How to use mindfulness to optimize the creative process

Mindfulness is a mental state in which one focusses on the present moment, bringing awareness and acceptance to one’s thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Practicing mindfulness has been proven to positively impact creativity. (Read a summary of recent research results that support this statement.)

Creativity is a complex process that includes multiple phases, which each require different skills and thinking. How can we use mindfulness to optimize the creative process? Which mindfulness techniques correspond best to certain phases of the creative process?

What is the creative process?

Often we associate having an Aha-moment of insight with creativity. But creativity is a process that goes through different stages. 91 years ago, Graham Wallas detected four different stages of the creative thinking process that he described in his book The Art of Thoughts. Since then several variations of Wallas’s model have been developed. They vary in the number of stages, because some of them are further differentiated, but in general they follow the same concept.

The phrase “creative process” might mislead one to think that it is a linear sequence. The creative process is never linear, but rather develops in circles or spirals. Before the creative process is completed it is very likely to go through various stages multiple times.

Not only is the model of the creative process valid for creating art, it also holds true for other kinds of creative problem solving, like in science or business. The creative process stages are Preparation, Ideation, Incubation and Insight, Verification, and elaboration stage.

Preparation Stage

In the preparation stage we collect information about a topic or a problem. Ideally we search for material with an open mind that is not too selective yet. We acquire knowledge that includes different perspectives. We practice skills that are relevant for the creative project. In this stage it is most important to cultivate a sense of curiosity, openness, and acceptance of different ideas and influences.

Mindfulness practice supports this stage by calming the nervous system and helping the mind be relaxed. A mind that is not stressed is able to take more information in and process it. Secondly, mindfulness improves awareness of the present moment. This awareness trains us to notice everything without judgement and without ranking importance. Every sensation is treated the same. This awareness helps us notice what is commonly overlooked. The preparation stage is about discovering more information and broadening our perspectives.


In the ideation stage we generate ideas. It has been shown that the likelihood of finding ground-breaking ideas is correlated to the quantity of ideas we come up with. A high quantity of ideas is more likely to lead to a high quality of idea(s). This phase is dominated by divergent thinking —   the ability to think in many possible directions. Ideation means finding a multitude of options besides the very obvious ones. It is crucial for the success of divergent thinking to exclude evaluation and judgement of ideas since this limits the range of ideas before they are fully developed.

Mindfulness practice teaches acceptance of thoughts, ideas, and emotions. Whatever shows up is acknowledged with curiosity. We are encouraged to let go of judgement and see our thoughts as clouds that move by. Mindfulness teaches us to observe what is present and to accept it. This mindset of letting go of inhibitions is exactly what is needed while generating ideas. And for many, this is the hardest part —   to not value ideas and dismiss them as bad, or unrealistic, but accept them and defer judgement until later in the process.

Mindfulness practice that allows mind-wandering (like open-monitoring mindfulness practice)  enhances divergent thinking. Whereas focussed-attention mindfulness can be counterproductive, because too much focus will get in the way of opening the mind for extended possibilities. Practicing mindfulness helps to generate flow experience. And flow, the state of being fully immersed and energized by an activity, is very productive in the ideation stage.


In the incubation stage we take our mind off the project, we let the thoughts and ideas sink in without actively working on them. Just like wine needs to sit in the barrel to ripen, so do our ideas. In the TV series Mad Men we witness creative director Don Draper more often during his extensive incubation periods than in meetings or writing copy with paper and pen.

Sometimes creative ideas absorb all our thinking, and it can be difficult to detach from them. Mindfulness can be helpful to turn our minds off. It helps to observe what else is present besides those thoughts, and helps to calm the mind and gain clarity. Mindfulness is a tool to release the mind from thinking. Meditation that is focussed on the breath, sounds, or the body, can purposefully turn our attention in a different direction and give our thoughts the break they need to develop.

Insight – Illumination

Insight happens when finally the breakthrough idea emerges – the famous “Eureka”-moment. Incubation and Illumination are often considered being part of the same phase of the creative process. Very often illumination derives from incubation.

Typically illuminations appear when we are in an idle state of mind and don’t intentionally think about the problem. Neuroscientists call this the Default Mode Network, a term that was coined by Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis. This state is described as a wakeful rest like when we are day-dreaming.

Mindfulness meditation activates alpha waves in the brain, which are an indicator of daydreaming and mind-wandering. Thus, mindfulness allows us to switch into the default mode network and lay the groundwork for sudden solutions to appear.

Verification / Evaluation

After we gain insight and have found our main idea, we need to test it and verify whether it holds up to our expectations. With an analytical mind we examine if the solution that we found is actually feasible. This part of the process requires convergent thinking, which is systematic and logical.

Mindfulness teaches us to focus, get power over our mind, and resist distractions. A focussed mind is able to evaluate the solution with clarity.

And furthermore, as Danny Penman points out in Mindfulness for Creativity, mindfulness practice nurtures courage and resilience in the face of skepticism and setbacks, which are a constituent part of this phase.

Elaboration/ Implementation

The refinement and implementation of the final idea needs the same convergent thinking skills as the previous phase. Long hours of editing and fine tuning can become tedious. And it is for that reason that several artists have used drugs to help their mind stay alert and focussed.

Mindfulness can be a healthy alternative in this phase to support focus and clarity and to resist fatigue during this detail oriented part of the creative process.

Creativity is mindfulness in action.

Mindfulness can be used to optimize the creative process. But you can also look at it the other way around: Being creative very often implies being mindful by practicing awareness and being in the moment.

When we are drawing or painting a portrait, we are practicing awareness. We see every nuance in the face, every wrinkle, every spot of light, or the proportions. When one starts to learn how to draw a portrait, the first lesson is to see what is actually in view and to let go of assumptions. When we practice a piece of music on the piano, we have to be in the present moment. Our fingers touch the keys of the piano and our ear hears the sound we are producing as they happen.

Mindfulness happens inside our brain. Art materializes mindfulness and makes it audible or visible. Creativity is mindfulness in action.


This article is the last post of a 4-part series about mindfulness and creativity.

Part 1: The Mindfulness-Creativity-Link

Part 2: Creative Spark Podcast – Interview with Jenn Fairbank, co-CEO of Cornerstone Mindfulness

Part 3: Can mindfulness increase creativity? – An overview of recent studies and research

colorful umbrellas - mindfulness to optimize the creative process


Alex Holyoake


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