how to identify your creative triggers & find your flow

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Last week, I wrote about Busyness: how it’s a construct of our 21st century lives to always be running here and there, sometimes with little purpose, almost always with few results.

Today, let’s get real about crafting a schedule that allows your creativity to shine and your goals to turn to action.

You can’t schedule creativity.

Have you ever tried? Have you resolved to work on your latest project at a certain time of day, everyday? Have you carved out a day & time to unplug from your responsibilities and plug into your creative mind?

It’s rough, isn’t it?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried this. I can’t get it to work. And I’ve heard similar things from others.

So I’m willing to say that you can’t fit exercising your creative muscles into a schedule.

But you can schedule other activities that help you get comfortable with your creative mind.

Identifying your creative triggers

Two weeks ago, I joined the gym.

Others wearing spandex & free t-shirts were there doing the same thing. Ready to make a change in the New Year. Eat less, exercise more, take care of themselves. Good-for-you!

I joined for a different reason.

I joined the gym because exercise is one of my creative triggers.

I can’t do my best work all the time and, when my focus wanes, my mind wanders. I waste time. I fill the time with busyness. Whether you love your job or not, I trust you know a similar feeling. You can only be productive so long.

Instead of trying to focus, I’m going to allow focus to come to me. I’m carving time out of a day that already feels full to go to the gym. Running, practicing yoga, and lifting weights allows me to find a focal point: the next step, the next pose, the next rep.

When I’m exercising, I’m focused. Feedback comes immediately (in the form of sweat & muscle exertion). I can feel a sense of tiredness coming and I can simply choose to ignore it. I wrestle each activity to the mat.

Exercise is an autotelic experience.

An autotelic experience, as described by Daniel Pink, is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of an “activity [that] is its own reward.” The experience of the activity fulfills your desire. You’re not waiting for someone to say “good job” or expecting a pay out when you’re finished. The sweat & strain lets you know that you’ve accomplished your goal.

Autotelic experiences are creative triggers. They may not be creative in & of themselves, but they replicate the feeling you get from creating at your best.

Creating at your best is flow.

You know that feeling when you’re creating something you love? When it’s original and fresh and each step sucks you into the next? When time can fly by without so much as a twinge of doubt?

Finding your flow

In flow, goals are clear. You have to reach the top of the mountain, hit the ball across the net, or mold the clay just right. Feedback is immediate. The mountaintop gets closer or father, the ball sails in or out of bounds, the pot you’re throwing comes out smooth or uneven.
— Daniel Pink, Drive

I doubt there is one creative person alive who wishes to experience less flow. It’s a bit like a drug – you could always have a little more.

The thing is, you can plan for autotelic experience. You can nudge it into your busy calendar. You can schedule a break from 3pm – 4pm and go to the gym. You can decide that you’ll cook dinner at 5pm. You can get up 30 minutes earlier and journal. You make time & do the activity.

With creative flow, it’s not so easy. Flow will hit you when you least expect it. Ask my husband who wonders where I’ve gone for an hour & a half when all I needed to do was “check my email.” A simple task triggers an hour of cascading creative flow.

There may be times when you feel more or less productive but that intoxicating, mind-altering state of flow doesn’t fit into day planners. Creative flow happens in the spaces. Between scheduled activities, between responsibilities, between necessary tasks.

You can’t force flow. You can’t schedule it or plug it into your calendar.

To achieve flow, you need to prepare yourself for space.

That’s why I joined the gym.

You might spend an hour baking cookies. Or writing stream of consciousness in your journal. Or taking a walk through your neighborhood. Or climbing a tree. Or stringing beads. Schedule those types of activities and see if your “spaces” don’t spark & fizzle & shine with fresh ideas and productive action.

Get in the routine of these activities and you’ll find your flow more often. It will last longer. You’ll get more done.

What’s your creative trigger?

42 thoughts on “how to identify your creative triggers & find your flow

  1. Hmm… I do know that I’m the most creative in the early morning. My mind is fresh and my brain has had time to process a lot of things as I sleep. I agree that creativity is stuffed in between responsibilities. But I do try to practice creative thinking even while doing more mundane things.

  2. I can make myself do my creative work most times, but the place of true creativity, FLOW, is definitely not something I can plan. However you make an excellent point about what triggers it. For me physical activity is also a big catalyst. It can be just walking, or yoga, or weight training. However what has become my favorite creative kick is driving back roads and scanning the landscape for images that make my heart skip a beat. This is not only a very ungreen habit, but one I can no longer use as my default. We have decided to go one year sharing a car which forces me to look at the things I can do with my body. I have not joined a gym (yet) but I am bringing back daily walk-runs and yoga. I needed to do this anyhow. I think I will find that the slower paced movement is actually more of an inspiration.

  3. I love this…I resonante with your reason for joining the gym. I did too to get my mind clear and to help me feel great about where I’m going with my business since as a mom & wife with a full time job in addition to a small business, it’s easy for thoughts to get tangled in my brain! Perhaps it is the autotelic experience, but I find that after a good workout, I remember more clearly what gets lost in cluttered busyness. I remember my goals, I remember why I do what I do, and I feel strong and powerful enough to push through self-doubt and energetic enough to manage it all.

  4. Good post. Goal is getting up earlier and alternating days b/w exercise and me time to be creative. 2 days in. Stay tuned.

  5. I started running last year, and that really helps me clear my head. Also, strangely, getting my creative space in order (folding fabric, putting everything in it’s right place) seems to help me free my physical space of clutter while also freeing my mind of clutter.

    I am most creative late at night when everyone else is asleep.

  6. What an excellent blog ! So well written and thought provocing ! It was very timely for me as well, because I am at a change stage in my relatively new creative life.
    I now know that I need all my creative base materials around me – that includes my sewing machine and embellisher, radio, not the computer ….
    It is also really good to read other people’s comments, they helped me to further think about my own creative triggers.
    My exercise is taken for granted by my dog…. it is in the pleasure and nature trigger zone I need. I CAN NOT work creatively when I’m troubled and unhappy.
    Karen, I do so agree with you and work very similarly….First housework, errands, etc., etc. – things that would creep into my mind guiltily, then look, feel, fold, try …. and usually ideas come happily flooding in…
    THANK YOU ! x

  7. I used to go for an early morning walk and I’d get the best ideas for my business then. I need to get back into that!

    Also, once in a while I’ll wake up in the middle of the night for some reason (usually one of my kids has called me) and a fresh business idea will pop into my head. I usually can’t sleep after that happens, so I get up and go with the flow, or at least jot down my idea to revisit in the morning!

    Like Karen said, I need a clutter-free environment to get my mind clear so I can be open to new ideas.

  8. oh lordy it happens at the most inconvient of times for me – bed time!! But I do enjoy stream of cosciousness writing, blogging and walking. I need to get back in yoga I did it for 14 yrs and then moved into a tiny attic room and there wasn’t any room – i was put off. Now the massive amount of phelgm and aches in my body from the flu is holding me back – but I swear – once I get rid of this I’ll be super creative!!!
    Other people and nature and a quiet mind = creative Carrie xx

  9. Exercise is such a fantastic way to clear the mind of clutter and allow new ideas to creep in.

    I have two dogs, who are high energy and require a lot of walking. Some would see this as a pain, but I see it as my thinking time (multi-tasking!).

    When I have been sitting at the computer or my work table all morning and am starting to feel uncreative or sick of what I am doing, I take one of my dogs on a walk. Even if it is just a quick 10 minutes around the neighborhood, my mind clears up.

    Anytime I try to think while on my walks, I get nothing good. The best times are when I just daydream and let my mind wander. It is at these times that the best ideas pop into my head.

    I find that I always think of something when I am actually thinking of nothing.

  10. I’m finding more creative flow by relaxing into being a full time mama to a two year old. The more I remember…and go with his flow, the happier we both are. This means completing projects in increments most of the day, of course, but because I’m not constantly in an irritated state, I have more energy (and creativity) in the evenings or early mornings.

    I also need to be outside, run, and changes in scenery.

  11. You are so right! Its nearly impossible to schedule creative time. For me it definitely comes when you least expect it, like love, when you are not looking for it. I think thats the brilliant thing about “the flow” or “creativity”, there is just something about it that cant be forced or staged!
    And now that I am thinking about what my trigger is, it seems to be school, I think thats why I choose to go back and get my MFA at the age of 30 this year. There is nothing more inspiring to me than the push that comes from the faulty and students:)
    But the gym is a good one too!

  12. I thought I was not creative. Then I remembered I used to draw, a lot, and that I’ve had always journaled since I was 13 years. Last year I was asked to contribute a monthly column to an online yoga magazine, that’s when I realized my writing might be worth something.

    Now I open the gates whenever I feel like it, which has me staying awake until 2 in the morning. When you have a full time job and you need to get up at 7, well… it doesn’t matter because you’re on a high from all that writing you did the day, er, night before 😀
    I don’t know what triggers it exactly, not yet.

    I am a yoga practitioner and yoga teacher trainee, I use running to break a sweat and truth be told, as moving meditation to clear my mind. Maybe the clutter disappears then, everything is organized, leaving more space for creative juices to flow more freely. Mmmmh, I’ll have to pay attention…

    Thanks for this post!

  13. For some reason, i dream about new things so my new ideas come to me while sleeping as well as any solution that it was bugging me during the day.

    The other time is when I daydream particularly if i go for a walk just after I woke up.

    Naps work wonder for me, it is like resetting the day.


  14. Exercise is one of my creative triggers as well – I always schedule some time after a workout to write because I know the inspiration will flow like a waterfall. I’ve also found sappy uplifting shows do the trick as well. Like Extreme Makeover Home Edition, CNN Heroes, Biggest Loser.

  15. Daydreaming is something that I really enjoy, and find a very creative experience… but… if I’m stuck or have a problem to solve, the more I think about it, the further I seem to get from a solution.

    When I walk on the treadmill or do housework – two very beneficial activities, but activities that I don’t particularly enjoy – I find creative ideas and solutions start to flow.

    The exercise ultimately makes me feel good, which in turn seems to stimulate creative flow, and the housework, I’ve decided, is such a mindless occupation that it seems to free up some higher thought process.

    So… I am going to do more exercise and housework… because apparently a heathy body and an organized home also directly feeds my creative ambitions!

  16. My trigger would just be to do something else – from walking to swimming
    to doing the dishes. Any rather automatic activity .
    But to take photographs , if I’m not working on photos for a client I just pack my camera bag and set off.
    Very interesting post and all the other responses.

  17. Walking, dancing and yoga are all exercise forms that bring me into creative flow. Sometimes just having quite time to sit and observe nature can do it. I also find that creativity begets creativity, so by sitting down to do something, anything creative it will usually lead to more creative ideas. Flow becomes a practiced method (sometimes).

  18. While these haven’t always been creative triggers for me (I’m kind of blocked right now), there are some things during which I experience flow: cooking, and to some extent (I’m working on it), meditation, the latter being something that is not always autotelic for me (because of my busy brain). Freewriting in my journal (a.k.a. morning pages from the Artist’s Way). Playing instruments (guitar, clarinet, piano). Doodling.

    Thanks for this – through reading I realized that exercise is something I haven’t explored yet. I do like hiking…might try that out.

  19. Yup, it’s the exercise…for me, it’s specifically going on walks in nature. The rhythm of walking and all the sensory input lulls me into a kind of trance. When I get home, I have to carry around my idea journal for the next hour and a half while I download all the stuff that came to me on my walk.

    Having a conversation with an interesting person can also be a trigger…or reading something stimulating. Those are harder to schedule, though.

    This is a great concept!

  20. Reading this post made me realize that going to the gym is a trigger for me too, and not just from a creative perspective, but overall productivity. On Monday I went to the gym after working 8 hours at my day job. I should have been tired, but when I got home I worked on stuff for my own business for another 4 or 5 hours – reorganizing inventory (both raw materials and finished products), tweaking my spreadsheets for my financial records, and designing some new jewelry. Apart from the latter, all things I’d been putting off for the past week.

    Originally I was making a renewed effort to go to the gym because I knew I was getting out of shape, but this adds a whole new level of motivation for me!

  21. decluttering,mundane and completely uninspiring as it sounds,is a fantastic jump-start creative trigger.Good energy can’t flow when it’s clogged up with broken crockery,mismatched socks,old newspapers and tubs without lids. rather than equating creative flow with a zen-like state of perfection, start by focusing on erasing the imperfections.the creative flow is usually just under that wrinkled pile of clothes for the charity shop 😉

  22. I do have to be creative at my job – floral designer + manager of a 3500 sq.ft. floral shop with gifts, – atleast 7+ hours/day. I got the owner to agree to shorter days in Jan. – 10am to 5pm, so that in the morning at home I can clean house, then go to work, & in the evening I can be creative for me. Good idea – haven’t had a chance to try it out yet!

    Maybe tomorrow. Lately mornings have been spent sleeping in & evenings cleaning house, reading -ie. the artist’s way ( skimming thru all 3 volumes) – nothing creative for me as of yet. Maybe tonight………..

    Mentally I am very creative for me ( even writing stuff down to do later ).

  23. When I am relaxing or looking through a magazine. I may see an
    ad or something and right away my juices start to following. Most
    of the time I jump right up and start working. Another good article.


  24. My creative trigger is journaling. It helps me get all my random thoughts onto paper and then I can think more clearly after that, and really can focus on my priorities for that day. It also helps me realize what my mind is most preoccupied with but if I can’t deal with those things right then, I have at least addressed them and can later return to them after I’ve completed my daily tasks.

  25. nature is my creative trigger, i woke this morning to the first blackbird song of the year and wrote a haiku straight away. I go for a good length walk in the woods every week and at least one other walk in nature most weeks and these are a great source of inspiration (of course these walks combine nature with exercise!)

  26. For me~ yoga, travel, silence in a clean house, a trip to Anthropologie, pretty yarn, fabric, ribbon…a nice dinner, time, peace, a walk, relaxing.

    Great post & good reminder to make space for creativity! ~Chris Ann

  27. While my creativity is triggered by many factors – what’s around me to what’s going on in my life . I am mostly jumpstarted by colors … It’s such a coincidence you wrote this post , because I posted about my creative trigger on my blog – , if you are interested in reading it .

  28. My most frequent and productive trigger is usually nature – today the birds in the snow – one made a full-size quilt from the pattern I ‘saw’ in a 2″ square of tree bark.

    You are giving me all kinds of new ideas!

  29. Pingback: Ah Ha! (almost…)
  30. I deeply agree: excercise is a great source for flow, or mountain climbing :-)
    I found that if I run at least once a week, it clears my mind, and my creative life is better :-)

  31. this has given me a lot to think about. I’m not sure when I get my creative flow, I feel that mostly, the other stuff is stopping the flow. I don’t feel like i have to look for it. but that I have to do the other stuff first. But maybe i should just let the dishes and laundry stack up and let the creativity flow! :)

  32. My autotelic experience (thank you so much for introducing me to this word!) is from listening to radio programs like This American Life or Radio Lab NYC. I find thoughtful programs like these (and music with good lyrics) inspire me and introduce me to new and exciting concepts about our world. It also helps me feel interconnected with other human experiences since a lot of these stories are autobiographical in nature.

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