Imagine you are standing in the middle of a forest. The smell of wet cedar surrounds you. You feel the soft ground beneath your feet and you tilt your head to see the boughs high above your head. The sun is just peeking through. You can hear the faint sound of a bird. You are calm and at peace.
You have an important work project due in 24 hours.
Maybe your first instinct is not to wander around the woods when you have a deadline looming. To most of us, this looks like a classic case of procrastination. But what if I told you it can be a valuable part of the creative cycle?
Defining the Creative Cycle
The creative cycle draws on the research of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and involves three steps.
- Immersion – researching and surrounding yourself with the problem you are trying to solve.
- Incubation & Insight – this is when you create mental space to allow the problem to percolate. We like to call this “soft-focus.” This is when you might consider a walk in the woods or some other low-level activity that allows your mind to wander.
- Evaluation & Elaboration – This hard-focus stage of the cycle is when you process the insight gained in step two and create your final product.
In our Foundations course, we describe the creative cycle in depth and discuss methods for applying it to your life.
How to Know if You are Creating Space or Procrastinating
If you google the phrase “creativity and procrastination” you’ll see a wealth of articles telling you that procrastination is the key to creativity or that creative people benefit from procrastination. There are some key differences between creating space and procrastinating.
Creating Space is Planned and Intentional
People who follow the creative cycle plan for moments, or even days to allow their creative ideas. There will always be a start and end to step two of the creative cycle.
As Markus Aurelius said, “You have to assemble your life yourself — action by action.”
A walk in the woods is not a last minute effort to put off the inevitable. It is actually a planned activity meant to inspire creativity. When you are following the creative cycle, you know that you will come back to your work with plenty of time to complete it.
Creating Space Brings Order, Not Chaos
When we procrastinate, we delay solving our problems, which creates chaos and stress in our minds. We often fill our productive time with digital noise such as social media, Netflix, or online games.
In contrast, when we create space, we bring order to our work and thoughts. We turn off the noise and give our minds space to realize solutions to our problems. Creating space means that we’re not listening to podcasts, audiobooks, or consuming content. You’re intentionally allowing your mind to wander, ponder, and reflect.
Creating Space Brings Clarity, Not Confusion
Most importantly, creating space brings clarity. Many of us know this feeling of clarity when we’re engaged in passive tasks such as driving, showering, or doing chores. When you mind is not pulled in several directions, you have time to reach clarity.
Creating space for thinking and creativity, and applying creative cycle on a regular basis throughout your week will help you produce higher quality work in less time, and make better decisions in all areas of your life. Creating space also helps you lower stress and anxiety by giving you the time you need for processing the things that are happening in your life.