The 5 Stages of the Creative Process

People believe the creative process is sporadic, random, and the result of divine inspiration. But creativity is not a trait. It’s a habit. There’s only one difference between people who believe they’re creative and those who don’t.

People who are creative are in the habit of expressing their creativity.

When you understand the creative process, your ability to make ideas happen goes up exponentially.


There’s a process to everything in life from getting an education to learning new skills to meeting the love of your life. And there are stages to the process for each of these things.

  • To learn a new skill you study with someone, practice, and keep practicing until you master the skill
  • When you meet the love of your life, you have go on a date, develop a relationship and get married

The 5 stages of the creative process work in a similar way: you come up with ideas, go through a period of incubation, take action, polish the idea nd tell the world about it. Going through the stages of the creative process enables you to overcome the obstacles between vision and reality.

The Creative Process Stage 1: Ideation

The firs stage of the creative process is ideation. Nobody has a shortage of ideas. Saying you have a shortage of ideas is like saying you have a shortage of thoughts. You’ve probably had a few ideas in the last few minutes.

Generate Ideas

The creative process for everything begins with an idea. This is not the time to judge whether or not you have a good ideas.

My Moleskine notebooks and writing software are filled with half baked ideas, incoherent psychobabble, and dozens of false starts. Some of those have turned into blog posts, books, and other creative projects.

What seems like a terrible idea when you come up with it can become brilliant overnight. The only purpose of this phase is to have as many ideas as possible. As

Capture Ideas

Chances are you’ve had a brilliant idea that you can’t remember after a few hours or even a few minutes later. This is why you have to get in the habit of capturing your ideas. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to capitalize on them.

Always carry a notebook. Ideas come to us at inconvenient and unexpected times. Your notebook is fertile soil for creative ideas.

Your brain is a terrible place to store information. That’s why you should build a second one. Notion is effectively my second brain. It’s where I capture ideas, insights from books, and much more. I’ve included a video below.

The Creative Process Stage 2: Incubation

The second stage of the creative process is incubation. Incubation is a critical step in the creative process and will eventually become a key part of your system to maximize creative output. Incubation gives you time to reflect on ideas and generate new creative insights.

Ideas take time to bake and you usually won’t be ready to take action on an idea the minute you have one. Ryan Holiday wrote down his idea for his book The Obstacle is the Way on a notecard four years before he wrote the book. Today the book has sold ove a million copies. Sometimes the incubation stage of the creative process lasts for years.

Use the Macgyver Method

But you can actually take a more deliberate approach to the incubation stage by using something known as The MacGyver Method. It’s something Lee Zlotoff, the creator of the show developed when he was writing episodes for MacGyver.

  1. Write down a question.
  2. Do an Incubation Activity (something like puzzles, building things with your hands, etc.).
  3. Write down the answer.

This amazing creative secret never fails to produce a great result. I’ve used it to come up with ideas for what I want to write about and ideas for increasing the revenue of our business.

The Creative Process Stage 3: Action

Most days, when I wake up in the morning, I put pen to paper and write what my friend Sarah Peck describes as, “God awful essays that nobody (including myself) would want to read.”

This is often why people who want to transform creative ideas into results get stuck. They judge their work while they’re creating it. But as author and podcaster Amber Rae says, “You want to accumulate pages, not judgments”. When people join our writing class, I always tell them, “You’re writing in ink, not blood”. You can always go back and edit, modify and change things.

The illusion of permanence causes people to set arbitrary standards for their work that they think they can’t meet. As a result, they don’t do anything. Your work won’t be good when you start. But if you don’t start, then you won’t have any work to improve.

Part of the creative process is bridging what Ira Glass calls, The Taste Gap. The more action you take, the more you’ll be capable of creating what you imagine, your standards will rise, and you’ll have to bridge a new taste gap.

If you honor your commitments you’ll tap into the profound power of consistency, and you’ll begin to make progress with your idea.

Focus on the Process Instead of The Prize

Many creators get caught up in the highlight reels that role through their newsfeeds, the delusion of their name in shining lights, their accomplishments and accolades. But those things are all byproducts of the process.

  • For an author, the process is getting words on a page day after day, month after month, and year after year.
  • For a musician, it’s playing in a practice room, playing in an empty bar, and playing where anyone is willing to listen until he’s selling records and playing to sold out stadiums.

Given that the only thing in your control is the process, that’s where you should be putting the bulk of your energy.

Track Your Progress

Visible progress is a huge motivator. When you don’t break the chain on a calendar or see pages and pages filled with writing, your motivation goes up. You build momentum. The best work happens not at the beginning or end, but at what entrepreneur and author Scott Belsky calls, “The messy middle of the process”.

When it comes to tracking progress, use a metric that you can control. I can’t control whether or not you like this post. But I know I can control my word count. So, that’s the primary metric I use to track my progress as a writer.

Celebrate Small Wins

If we put off celebrating until we hit the best-seller list or get a book deal with a publisher, we deny ourselves the joy that we could get from the process. As I said in An Audience of One, our work becomes an obligation instead of a privilege.

If you hit your word count, wrote something you’re proud of, or managed one focused hour of uninterrupted creation, pat yourself on the back, buy yourself a drink, or eat some chocolate.

The Creative Process Stage 4: Revision

Up until now, we’ve delayed judgment. We’ve accumulated pages, wrote shitty first drafts, and covered the canvas.

Now, it’s time to look back at your work with a critical eye. Yes, you’re going to judge it, but that doesn’t mean you have to be cruel to yourself. Don’t confuse “this sucks” with “I suck.”

Revise Your Work

In working with clients to help them write books, I encourage them to look at every sentence, paragraph, and chapter through 3 filters:

  1. Why is this here?
  2. Does it serve my audience?
  3. If not, then I should get rid of it?

While this is specific to writing, it can be applied to any creative endeavor.

Get Feedback

Feedback is an important part of the creative process. But you have to be careful about who you ask.

  • Some people will tell you everything is amazing to avoid hurting your feelings.
  • Others will point out how something can be improved. Their feedback might be difficult to hear but is often valuable.
  • Strangers on the internet usually have nothing better to do than shit somebody they’ve never met. Don’t take their feedback seriously.

I go back and listen to every episode of The Unmistakable Creative. I’m trying to figure out if there were questions I should have asked, but didn’t.

When James Victore and I were discussing Dangerous Ideas on the Business of Life, he mentioned that his had father had passed away earlier this year from Parkinson’s Disease. I completely missed an opportunity for what might have been a powerful moment in our conversation.

Review your work with a critical but kind lens.

Stage 5 of the Creative Process: Ship

Shipping your work can be the most harrowing part of the creative process. It’s where you’re forced to confront the voices of fear and doubt that almost kept you from starting in the first place.

  • What if nobody likes it?
  • What if it doesn’t sell copies?

While these fears are all natural, I encourage you to contemplate the following.

Every one of my books has a 1-star review. Every one of Seth Godin’s, Mark Manson’s and J.K. Rowling’s books have negative reviews.

If you’re going to make art, someone is going to hate it. You can attempt to appease your critics, or decide it’s not for them and make it for the smallest viable audience.

The Stages of the Creative Process are Not Linear

Before you attempt to apply this to your own creative projects, I wanted to share a quick word of caution.

Even though I’ve laid this out in five steps, the creative process is not linear. Straight and narrow paths don’t lead anywhere interesting. The creative process is messy and chaotic. You’ll go back and forth between these steps.

Also, modify this to your own liking. Some of it may not work for you. Take what works and discard the rest. Don’t follow anyone’s advice to the letter (including mine).

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© 2019 Unmistakable Creative Podcast

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