Expand the Reservoir

Mindfulness, Creativity, Creative Process   |   2019

Get into a comfortable position—take a deep breath, uncross your legs and plant your feet flat on the ground. Bring your attention to the task at hand. Calm your inner critic; focus only on right now. Don’t worry about failure. Make this experience about expanding the reservoir.

Consider your creative process as a body of water. Normally, this body of water is like a river flowing down a hill. All your creative energy is flowing in one path towards a single solution. To explore new solutions, you’d have to change the direction of the river’s flow: a possible task, but certainly a difficult one.

Now imagine a different type of creative process, one where the body of water is instead a lake, and your task is to expand its shores. As you tend to the shore, the flow of the water hardly disturbs you. The work never gets harder, and the reservoir steadily grows deeper and wider.

Your task is now an easy one. Consider the present moment. Acknowledge and then set aside judgment. Recognize when your mind begins to wander, and gently bring it back to your task. Let your reservoir grow wider, deeper. Let the changing shape of the reservoir change the character of the water within it. Make more space, add to the reservoir, let it flow.

The above is an example exercise adapted from a 2017 blog post written by Keenan Cummings, a San Francisco-based digital product designer currently working at Airbnb. When I first read it, my eyes were opened to the opportunities in taking a deeper look at my creative process.

In design school, no curriculum teaches us how to define or maintain a healthy, sustainable creative practice. It’s left up to the student, who inevitably will face more than one sleepless night due to the pressure of their creative work. In this article, I’ll describe a few methods of implementing object-focused meditation practices and how to leverage mindfulness to become a better, healthier designer. 

First, it’s important to define mindfulness and object-focused meditation. Leading educators at mindfulness.org offer the following: “mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” Mindfulness has a unique, positive impact on each step of the creative process, and has great potential when applied in the object-focused meditation format.

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

According to the Google-backed mindfulness group Search Inside Yourself, focused attention involves “selecting one focal point, then training your mind to come back to repeatedly come back that focal point.” Traditionally, focused attention meditation follows the Samatha method, where that focus is directed to one’s breath. However, we can direct this focus onto whatever we choose, which is what makes focused attention an adaptable and active approach to mindfulness meditation. 

This brings me back to the example meditation written by Keenan Cummings. In the first scenario, the task at hand is to redirect the flow of a river as it is pulled by gravity. The river represents a singular path carved by one’s creative process and illustrates the difficulty of making a change with one specific goal in mind. If you direct your creative process towards a single solution, you’re both passing up opportunities to explore better options and making more work for yourself.

The river represents a singular path carved by one’s creative process and illustrates the difficulty of making a change with one specific goal in mind

The reservoir scenario is far more likely to lead to creative success. It represents a far more adaptive approach that emphasizes lateral thinking and a radical “making space” approach. Instead of moving through the creative process with a single goal in mind, you can naturally consider all possibilities. Not only will this approach make the work easier, but it also results in a holistic view to solving the problem.

Social psychologist Graham Wallas first put forth a model of creativity in 1927 that is still used today in the discussion around creative practices. This model puts forward four phases that we typically move through as we accomplish a creative task: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.

If we consider Graham Wallas’ four stages of the creative process, our reservoir represents the primordial soup that is the preparation phase. This is where one can learn the value of design research by identifying gaps and biases. It stands to reason that the more research and preparation you do, the greater your potential outcome will be in the following incubation phase.

In this second phase called incubation, mindfulness is especially useful and incredibly versatile. Have you ever heard the advice to step back from the computer and take a walk? That approach is one of the many ways for this phase to take place. If pressed for time, consider moving to the preparation phase of a different task, and returning to the initial task when you reach phase three: the “a-ha!” moment. 

The third phase is perhaps the shortest-lived. At some point in your incubation phase, inspiration strikes! The stars align, and the solution becomes clear. You suddenly have the catalyst which pulls you from incubation and lands you in the verification phase.

Senior UX Designer at ServiceNow, Jesus Ruvalcaba demonstrates that the verification phase is a double-edged sword: “This is where you challenge the idea that came to you in the illumination stage.” Verification is where the creative work becomes visible and accessible to others—and, as such, is available for criticism. If you move through the creative process with the river-lake metaphor, then it becomes that much easier to present and defend your results.

The river-lake metaphor is a tool that can guide you through the creative process mindfully, with benefits found in each step of Wallas’ model of creativity.

So the next time you find yourself stuck, remember to be kind to yourself. Reimagine your creative process as a lake—not a river. In other words, stop grasping for a singular solution and expand the reservoir. Consider when it might be time to take a dip in the incubation phase, or when you might need a little more preparation.

Ultimately, be mindful of the fact that your creativity is a valuable resource, and, just like everything else, it may need some self-care from time to time.
Photo by Hannes on Unsplash.

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You’ve made it this far. Check out my other article Feeling the Web.