The 4 Stages Of Creative Flow

For many years I struggled with motivation and inspiration when creating music. The brain-fog and listlessness that holds many composers back from creating great work was upon me like a thick cloud. A couple of years ago I decided enough was enough and that instead of sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike I would take the power into my own hands and find out how to MAKE myself feel motivated and inspired. To my surprise I found thousands of pages of empowering legitimate scientific research on the topic. Let’s look at how to trigger a flow state in the 4 stages of Flow (picture above) are identified:

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Stage 1: “Struggle”

The first step to achieving a creative impulse is “Struggle”. This is the process of getting as much relevant information into our head as possible at one time – to the point of overload.

This method has been utilised by creative geniuses in many different spheres whether or not they are aware of the research that supports the technique. For example chess Grand-Master Josh Waitzkin describes a process where-by every night he will spend time blasting his mind with information on a complex problem he is working on to the point of breakdown, he will then allow his mind to completely relax and go blank. Invariably he will wake up with the solution clear in his mind the next morning. Over-night his sub-conscious mind works on the problem. This method gives us some insight into the process of “finding inspiration” and how we can make it work.

In the composition process this means we need to absorb vast amounts of inspirational content as raw material for our brain to work on.

“He who has the best record collection writes the best songs.” – Keith Richards

Stage 2. “Relaxation”

Shutting off the critical and self-analysing thinking mind allows the creative patterns of data being drawn by the unconscious mind to come through and spur creative ideas. When entering a creative flow-state researchers observed that Nitrous Oxide is released in the body. This is interesting because Nitrous Oxide essentially clears the body of stress hormones and the brain activity shifts into an alpha wave (relaxed, daydream) pattern. This means that all the Cortisol built up during the struggle phase is washed from your system suddenly leaving you in an unusually relaxed Alpha Wave brain state highly conducive to creativity.

After pre-loading you need to completely cut your attention from the task. This means taking time out. Go for a walk. Meditate. Do anything that releases your mind completely and allows inspiration to bubble up from the subconscious. Don’t struggle any further, allow the ideas to come through.

A recent Stanford study confirmed that going for a walk does indeed dramatically help creative thinking. This phenomenon has been anecdotally recognised by creative thinkers for centuries “I have my greatest ideas in the shower/on the toilet/when out walking/in the middle of the night” What is the common feature of these stories we’ve heard over and over? They were taking a break from the task and allowing their mind to drift for a minute.

Stage 3. “Flow”

When you feel the inspiration come through get to the studio and work uninterrupted for as long as you can. Remember that any form of distraction switches your thinking brain back on and can interrupt flow.

Stage 4. “Recovery”

Flow states tax your body and require recovery time to replenish neurotransmitters. Here are some ways you can re-charge to experience flow again:

-Sleep well. Your brain simply won’t have the neurotransmitter resources to induce flow if you don’t sleep and replenish them. Sacrifice sleep and you sacrifice the quality of your work.

-The very neurotransmitter elements that facilitate your state of inspiration are created from the food you eat. You need sources of natural amino acids from your diet.

When you start to come down from the high of a flow state don’t fight it and become frustrated. Accept that flow is a cyclical 4 stage process and you have to work with the waves. Get straight back to pre-loading ready to catch the next wave coming.