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The Creative Cycle

The creative process is our inner magical resource. We can easily tap into it by demystifying its cycle and stages.

Illustration: Nada Hayek

Creativity has always had a halo of mystery around it. How does this magical thing happen? What creates that spark of inspiration? What ignites within us humans that allow us to come up with our most innovative creations?

It’s a topic that has been researched for decades, and for good reason. If we can decode this enigmatic process, we can easily tap into this infinite resource. In today's reality, when we are flooded with new information and inspirations every second of the day, being able to tune in to our own inner process could be useful more than ever.

The Four Stages Model

It was in 1926 that British psychologist Graham Wallas proposed one of the first complete modules of the creative process in his book ‘The Art of Thought’. In it, Wallas described how it consists of the four-stage process of preparation, incubation, illumination and verification.

Before we begin to explore each stage, it’s interesting to acknowledge that though this theory is nearly a 100 years old, it continues to be one of the most reliable thesis on the subject, and is considered fundamental in this field.

Let’s dive in to the model:

Stage 1 - Preparation

Also known as ‘saturation', the first step in the creative process is about—well, you guessed it— preparation. You saturate and immerse yourself in the project at hand, collecting information and acquiring knowledge about your project. This stage involves both internal and external processes: internal in the sense that you get into a lot of deep thinking in order to generate ideas; and external in that you are going out into the world to gather necessary data, materials and resources.

Stage 2 - Incubation

The incubation stage can be best described in terms of a stew, or a dish you cook. After you've put all your ingredients (ideas and information you gathered) together in a bowl (your brain and mind), you let them sit and marinate. It’s almost as if you’re not doing anything, just letting them work their magic together and interact with each other's qualities. All you need to do is not interrupt the process that goes on behind the scenes. It might feel like doing nothing, but in reality there’s a lot going on, as your brain works and new connections are formed, and the unconscious mind is engaged.

Stage 3 - Illumination

This stage is what we all imagine when we think of the spark of creativity. That ever-elusive moment when everything clicks together and a solution presents itself. After we allow the period of incubation, insights are now free to arise from the deeper layers of the mind and surface into our awareness. This often happens in a very dramatic way, that sudden ‘Eureka!’ that comes when you least expect it. Seemingly out of nowhere, but not really as we see.

Stage 4 - Verification

And now for the final stage, where we execute our vision and the creative solution that came to us. This is when we sit down and do the work - opening documents, sketching, painting, animating - whatever it is that the task requires of our craft. All the ideas and insights that arose in the illumination stage are fleshed out and developed into reality.

Doers and Dreamers

A creative process is about bringing ourselves forth, bridging our inner and outer worlds. You might have noticed the four-stage model can be roughly divided into a similar inner-outer play. One part, which consists of the preparation and verification stages, is about external doing and being out in the world; and the other - which consists of the incubation and illumination stages - has more to do with drawing in, dreaming, and the internal doings of our mind.

Harnessing the knowledge of the cycle

To some - those who more easily relate to the dreaming and imagining sides of a project - the incubation and illumination stages might seem more appealing, as they feel more at ease and at their best when getting lost in all the different paths an idea can lead to.

For others, the executors, the preparation and verification stages will feel more safe as this is their comfort zone. This is where they get to shine with their ‘doer’ qualities.

Not everyone, though, considers themselves ‘dreamers’ or ‘doers’ by definition. Many of us fall in between, or transition between those inclinations as we move along a project. This is why some people might look at this model and deem it a bit dogmatic in its understanding of creativity. After all, creativity is messy! It’s an unpredictable, organic process, so how can we artificially divide those parts of ourselves?

Actually, this is exactly where the power of the model lies, and how it can be utilized at its best - through its so-called limitations of structure. How? by choosing to look at it as a map, rather than territory, for our own creative process. It’s a way for us to shine a light to where we might need an extra bit of help to help us thrive, and avoid by-passing areas of discomfort.

If, for example, you find yourself excelling in the research and planning of your project, getting things done and being productive - take notice and make sure that you’re not putting too much time and effort in this stage, and neglecting the focus and time it takes to incubate. Don’t rush into the next ‘doing’ bit; allow yourself to digest so the ideas you come up with won’t end up half-baked. Level up your process by taking the necessary time to reflect and contemplate.

On the other hand, if you notice you’ve really gotten stuck in your head with imagining and dreaming - as much as you might find that pleasurable - make sure to set yourself some structure and commit to action, so that your project doesn’t lag behind and remain nothing but an idea.

In this way, whenever you feel a bit stuck or unsure in your creative process, just look back into these four stages, and try and identify where you are now; what you might have missed in one of the stages; and which stage could benefit from a little more time and energy. By bringing balance into the stages and the energy they represent, we can harness their power and allow the dreaming and the doing to coexist in harmony.


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