggy. Fixing the creative process is not that hard to do, and I’ll talk more about it in future posts.

Here’s something I want you to keep in mind and it’s why I’m so adamant about you understanding your creative process and that your livelihood depends on your leveraging your creativity: all it takes is one or two good ideas, well-executed, for you to live the life of greatness. Most of the influential creatives throughout history – including present ones – started with one really good idea. The rest of their life was spent either working on that idea or living off of the fruit of that idea. You may be incubating that great idea, or you may be one step away from it, and I want you to get it out so we all can enjoy it.

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  1. says

    Loved this! “…all it takes is one or two good ideas, well-executed, for you to live the life of greatness.” That’s an inspiring thought to live by.

    The idea of incubation certainly rings true for me. While certain ideas seem to spring out of nowhere, on closer inspection, they’re often a combination of other ideas simply with something new thrown in.

    Sara at On Simplicitys last blog post..The Simple Truth? You’re Complicated

  2. says

    “Talking to people interested in the same things you are or who are just plain creative helps you become more creative, and this explains why creatives tend to be attracted to areas with a high density of other creatives.”

    Good observation. In many cases, I find that it’s not even necessary that the other person share your specific interests, as long as they’re attuned listeners. What’s important isn’t their contribution, but their presence, allow you to direct your creative process outside of yourself. They’re especially helpful if they can reflect back the essence of what you’re telling them to verify that they understand it. Often, when you have to correct them, you find yourself developing the idea further by re-articulating it.

    Andre Kibbes last blog post..Using Po to Generate and Restructure Ideas

  3. says

    Perhaps having too many diverse interests also short circuits the creative process. Throw in some employment, and other life obligations.

    Great reason to simplify things though!

    Good post, thank you.

  4. Charlie says

    @Sara: The richest ideas are those that have been mulled over, combined, broken apart, and such during the incubation process. What’s so fascinating about it is that all that’s going on and most of the time, we don’t know it’s happening!

    @Andre: You’ve hit on one of the best things about teaching – it forces you to explain your ideas to someone who’s foreign to them. That continual decomposition and recompostion of ideas opens up new pathways of understanding and can often cause paradigm shifts that you otherwise wouldn’t have. An open ear, and the willingness to be patient with ideas, goes a long way.

    @Amy: That’s the next one on the list for me, actually. It came behind another book I’m currently reading on artistry and creativity. Thanks for commenting!

    @Curtis: Actually, most research points to a diversity of interesting leading to better creative insights. What short-circuits many of us with diverse interests are that those interests often come with time obligations. But if you separate the two, though, then the incubation process is augmented. More on this soon.

  5. says

    Great food for thought. Some practical tips that came to mind, especially about the need to get stuff out as soon as possible: invest in some of those bathtub crayons (in the kids toys section) so you can write WHILE you have the shower; keep a notebook and pen in the glove compartment (then you only have to pull over); doodle in all meetings, then it won’t be so noticeable when you start writing your next novel in one.

    Culturally, I think we also associate creativity with the arts when actually that process sounds a lot like what scientists do, too. The key to the scientific method is that they keep track of all the blind alleys they went down on the way.

    JoVEs last blog post..Coming out of my knitting funk

  6. Charlie says

    @JoVe: I honestly hadn’t thought of the crayons for the shower! Thanks! The others I had solutions for – including the doodling, although it’s hard to hide a design you’re creating in a meeting (been there, caught the looks).

    And I agree absolutely that scientist go through the same processes. We forget that, I think, because we see a lot of the hard work in the prep and implementation phase through research and lab time.

  7. says

    Excellent post.
    I like that you support and remind us to let our our creative ideas percolate – incubate.
    Having a trusted friend who is my creative mirror has made all the difference.

    The Artist’s Way will change your life.
    I read the book two years ago and fell in love the with the process – so much so – I started facilitating Artist’s Way workshops.

    Shanns last blog post..Getting Your Groove Back … a luscious living playshop

  8. Charlie says

    @Shann: Okay, so now I can’t wait to read The Artist’s Way. Can it get here any sooner?! My wife is my trusty idea friend, and having her support and critical eye is wonderful.

  9. M says

    hi there, reading the above piece is truly inspirational! I particularly like the way the whole process is broken down into sections and explained in detail. I’m currently doing my dissertation on enhancing the creative process using sound waves and frequencies. I believe that this would best take place either in the incubation stage or between the incubation and illumination stages.
    I would be very interested and appreciative if you could find the time to contact me to go over the most common problems people face during the design process.

  10. says


    I found the contents of this page ( very useful and would like to use it in my presentation titled “Innovation, demystifying of terms”. This is to request for your kind permit to translate it into Persian and include the contents in my presentation. Please let me know the way of referencing (company, person, or website).
    Thank you in advance for your kind consideration.

    With best regards,
    Taghi Gheisari
    Innoven2008 Seminar
    Scientific Coordinator

  11. says

    Another great post. I have never heard of the steps of creativity, but after reading this I know I go through all of them. In the incubation phase I generally am only vaguely aware of what I am working on in my mind, but when the idea is ready I know I have been thinking of it for a while.
    .-= jonĀ“s last blog ..carrot ring pt. 2 =-.

  12. Eric says

    Hey Charlie,

    I like your website and would like to cite your article on the creative process in a project for my education degree.

    Can you send me your last name so I can cite you in my paper.

    Thanks again,

  13. says

    You hit on a lot of great points about creativity, but you slid right through one in the shower. Lots of your readers know that the shower (and cleaning the house, walking the dog, etc.) seems to “unleash” creative thoughts. This is no accident. It’s creative downtime when you mind steps back from RIGHT brain thinking long enough to see what’s been percolating. If you know the shower is where it happens then be ready for it when those creative thoughts rain down. Run a tape recorder and talk out loud if you have to…or just keep the computer close enough that you run dripping to it!

    • John says

      THANK YOU times infinity!!!! I work for myself and just wanted to look up the term “creative process.” Reason being, I know a lot of my clients don’t understand why it takes an artist time to develop and execute ideas. A lot of people think that because I’m an artist that ideas and solutions to their problem ought to just flow freely from my noggin… making the concept of “rush jobs” non-existent.
      This truly helped me… and hopefully it will help me explain to my clients, friends, family and most importantly my wife when I try to explain that creative solutions to ideas occasionally takes time.
      I look forward to reading more posts.

      • John says

        No offense to Linda, but even though I liked her comment, my reply was intended for the original blogger. I’m not sure why it linked me to her post… Stupid, stupid iPhone!

  14. Sarah ARIFF says

    Very interesting. You analyzed the creative process through Wallas model but how do you explain the jump from the incubation phase to the illumination? If I follow properly the first two steps, the third one, the illumination, has greater chance to occur; however some people will think it’s a waste of time for them because they don’t believe they cannot reach the Eureka moment.

  15. mukh says

    its the epitome of ideas and putting those ideas into a dye is really amazing, you have wrote it in a very interesting way and it will really help me in my exams too.

  16. dawnkotzer says

    Hi Charlie. Creativity is a non-linear process. your 4 segments [ Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Implementation make for a great loose structure as long we don’t get hung up on what each segment might look like. As a Master Kazien-Muse Creativity Coach I work with others to help them find the easiest, smallest next step They GET TO take within each area….sometimes moving back and forth between all 4 …Illumination can happen by the smallest shift in perspective, Preparation can occur by introducing a new small habit, Incubation can be enriched by asking the small question ‘What if?’ Implementation can feel like a massive failure the first time around, unless you Give yourself Permission to Do a Crappy job the first time and then explore the result.Best of all, the Creative Process applies all of us, having less to do with Creative output and everything to do with Creative Mind.Thanks for sharing this. It was a good read.

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