Expand your creative space with mindfulness

zen rocks

Get into a comfortable position—take a deep breath, uncross your legs and plant your feet flat on the ground. Bring your attention to the task at hand. Calm your inner critic, and let go of your fear of failure. This experience is about expanding your creative reservoir.

Consider your creative process as a body of water. Visualize this body of water as a river flowing down a hill, and your task is to change the direction of the river’s flow. Completing this task is possible, but will certainly be difficult. Now imagine a different task, one where the body of water is instead a lake, and your task is to expand its shores. As you tend to the shore, the flow of the water hardly disturbs you. The work never gets harder, and the reservoir grows deeper and wider.

Your task is now an easy one. Consider the present moment. Acknowledge then set aside judgement. Recognize when your mind begins to wander, and gently bring it back to your task. Let your reservoir grow wider, deeper. Let the changing shape of the reservoir change the character of the water within it. Make more space. Add to the reservoir. Let it flow.

The above is an example exercise adapted from a tumblr post written in 2017 by Keenan Cummings, product designer at AirBnb. When I first read it, my eyes were opened to the opportunities in taking a deeper look at my own creative process.

In our professional lives, there is no guidebook that shows us how to define or maintain a healthy, sustainable creative practice. It’s left up to the individual, who may inevitably face more than one sleepless night due to the pressure of their creative work. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Object-focused mindfulness

There are many ways to implement object-focused meditation and mindfulness practices that enable you to become a better, healthier designer. First, it’s important to define mindfulness and object-focused meditation. Leading educators at mindfulness.org offer the following: “mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

Mindfulness has a unique, positive impact on each step of the creative process. According to the Google-backed mindfulness group Search Inside Yourself, focused attention involves, “selecting one focal point, then training your mind to come back to repeatedly come back to that focal point.” A basic focused attention meditation will typically call focus to your own breathing. However, we can direct this focus onto whatever we choose, which is what makes focused attention an essential tool to the everyday creative.

Why “making space” works

This brings me back to the example meditation written by Keenan Cummings. In the first scenario, the task at hand is to redirect the flow of a river as it is pulled by gravity. The river represents a singular path carved by one’s creative process, and illustrates the difficulty of making change with one specific goal in mind.

If you direct your creative process towards one single solution, you’re passing up opportunities to explore better options while making more work for yourself. The reservoir scenario is far more likely to lead to creative success. It represents an adaptive approach that emphasizes lateral thinking and a “making space” approach. Instead of moving through the creative process with a single goal in mind, it is easier to adapt and consider all possibilities.

Not only does this mindset make the work easier—it encourages a holistic approach solving any problem. Social psychologist Graham Wallas described a model of creativity in 1927 which is excellently described by Sr. UX Designer Jesus Ruvalcaba here. This model puts forward four phases that we typically move through as we accomplish a creative task: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.

If we consider the four stages of the creative process, our ‘reservoir’ represents the preparation phase. This is where we can learn the value of design research by identifying gaps and biases. It stands to reason that the more research and preparation we do, the greater your potential outcome will be in the next phase.

In the second phase called incubation, mindfulness becomes especially useful. Have you ever been advised to step back from the computer and take a walk? That's the incubation phase. Intentionally shifting focus away from your task grants you the opportunity to relax from any creative strain and bring a new perspective to the task later on.

At some point in your incubation phase, inspiration strikes! The stars align, and the solution becomes clear. You suddenly have the catalyst which pulls you from incubation and lands you in the verification phase. Ruvalcaba describes the verification phase as a double-edged sword: “this is where you challenge the idea that came to you in the illumination stage.”

If you move through the creative process within the river-lake metaphor, then it becomes that much easier to present and defend your results. Instead of following a creative rut that landed you with a thin solution, you could have an entire reservoir of research and exploration to back up your great idea. The river-lake metaphor is a tool that will guide you through the creative process mindfully, with benefits that apply in each step of the creative process.

Putting it into practice

So the next time you find yourself stuck, remember to be kind to yourself. Reimagine your creativity as a lake—not a river. In other words, stop grasping for a singular solution and expand the reservoir. Consider when it might be time to take a dip in the incubation phase, or when you might need a little more preparation.

If you feel stuck creatively and short on time, focus away from the task at hand. Let that particular problem simmer on the back burner while you’re cooking up something else. Then, when you return to that problem with a fresh perspective, new solutions will come to the surface. Do you get nervous when you present your work? Be confident knowing that your reservoir of research and creative exploration helped to create the best outcome.

Ultimately, be mindful of the fact that your creativity is a valuable and limited resource. Just like everything else, it needs time to refill and flow.