June 20, 2016

3 Key Ingredients to Creative Flow (and Getting Stuff Done)

3 Key Ingredients to Creative Flow and Getting Stuff Done

Let me be the first to admit I have a major problem: I am absolutely awful at starting personal projects and not finishing them. Illustrations get half-way done and abandoned, comics get to the home stretch and then disappear … Why do I let these things happen?

What keeps going wrong? It pains me, but I seem unable to stop, like a compulsive project-killer maniac.

For years this answer plagued me, depressed me, and left me failing to realize my potential. But finally, the answer hit me in the face like a bucket of ice. What a wake-up call!

Trying to figure things out.

I spent time considering what all my memorable projects — both the successes, and the failures — had in common. Why did successes get to completion? When the failures stopped, what obstacle or event prompted it? Was there anything in common between these things? It turned out the answer was yes.

  1. Excitement
  2. Investment
  3. Intention

You don’t need all three at once to start or even to finish — but you do need at least two to continue the journey. Let’s look at these in more detail.

The “Ingredients”

Excitement

This is a catch-all term that encompasses the driving emotional force behind the project. It is enthusiasm, excitement, and even confidence. It is any strong emotion that’s helping you feel engaged to the project.

Intention

This is the goal or purpose behind the project — why you are working on it. This often goes hand-in-hand, consciously or unconsciously, with what you perceive as a reward for the project. It’s the value or worth you give to it that gives you motivation.

Investment

This is any tangible effort put into the project. It is time, energy, materials, money you invest into getting the project done. This can also include emotional investment, which is what you put of yourself into the project. Investment is the hard work.

Being productive and in "The Zone"!

The Flow of Projects

Most of us are familiar with the concept of “creative flow.” There are natural highs and lows in every project. The graph below shows how the three areas work together, and how you can determine where in the creative flow you are. It’s normal to fluctuate towards the middle and out again throughout a project’s lifetime.

If you’re feeling all three, you’re in “the zone." This is the creative high! You’re most productive, invested, excited, and the work feels most meaningful.

If you’re feeling two of the three, you’re in the middle. This is a typical average point to be in. You’re generally working on the project, or at least thinking about it, but you know you’re not putting 110% like you would be if you’re in the zone.

You’re feeling one of the three, you’re at the low points of creative flow. These are “risk areas” – where a project is most likely to dwindle to a stop or fail. If you’re at this point, it’s important to identify what areas you’re “lacking” in order to move back into the middle, and hopefully the zone. Being in one area too long is not sustainable for the project to continue.

The 3 Key Parts to Creative Flow Feel free to download this graphic here.

Possible Causes of Creative Block

OK, so what do you do when you’re in a low? Identify where on the chart you feel like you’re at. Now you know what you have and what you’re "missing." Here are some specific problem and solution ideas for each area. Note that some blocks may overlap into more than one area, and sometimes the area you do have is what’s causing the block!

When You Lack Excitement

If you’re lacking excitement, there is probably an emotional block. Here are a few things that may cause an emotional block:

  • The project, idea, concept, or execution is boring.
  • You’re depressed, anxious, or stressed.
  • You’re angry, frustrated, or feeling jealous.
  • You’re tired, exhausted, or overworked.
  • You don’t feel like you are capable.
  • You feel it’s “been done” or you aren’t bringing anything new to the project.
  • You’re scared of a possible or imagined outcome.
  • Your Intention is too vague, too complex, or too difficult.
  • You lack a group for feedback and/or support.
  • You don’t like how it’s progressing.

When You Lack Intention

If you’re lacking intention, your process or purpose is unclear, or the value you’ve given to the project is less than the required Investment. This can be caused by any of the following:

  • You don’t know why you’re doing this project.
  • You have no goals or desired result.
  • You’re not sure or haven’t thought about the outcome.
  • You’re scared of a possible or imagined outcome.
  • You don’t actually believe in the purpose/goals.
  • They matter more to someone else than you.
  • You’re unclear about the process or how to approach the project.
  • The return value or progress cannot be measured.

When You Lack Investment

A lack of Investment can be caused by any of the following:

  • Poor time management.
  • Having no time or being too exhausted from things outside the project.
  • The amount of Investment required doesn’t feel “worth it”. (Your purpose, goal, or potential reward does not outweigh or equal the required work.)
  • You lack necessary materials to start or continue.
  • Your Intention is too vague, too complex, or too difficult.
  • No deadlines.
  • No consequences for procrastination or failure.
  • You don’t like where it’s progressing.
  • You don’t actually believe in the purpose/goals.
  • You’re unclear about the process or how to approach the project.

Having no ideas is rough!So What’s the Problem?

Knowing what’s wrong is half-way there to solving it. Narrowing in on the problem (or problems!) creates more focus to resolve the issues. So, what was happening to my projects? Turns out I was following a pattern of failure.

Nearly all of my projects would start with Excitement and Intention, and then I’d roll into the zone rather quickly. Always off to a good start, aye? Eventually, Excitement would fade away, Intention slowly after,and  eventually leaving me only with my dedication to furthering my previous Investment on the project. Of course, that alone can’t sustain progress, and that, too, would dwindle down to a stop. The reasons for each individual project were different, but the results were the same.

The Devil in the Details

For one comic project, the Investment – the actual time and energy already spent totaled with the perceived amount to finish – had eventually outweighed the weight of Intention. The satisfaction of completion simply couldn’t compete with the burden of the process. The process was intense; both time-consuming and laborious. One third of the process I didn’t even like, let alone enjoy. With how big the project was, how could I have expected it to survive? As much as I believed in the project and wanted to finish it, it’s impossible to continue when you’re hating the process and not receiving equal reward for progress.

I think others realized this before I even did. When I was struggling, they’d suggest changes to the style or my technique, but I always refused.

“You don’t understand!” I’d cry. “I like how it looks!”

These comic pages took way too long to draw.Colorful and detailed...and way too time-consuming. How long is too long? You don't want to know.

For a while, the satisfaction in that finished look might have been satisfying and even “worth it.” But forty comic pages later and two hundred more to go? I might as well have slapped a sign on my back that said, “Kill me now, project.”

How could I revive this project? By fixing the process. The part of it that I hated (inking)? Gone. I’m not going to invest hours doing something I hate, even if I like the results. It’s not worth it. My pencils are already pretty clean, and inking always felt like drawing it multiple times over. So I darkened my pencils and opted to make them my “inks”. By extension, I then eliminated the last third of the project too – coloring the pages.

I love color, and I love coloring, but for the length of this project, it just takes too long. It’s unrealistic. I want the project done, but not when I’m eighty and the only thing I ever accomplished. I have so many more stories to tell!

By resolving to leave the project black and white, this meant I had to do some changes to my penciling, but even with the changes it still takes way less energy and time to complete a single page.

First practice drawing of different process.First attempt at new process: still went to far in making it complicated. Pencils instead of inks (can you tell?)

Second practice of new process.Second attempt at new process: black, white, and one gray. Time is 1/3 of original process. Now we're talking!

It should come as no surprise that this change refueled my excitement for the project – I was doing something new, less intimidating, and more fun. I fell in love with it all over again. Process fixed and project back on track.

Waiting for a Miracle

Character drawingLet’s look at another project that suffered on the backburner: this time a novel. Yet again Investment was the last stage I was in before it found itself collecting dust, and this time it was a project pretty far along towards completion. It was written! Half-way edited! Practically done! Just had to be...better.

And that was the problem.

Where my spirit had been derailed was the point where the story just didn’t work. The scenes weren’t purposeful, rambling, and frankly ... boring. I knew it, and knew I had to fix it. But I didn’t know how, so I procrastinated. In this case, I lost Excitement (from boredom and frustration). The feelings of feeling incapable of fixing it led me to lose Investment next (not trying to fix the problem). Losing momentum, the novel remained untouched despite how much I thought about what I hoped to accomplish with it.

So how can I rekindle my excitement for a project when I’ve convinced myself I can’t solve it’s problem? Well, thank goodness I learned some things from participating in NaNoWriMo, because the best way to solve this problem is ... to move on. That might sound counterproductive — we want to make the novel great, don’t we?! — but consider this: All the time I spend not moving on from where I’m stuck is time I’m not moving forward. You can’t wait for problems to solve themselves. Ideas, especially the great ones, don’t typically come from waiting around for them to happen. If I can’t solve this problem, I need to ignore it, BUT — and this important — we’re only ignoring it for now.

Your brain is a smart cookie. It’ll keep trying to figure things out even when you’re not staring it down in the face. You have to give it some material to work with, though! Rebuilding momentum here is crucial. It doesn’t matter whether I skip the part I hate, jump to a scene I love, write something new with the characters — something not in the actual story, but for fun — I just need to do something.

Even the smallest amount of Investment can get the wheels turning, and the more they turn, the more I’ll find things to be excited about. It’s time to forget the parts I’m bored with or hate, and instead remember what I love.

Do you know what happens when you get Investment and Excitement back on track?

That’s right: you’re soon back in the zone. That’s where our best ideas will have a chance to grow and develop. In the previous project, I needed to change the rules before I could jump back in the game. This time is the opposite: it’s time to play. In this case, we need to have fun before we can improve our game.

Getting It Right

One of my recent dailies.Not every project has failed to reach completion. In fact, perhaps ironically, the one project that doesn’t have a set “end” is the most successful: my daily comic strips. Started almost four years ago (when I was about 6 months out of college, unemployed, and feeling rather bleak about it) I found that I needed to do something — anything! — to get myself back to working creatively. In this case, I started not with excitement, but with intent: I decided to draw a comic strip every single day for the sole purpose of being able to say, “I did something today.”

This goal came with strict rules I set in place specifically to combat my own worst tendencies. To avoid getting caught in perfectionism, I set a tight deadline: From start to finish, I would spend no longer than an hour on a single strip. The goal was to create and be productive; not to get things perfect every time. To further drive this home, I included ideation into that hour deadline. I wouldn’t think about what I would draw until it’s time to sit down and draw it, giving me only an hour to think and create it.

Are these tough rules to follow? Absolutely. Starting out was definitely the most difficult. But over one thousand and a hundred strips (days!) later, I can tell you for certain that they worked. I didn’t expect to create fantastic or hilarious comics every time, so I rarely felt too emotionally overwhelmed to do it. I won’t say "never," however; in the beginning, there were definitely days I overthought it.

But the Intention and Investment here are what really made this successful even through days that were hard. The process was never too difficult; in fact, after doing this so long, I think now it’s pretty easy. The reward for my Investment was just enough.

When the goal is “do something” and you do something, it’s hard to mess that up. It seems a low bar, but any day where you make a good one feels incredible. Finally, Excitement: I found it really rewarding to start finding things in my life worth drawing about. It made living more interesting. Sharing these comics online became especially fun when more people started to read and enjoy them!

Every day is a little exciting when something, even a small amusing thing, happens and I can think to myself, “I can’t wait to draw about this!”

This is a project that definitely found its creative flow groove early on and kept to it.

Are you ready to be productive?

Let’s Get Cookin’.

With your own projects, you’ll need to find your own solutions and paths to success. I hope that this concept helps you consider a new perspective on your workflow. Better still, I hope you learn how to better handle creative blocks. (At least be better at it than me!) Some final tips:

  • Practice self-awareness of where you’re at in the creative flow and why.
  • Write down trends so you can learn to spot them early and prevent future blocks.
  • Have a “support team” of fellow creatives.
  • If it’s not working, change it.
  • Every project is a new chance to perfect your creative process, so don’t worry if you’re not getting right on every time!
Hope you’re ready to Get Stuff Done. I know I am!

Have your own tips, suggestions, or lessons learned from your own projects?
Share them below in the comments!

Laura Kajpust

Laura is a designer, developer, and illustrator because learning one thing seemed way too boring. While technology is easy, she still can't cook anything requiring more than three ingredients. Fortunately, her husband and dog are not very picky (except on weekends).