Creativity Stages and ‘Flow’

After intently study­ing people at work in a diverse range of fields, psy­cho­lo­gist Mihaly Csikszent­mi­halyi out­lined what he determ­ined to be the five stages of the cre­at­ive pro­cess in his book Cre­ativ­ity:

  1. Pre­par­a­tion: Becom­ing immersed, con­sciously or not, in a set of prob­lem­at­ic issues that are inter­est­ing and arouse curi­os­ity.
  2. Incub­a­tion: A peri­od whereby ideas churn around below the threshold of con­scious­ness. (It is dur­ing this time that unusu­al con­nec­tions are likely to be made.)
  3. Insight: When the pieces of the puzzle fall togeth­er.
  4. Eval­u­ation: Decid­ing wheth­er the insight is valu­able and worth pur­su­ing.
  5. Elab­or­a­tion: The slow and often routine work of elab­or­a­tion (the hard­est and longest stage of the pro­cess).

In this work, Csikszent­mi­halyi coined the word ‘flow’ for the state when a per­son is totally absorbed in a cre­at­ive exer­cise: “an almost auto­mat­ic, effort­less, yet highly focused state of con­scious­ness”. To achieve flow, one’s skills must match the chal­lenge at hand (as you can see in Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk, when these two don’t align optim­ally you can be con­fron­ted with anxi­ety, relax­tion or bore­dom, depend­ing on what is lack­ing: skills or dif­fi­culty of the chal­lenge).

There are some fant­ast­ic notes on Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk at Lat­er­al Action where they’ve provided his answer to the ques­tion, How does it feel to be in flow? Any­one who has a pas­sion (be it paint­ing, pro­gram­ming or writ­ing) will surely recog­nise this:

  • Com­pletely involved in what we are doing – focused, con­cen­trated.
  • A sense of ecstasy – of being out­side every­day real­ity.
  • Great inner clar­ity – know­ing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.
  • Know­ing that the activ­ity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task.
  • A sense of serenity – no wor­ries about one­self, and a feel­ing of grow­ing bey­ond the bound­ar­ies of the ego.
  • Time­less­ness – thor­oughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
  • Intrins­ic motiv­a­tion – whatever pro­duces flow becomes its own reward.

5 thoughts on “Creativity Stages and ‘Flow’

  1. Pingback: five stages of the creative process « mnima

  2. Simon Bostock

    It’s inter­est­ing to com­pare the deeply ser­i­ous Csikszentmihalyi’s work with the much-less-ser­i­ous work of Luke Sullivan’s “Hey, Whipple, Squeeze this!”

    But, you have to trust me on this, they describe the exact same pro­cess of cre­ativ­ity.

    And that book seems to have been strongly influ­enced by, “A tech­nique for pro­du­cing ideas”, which is a very slender volume (45 pages of A5 in large-print, barely a slide-deck’s worth of think­ing) writ­ten by the ad-exec James Webb Young in 1960.

    I’m con­stantly fas­cin­ated by con­gru­ence of evil ad-mon­gers who meas­ure the suc­cess of their the­or­ies in sales volume and the rather more pointy-headed Csikszent­mi­halyi.

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