This is my fourth week working on my new venture, and I feel my most important achievement was overcoming the resistance that arose when I tried to tackle my immediate goals.
What were my immediate goals? One goal was to define a one-line 'mantra' and a one-paragraph 'mission' for my product. This required defining what the product was about, its target audience, their problems, and how those problems were addressed by my product. Another goal was to design and mock up the first version of the User Interface (UI) so that there was something concrete to work with. These chapters from 37Signals' Getting Real book inspired me to choose these goals.
However, when push came to shove, I got a bit paralyzed. Starting with a blank canvas and making the first strokes was really difficult. There were so many possibilities and so many choices to make. It was really easy to bounce from one half-baked thought to another, and never follow through to produce something concrete. I was in this situation, and I found a way through it to actually hit all my goals for this week.
This blog post is about my experiences of breaking through the blocks and entering a creative flow.
My first shot at my product's mantra, mission statement, and design happened in a moment of inspiration after a few conversations with friends. After this moment of inspiration, I had some words on paper describing the purpose of the product and who it was meant for. I also had rough design sketches of a couple of screens. None of this was very coherent, and it did not have much detail either. But it did represent a start.
This post is not about that moment of inspiration. It is about the days that followed, when I tried to transform what I had on paper into a coherent and concrete whole which could be talked about and evaluated objectively.
This process was exceptionally difficult because what I started with suggested so many possibilities. Further all the choices were tightly meshed, which meant that the entire idea was like a house of cards in my head. In the following two sections, I would like to talk about what exactly I did to focus on the task at hand and make progress toward my goals. I would also like to present a little reflection on this process.
The challenges of entering flow, and how I dealt with them
Here is what I did. I sat on my couch with my notes, sketches, and a pencil. I muted my phone and my computer. There was plenty of sunlight, pin-drop silence permeated the surroundings, and the temperature was perfect. I was well rested, my stomach was fed, and I had just showered.
I sat and stared at my notes and sketches. I re-read them. No response, and no new ideas emerged. Instead, random thoughts flitted across my mind. Some of these thoughts were fantasies about how this whole enterprise would turn out. These fantasies almost all revolved around me being able to make a good living off the project, being my own boss, and yet not having to deal with the stresses of operating on a 'global-industrial' level. Other thoughts focused on the luxury of being able to set my own agenda. Yet others were about how I could boost by present productivity. Yet others fretted that nearly four weeks had passed and I didn't yet have a design. And some thoughts revolved around memories from my previous job.
I resolved to continue to sit there and watch these thoughts percolate up and out of my mind. I knew that this 'mind-static' fed on itself. Maintaining awareness and keeping my mind open from both ends would cause this static to dissipate. The age old meditation technique needed to be used: let thoughts in, let them out, and don't allow thought dervishes to grow into storms!
So I sat there, staring at my notes, watching my thoughts. I had a slight smile, it was kind of entertaining. I had complete faith that if I just sat there with my notebook in front of me and the product ideas and goals under my nose, my focus would manifest itself and take hold. So I waited. Patiently and warmly regarding my own mind and my own thoughts.
And then the paragraph on the needs of my target audience caught my eye. Some words did not feel right and I erased them. I replaced others. I annotated the paragraph with new thoughts. Then my eyes flicked to what we could offer that would be valuable to this audience. Suddenly this paragraph also was transformed with a few flicks of the pencil.
Then new characteristics of the design came to mind. For example, I realized that concepts like openness, fluidity, flow, connectedness needed to permeate the design. My previous attempts seemed so square in light of these new characteristics! The floodgates had opened and my creative juices were flowing. I was again only watching and letting the process take its course!
After three days of this kind of effort, I had worked my way to a rudimentary user interface which could render in my web browser. I was able to make the decisions necessary for making it to this stage by constantly focusing on what I needed to do, by working with what had already been done, and by waiting patiently for my mind to enter a state of flow. I am convinced that I would simply not have been able to work so effectively and with so much confidence had I not allowed my creative juices to flow naturally.
The nature of Flow
During the week, I also began to reflect on my new approach of being patient with myself in order to enter a state of creative flow. In the past, I would have gotten flustered that I could not focus. I would have shifted my attention to other, easier things. I would have popped up to check email. I would have had a fix of some food maybe. I might have logged in to facebook. I might have picked up the newspaper. I might have picked up a book. Etc.
But not this week!
I am beginning to learn that creativity is something that you have to nurture by providing the right conditions. You have to open your mind, get rid of all the toxins, nourish yourself with the right ideas, and then let life run its course. The toxins can be anything, but most often they manifest as fear of 'failure', doubt about the chosen goals, fixating on 'success', and impatience and anxiety due to a lack of tangible results (like money, a product people can see, etc).
These toxins are the gremlins of the mind. It is easy to lose to them. You lose when you get swayed from your vision and divert your attention to less meaningful things. And winning against them is hard! You cannot win against them my stomping them out. Command and control does not work here! You can only win by letting them run their course in your head, hanging back patiently while they are on the march, and then being present when the gremlins have spent themselves and have gone away.
The antidote to these gremlins is not only patience, but also keeping a constant affirmation of your vision --and your plan to realize it!-- near the surface of your mind. With patience, affirmation, awareness, and openness of mind, creativity happens of its own. 'You' are by-and-large a conduit for that creativity. When the mind-distractions are allowed to seep out and away, the next thing you must do will appear almost by magic. You just have to trust yourself and have faith in the process.
Maybe the Beatles were really insightful when they said 'There will be an answer, let it be!' :) If you guys have comments on how you engage in the creative process, I would love to hear from you!
Thanks for reading!