Creativity Stages and ‘Flow’

After intently studying people at work in a diverse range of fields, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlined what he determined to be the five stages of the creative process in his book Creativity:

  1. Preparation: Becoming immersed, consciously or not, in a set of problematic issues that are interesting and arouse curiosity.
  2. Incubation: A period whereby ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness. (It is during this time that unusual connections are likely to be made.)
  3. Insight: When the pieces of the puzzle fall together.
  4. Evaluation: Deciding whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing.
  5. Elaboration: The slow and often routine work of elaboration (the hardest and longest stage of the process).

In this work, Csikszentmihalyi coined the word ‘flow‘ for the state when a person is totally absorbed in a creative exercise: “an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness”. To achieve flow, one’s skills must match the challenge at hand (as you can see in Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk, when these two don’t align optimally you can be confronted with anxiety, relaxtion or boredom, depending on what is lacking: skills or difficulty of the challenge).

There are some fantastic notes on Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk at Lateral Action where they’ve provided his answer to the question, How does it feel to be in flow? Anyone who has a passion (be it painting, programming or writing) will surely recognise this:

  • Completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated.
  • A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality.
  • Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.
  • Knowing that the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task.
  • A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
  • Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
  • Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.



5 responses to “Creativity Stages and ‘Flow’”

  1. […] five stages of the creative process By mnima From the ever excellent Lone Gunman […]

  2. It’s interesting to compare the deeply serious Csikszentmihalyi’s work with the much-less-serious work of Luke Sullivan’s “Hey, Whipple, Squeeze this!”

    But, you have to trust me on this, they describe the exact same process of creativity.

    And that book seems to have been strongly influenced by, “A technique for producing ideas”, which is a very slender volume (45 pages of A5 in large-print, barely a slide-deck’s worth of thinking) written by the ad-exec James Webb Young in 1960.

    I’m constantly fascinated by congruence of evil ad-mongers who measure the success of their theories in sales volume and the rather more pointy-headed Csikszentmihalyi.

  3. Nick

    Sounds a lot like Zen Buddhism to me.

  4. […] term and described the idea of flow while working on something) includes incubation as one of the five stages of creativity that allows you to be creative, productive, and later achieve flow. I find that this kind of […]

  5. […] daydreaming: Somewhat against Csikszentmihalyi’s advice, incubation has shows minimal creative improvements. However its advantage may be in that it helps […]