I woke up this morning at 6 am feeling a familiar combination of excitement and anxiety: I had a full day of Skype calls with clients and a creative project persistently tugging at my ankles. It is the one. I want to give it every ounce of my attention. I wake up in the middle of the night to type notes with eyes half closed into my phone for it. I dream about it and stress about it and it is consuming me.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Like every idea, this one came as a passing thought, amongst many other thoughts on a regular thought-filled day. There was nothing special about it. It didn’t stand out in any particular way.
After years of creativity, I now have a candid system, that allows me to capture the ones that are meant for me. This is how I hone in and focus on a specific project even when I have alllll the ideas.
Just like the seasons and the moon and everything else in nature, I go through a sequence of cycles in my creative process. There are four parts: idea, incubation, evolution and formation. Within those four parts are woven four other strategies: testing, space, structure and offer.
Ideas are like stars. There are billions of them but not all of them are going to light up the sky in your corner of the universe. Whenever I have an idea that I feel particularly inspired or excited by, I add it to a fluid ever-changing list of ideas. I often get ideas while I am working on something else, and sometimes there is an irresistible urge to jump ship and move onto this new idea now. If it’s something smaller, that I can do in a day, I allow myself to be swept away by the creative current. If it’s something bigger, I add it to my list and trust that, if it is the next one, it will incubate and start to reveal more of itself in the future. Some ideas are particularly persistent and alluring, while others fade away and end up being crossed off the list.
Once an idea had caught my attention particularly, I test it out. I start with self-enquiry:
Does this idea stand the test of time?
Do I have the resources to execute it?
Will I still be excited by it in a week, month or year?
Can I commit myself to it for however long it takes to complete?
Is the commitment worth my time and energy?
If there is even an inkling of apathy, I let it be for now. If there is a full-body yespleasetakemenow, I move onto the next phase: testing. I check in with my tribe, the people that I create for, and see if they’re as into the idea as I am. I love that I can rely on them to always tell me how it is. If it’s “no” I drop it and move on. There are always more great ideas.
Upon receiving a green light from my folks, the idea generally moves into the incubation stage. This is where timelines start to differ. Some ideas have been quietly incubating before I even took notice of them, so the incubation phase is shorter. The creative project that I am working on right now, has been incubating for about 18 months, but in reality, it is the culmination of my 36 years of existence.
Incubation requires a lot of space in order for the idea to take form. Because it is my idea, it is something that I am already wildly fascinated by and involved with in my life in one way or another, and so it is being fed by my natural curiosity and interest to explore and learn more. Ideas come through me, they are not mine, but rather an expression of all of us, that takes pieces of me and integrates them into it as it grows. I give it space and quietly ruminate, allowing myself time to come to a place where I can feel the fullness of it start to burst forth.
N.B.: Incubation and Space are non-active parts of the creative process. What that means is they require nothing from me, but the allowing of them to be present in the back of my mind, while I do and focus on other things. I might be working on a different creative idea or project while a new one is taking form and incubating. I might be in-between ideas. I might be brimming with allll the other ideas, and giving some of them my attention, while I file others away to refer back to in the future, using the system outlined previously. My focus is not entirely on the idea. Instead, I allow it to guide me, around when it is time to give it my undivided attention. I know when that is, because, like right now, there is nothing I would rather do or think about.
This is when things get exciting because I get to initiate the making of the idea into a real, tangible, accessible thing. Generally, all that the evolution process involves is some blank paper or my journal and some coloured pens. I give myself the freedom to play, to be curious, to brainstorm and write down all the concepts and ways that I could engineer this idea. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, as a result of much incubation, sometimes the process happens in moments between other things over several weeks.
At this point, I usually have a number of options around roll-out and will go back and test those with my tribe once more. Sometimes what I think is best, is not what they want, and they always provide me with fresh insight on how to make the things I make, better.
Something else that often happens at this point, is a new wave of bright and brilliant ideas, vying for my attention. I give them the same treatment as I do all ideas: follow through if they are resolute and easily completed, or add them to my list for further review. I firmly believe that if the idea is that good, it can wait for me or move on to someone else who can provide it with the nurturing it requires in that moment.
Along with this evolution of the idea into a more cohesive form, a tangle of many elements, thoughts, concept and visions, comes the need to wrap the idea in structure, to give it lasting power.
Much like we swaddle a newborn, we want to tightly envelop our idea-babies in a safe web of timelines and plans, so that it can grow into the thing we want. I used to believe that structure was creative kryptonite. I quickly learned after many incompleted and failed attempts to follow through on creative ideas, that without something to hold and move it all together in union the evolution of my ideas are at risk of getting lost and falling apart.
It is here, where I take everything and break it down into a comprehensive, chronological flow that can be easily utilized. I write the overlying concept to guide me and pull out the leading topics. I create a breakdown of all the various steps that need to be done to completion and map out a timeline within which I want to create my vision. And finally, I place each step into my calendar over the defined time-period.
I often feel like formation is the most paradoxical phase because it is both the most fun (yay: creativity) and the one that brings up the most resistance because now you’ve actually got to do this thing and give form to something that was previously only a notion. The birthing of a creative idea is not without pain or challenge.
The one I am working on right now has been full of stops and starts, and yet every day it finds a way to lure me back in and engage me. I am being stretched and asked to dig deeper than I ever have before which takes more time than my overly-optimistic taskmaster mind likes. I know this about myself and plan in less than I think I can do when I am creating the structure and timeline. I also make a note of celebrating my accomplishments as I go along, every day, even if it’s as small as completing a particularly difficult paragraph.
This is all about sharing the creative idea with the world and offering it. Another word I could use here is marketing. My marketing process begins as soon as I’ve engaged in the evolution stage. I start by sharing my creative process on social media. I write little hints about it on my blog, like this article you are reading right now. I keep the lines of communication open with my tribe and keep coming back to them, asking how they feel about specific approaches I have in mind around the creative project I am working on. The closer I come to completion, the more I share.
At this point, I am still fairly early on in the active formation stage, and so I’m still holding much of this project close to my heart. It’s important to keep some secrets, secret. But slowly, slowly I am revealing more and more. What I do know and can share is that that I am going to have a month-long pre-sale period where folks can buy this project at a significantly reduced price, before the official release date in January 2018.
That’s my strategic process for honing in and focusing on a specific project, even when I have allll the ideas. I teach other heart-led creative and business practices, like this one, in another of my projects: The Heartful Biz.