7 Rules for Maximizing Your Creative Output

After my last article on experiencing creativity, there was a question about how to enter this highly creative flow state, the state where you lose all sense of time, your ego vanishes, and you become one with the task in front of you. Is this peak creative state a rare chance event, or can it be achieved consistently?

For me the creative flow state is a common occurrence. I usually enter this state several times a week, staying with it for hours at a time. I’m able to routinely enjoy the flow state as long as I ensure the right conditions, which I’ll share with you in a moment.

My first memories of habitually entering this flow state date back to the early 80s when I was learning BASIC programming. After school I’d rush through my homework in order to spend hours in front of my Atari 800 writing, testing, and tweaking programs just to see what the machine could do. Sometime around 8pm I’d notice my hunger, realize that the family had already eaten dinner, and ask my mom, “Why didn’t you call me when dinner was ready? I’m starving!” She’d invariably claim to have called me 3-4 times, usually with me verbally acknowledging, “I’ll be there in a minute.” Either I had no recollection of this happening, or it was like trying to recall a fuzzy dream memory. Did she really call me, or did I imagine it? I was so engrossed in my creative hobby that I became oblivious to what was going on around me. If I did acknowledge my mom, it must have been an unconscious reaction.

For the past 25 years, I’ve relied heavily on these tune-out-the world creative periods for a variety of tasks encompassing many disciplines: computer programming, game design, arts and crafts, web development, articles, speeches, Photoshop work, sound effects recording, school papers, and lots more. Today these periods are essential for my blogging work.

For most of my life I took these creative spurts for granted. As a teenager I attributed it to being left-handed. But I later realized I’d developed a process for initiating and sustaining these creative periods. I can’t guarantee these rules will be as effective for you as it is for me, but I suspect that with a little practice you’ll find them quite effective.

Here are my 7 rules for optimizing the highly creative flow state:

1. Define a clear purpose

To enter the flow state, you need a goal. Decide what you want to create and why. Vague intentions don’t trigger the flow state.

If I sit down with the thought of cranking out a new article or doing some generic website work, I rarely enter the flow state. I need a more focused intention like, “I’m going to write an article about my rules for creativity.” Children do this automatically. A simple, straightforward purpose like, “Let’s build a castle with these blocks” is all you need.

If you’re working on a large multi-session project like a book, state your purpose for this single creative session. What do you want to accomplish right now? Create an outline? Design a character? Write a scene?

Don’t overqualify your purpose. You need enough clarity to give yourself a direction but not so much as to put yourself in a box. You purpose should be an arrow, not a container. Adding too many constraints can stunt your creativity by limiting your options.

2. Identify a compelling motive

In addition to a goal for your creative session, you need a reason to be creative. Why does this task matter to you personally? What difference will it make if you can be creative? Why do you care?

If I don’t care about a task or project, I can’t summon the flow state. In school I could trigger the flow state easily when doing assignments I liked, but if I thought an assignment was pointless or stupid, I’d only go through the motions without crafting anything particularly original.

It’s much easier to be creative doing what you want to do vs. doing what you have to do. One thing that often happens when people quit their jobs and go to work for themselves is that their creative output soars. Even among those strange job-holding folk, being able to select your next project from a few options is often used as a reward, especially in technical fields.

The more compelling the motive, the more likely you are to summon high levels of creativity. Imagine that your inner creative resources are lazy, and they need a damned good reason to roll out of bed and go to work for you.

My best creative output occurs when I’m working on something that will simultaneously benefit myself and others. Being at the extremes of either selfishness or selflessness isn’t effective. I write my best articles when I’m passionate about the topic and expect my writing will genuinely help people. The anticipated impact needn’t be huge — writing a humorous piece to make people laugh is a perfectly effective motive.

3. Architect a worthy challenge

To awaken your full creative potential, the difficulty of your creative endeavor must fall within a certain challenge spectrum. On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is trivially easy and 10 is impossible, I’d say the optimal creative range is 5-9 with a 7-8 being ideal.

If a task is too easy, you don’t need to be particularly creative, so your creative self will simply say, “You can manage this one without me. Come back when you have something worthy of my attention.”

If you consider a task too hard or too complicated, your beliefs will get in the way of your creativity, and you’ll end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Even if you manage to hit the creative zone, it will be unsustainable because you won’t recognize the validity of the ideas that come through. When you feel a task is nearly impossible, it’s usually because the solution, if it exists, is way outside your comfort zone. These are the kinds of problems where your creative self will come up with solutions like “quit your job” or “end your marriage.” The solutions may be perfectly valid, perhaps even brilliantly correct under the circumstances, but you’ll be very resistant to accepting them.

What if you want to do creative work that doesn’t fall within the optimal challenge spectrum? Fortunately there are many ways you can modify a task to adjust the challenge level. If a task is too easy, you can add more constraints, just as you’d add weight plates to a barbell. If a task is too hard, you can break it down into smaller chunks, like tackling a page or a chapter instead of a whole book.

Sometimes when I work on an easy task, I’ll boost the difficulty to push myself into the optimal creative range. If I’m writing an article that seems too easy for me, I can increase the challenge by injecting humor, writing in an unusual style, or adding some other twist. A while back I wrote a popular article on the Meaning of Life, which was a personal account of what I consider to be the most difficult period of my life (getting arrested for grand theft and being expelled from school). Writing the article didn’t require much creativity because recalling those experiences was a straightforward, linear task. To introduce more creativity into the piece, I decided to use Depeche Mode song and album titles for all the subheadings. The challenge was to make them fit the text without seeming too odd. This extra constraint made composing that 6400-word article a lot more fun. Whenever you read an article of mine where the style seems a bit unusual, it’s a safe bet I’m boosting the challenge to be more creative.

You might assume a very easy task is a good thing, but being in the sweet spot of challenge is better. Tackling something that’s too easy is like strength training with weights that are too light. It’s mind-numbingly boring and won’t produce results. Being properly challenged is more fun, helps you grow, and yields a meaningful sense of accomplishment.

4. Provide a conducive environment

You’ll find that certain environmental conditions make it easy for you to enter the flow state, while other conditions make it nearly impossible. The optimal environment varies from person to person, so you’ll need to experiment to find what works best for you.

Some people seem to work best in stimulating, active environments. Author Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink) claims to have written at least one of his books entirely in public places like coffee shops.

I work best in a private, quiet environment. I do virtually all my creative work alone in my home office with the door closed. I’ve previously written an article on Creating a Productive Workspace, so I won’t reproduce that advice here. But the basic idea is that different workspace layouts can have a noticeable effect on your creative output. I’ve found certain feng shui principles helpful, such as positioning my desk to be in the “commanding position” with my back to the wall and where I can see the door.

When I’m doing challenging creative work, I usually don’t listen to background music at all, although sometimes I’ll play non-vocal new age or classical music. However, I’ll listen to trance music (with or without vocals) when plowing through routine tasks. I suggest experimenting with different types of music to see what effect it has on your ability to reach and maintain the flow state.

5. Allocate a committed block of time

Imagine your mind is like a computer. The more you can take advantage of the computer’s resources, the more creativity you harness. To free up the most resources for your creative task, you first need to unload all nonessential processes. This means closing programs like Ego 1.0, Physical Sensations 1.3, and Distracting Thoughts 2.0. If you want to maximize your creativity, you need to hog as much of the CPU as you can get.

It normally takes me about 15 minutes to begin to enter the flow state, and I’m solidly entranced after about 45-60 minutes. By the end of the first hour, I’m just getting into the task. My real creative output happens in hours 2, 3, 4, and beyond.

It isn’t until after the first hour that the creative task is fully loaded into my mental RAM, and my CPU is finally dedicating its full capacity to the task at hand. This is the state of deep concentration. In this state distracting thoughts that would otherwise knock me out of state no longer arise. I’m completely locked on, and I’ll keep plowing through my creative work until stopped by a force like fatigue or hunger.

When I begin an article, I don’t know how many words it will be or how long it will take to finish. Sometimes I’m done after 90 minutes; other times I’m still going after 5 hours. When I’ve written articles to target lengths (like 1000 words) or to target times (like 2 hours), I usually churn out the kind of vapid drivel you’ll find in fluffy print magazines. With a tight deadline I can still finish something, but it won’t be anywhere near what I create with an open-ended schedule.

I recommend a minimum continuous block of 3 hours for a serious creative task, preferably closer to 6 hours. That may sound like a lot, but once you’re cranking away in that glorious flow state, you’ll barely even notice the passage of time. It’s better to allocate too much time than too little. It’s a real downer to finally hit the flow state and have to stop after 30 minutes because you must attend to another commitment. Feel free to schedule your routine tasks into 30-60 minute blocks, but give yourself as much time as possible for highly creative work.

6. Prevent interruptions and distractions

If you can’t keep yourself from being disturbed by urgent phone calls, emails, or drop-in visitors, you won’t consistently achieve and maintain the flow state. You must do whatever it takes to prevent unnecessary interruptions during your creative periods. Make arrangements to ensure you won’t be disturbed except in an absolute emergency.

Once I’m in the flow state, I can handle a minor interruption like a bathroom break or grabbing a snack without falling out of state. My mind will still be churning on the original task, and I can easily pick up where I left off. But if I do something that requires a context change such as making a phone call or checking my email, I’ll begin losing my flow state.

When I begin a creative task, I tell Erin I’m “going to my cave,” so she knows not to interrupt me. I clear my desk of unnecessary items, ignore the phone, disable my instant messenger, and close all programs except those required for the task at hand. I do what I can to prevent interruptions, but even when they occur I usually just ignore them.

If you work for someone who expects you to produce creative work but makes it impossible for you to tune out interruptions, fire your boss. If you can’t maximize your creative output, you’ve lost your greatest leverage for producing value. That will cripple your earnings potential, since your income is a function of your ability to produce value.

Respect the value of your creative periods, and don’t permit yourself to be interrupted.

7. Master your tools

Creating a tangible piece of creative work requires tools such as a computer, guitar, or pencil. Even though it may take years, you must achieve basic competency with the tools of your trade before you can consistently enter the flow state.

Put in the time to take those piano lessons, attend those programming classes, or devour those Photoshop tutorials. Of course there are degrees of mastery, but the more you develop subconscious competence with your tools, the easier it is to enter and maintain the flow state. When you’re in the flow state, you won’t be worrying about where your fingers need to be, what buttons you need to click, or what words you need to type. Your subconscious will handle those details for you while you remain focused on the high level composition.

The reason I can maintain the flow state when writing articles is that I’ve taken the time to develop my writing skills and to master the software I use to turn my ideas into published works. I don’t pretend to be a literary genius, but I’m competent at turning my thoughts into words, sentences, and paragraphs without much difficulty. On my first high school essay, I did the best I could and received a C+. I didn’t understand the basic concepts of composition like unity and coherence. But I had a fantastic English teacher in my freshman and sophomore years. He was challenging and even a bit sadistic, but I put in the effort to learn grammar and composition and earn an A in his classes. By the time I graduated high school, I could write articles, essays, and reports with relative ease.

On the other hand, when I’m not competent enough with my tools, I can’t enter the flow state. Despite using Adobe Photoshop for many years, I never invested the time to master its complex interface because I only used it intermittently. Consequently, I seldom achieve the flow state when using Photoshop because I spend too much time consciously thinking about the low-level action steps. This stunts my creativity because I remain stuck in my left brain instead of shifting into my right brain.

After your creative flow state churns out your first draft, you’re always free to go back and edit it later. Get the creative, right-brain part done first. Then go back and do a logical, left-brain pass to make refinements and correct any problems. For my articles that includes spell checking, tightening up the wording, making cuts, etc.

Entering and maintaining the highly creative flow state is a skill, not a blessing, an accident, or a fluke. By habitualizing the rules above and adapting them to your situation, you can experience the flow state as a regular, perhaps even daily, occurrence. And once you learn to harness the power of flow, your creative output will soar.