At some point in childhood or adolescence, most of us accept one of two labels: “creative” or “not creative.” For some, these labels attach as early as kindergarten or elementary, when adults ooh and aah over a child’s drawing, or focus on grammatical errors in an otherwise imaginative piece of writing. Some kids are raised in homes that value the humanities and encourage creative exploration; others are exposed to more concrete activities and practical skills. By junior high or high school, one’s self-concept as being creative or not creative is so firmly planted that it’s nearly impossible to shake.
It was the same for me. In kindergarten, I vividly remember getting attention from my peers for my ability to draw flowers. I spent hours perfecting my drawing skills, biting my bottom lip as I carefully drew yellow centers and perfectly pointed petals. In second grade, I felt deep pride at placing in a statewide poetry contest, a milestone that cemented a budding love of writing. Because of these early accolades and encouragement from my family, teachers, and peers, I began to see myself as a creative person.
But this isn’t true for others. As someone who has coached CEOs, entrepreneurs, and other high achievers to unlock their creative genius and harness innovativeness, I’ve seen firsthand how early criticisms can keep someone from experiencing the joy of creativity. For the past 13+ years, I’ve listened as some of the country’s most successful people recounted difficult experiences from elementary and junior high: over-critical teachers, unsupportive parents, insensitive peers. While not everyone has a painful memory, most people can identify a point in their lives when they chose a path.
Creative. Not creative. To most people, there is no middle ground.
But what if creativity is a skill, just like learning to drive a car or ride a bike? What if you—yes, you—could harness creativity? And what if the act of creation could look different than what we previously considered it to be, limited only to activities like drawing, sculpture, writing, or music?
I believe everyone is creative, and anyone can access creative flow. What do I mean by that, and how do you do it? Let’s unpack the definition and process together.
What is creative flow?
Time flies by. You miss a meal. You engage in this activity for hours and don’t become bored. Put simply, creative flow is a state in which everything else melts away and you’re fully engaged in an activity. The best comparison is a runner’s high, the euphoric feeling during a great run. Little compares to the delight and presence felt during creative flow.
Think of the last time you felt this way. If it’s been a while, push yourself to remember. What were you doing? Were you working? Engaging in a hobby? Were you alone? With others? How did you feel?
I get into a flow state while writing, but I also experience flow while engaging in deep thinking, like strategic planning or ideation. Others experience flow while building complex spreadsheets, solving a difficult math equation, performing surgery, gardening, cycling, or any number of activities. Creativity is not limited to art. Webster defines it as “the ability to create” rather than imitate, and each of those examples include some sort of creation: a solution, a procedure, a thriving garden, a physical act, and more.
What do you have the ability to create? Are you curious about how to access this flow daily? Are you having trouble thinking of when you’ve even felt in the flow? Keep reading.
How to access creative flow
Neuroscience tells us that the human brain is not limited in structure or function. In fact, it is ever-changing and full of possibility. When you regularly engage in a new set of habits, new neural pathways form. The brain learns that X + Y is followed by Z, and creates new neurons and neural connections that allow you to perform more efficiently over time.
For example, if you want to create a writing habit, the first step is to pick a consistent time to write. Then, define the sequence of events that leads up to sitting down to write. You might decide that you are going to sit down every weekday at 8 a.m. and write for 30 minutes before work begins. Next, you might define a new set of habits to help you encourage focus and flow: every morning you’ll get up at 7:00, have a cup of coffee, walk the dog for half an hour, and then sit down at your desk at 7:55 so you can start writing promptly at 8:00.
If you follow these habits over a few weeks, your brain will begin to read, respond, and ultimately embrace the habitual cues, so that over time you get into creative flow quicker. This is true for any creative endeavor, whether you are spending time thinking strategically, making something with your hands, coding, or meditating.
To support your flow state, try these six strategies:
- Block “creation time” on your calendar and protect it like a mama bear.
- Aim to do your creative work first thing in the morning, before you access any technology; though some people work wonderfully at night, it’s often easy to forgo creative time at the end of a long day.
- If you’re having trouble transitioning into flow, engage in a 5-minute journaling activity right beforehand; you can write about a challenge or write thoughts about your upcoming day; the content and quality are less important than the habit.
- Avoid checking email until the latest time possible—I suggest 11 a.m. or later—and batch email into two blocks daily; this helps avoid feeling constantly tugged to check and respond to email.
- Turn off all notifications during your creative time (and, if work allows, always!).
- Set clear boundaries of time; constraints beget creativity.
I have a sticky note on my computer that reads, “When in doubt, create.” If you doubt your ability to access flow, or even the fact that you are creative, I challenge you to try the strategies I’ve outlined. Neuroscientific findings show that you just might be delighted by the results.