How to Honor Your Creative Cycle

There is no one-size-fits-all creative cycle for artists.

I wrote about the creative cycle briefly when I wrote “Is Hustle Culture Healthy for Artists” and “When It’s Okay to Wait for Inspiration to Create“, but this topic deserves way more attention.

Have you ever heard of the creative cycle?

It’s a very simple concept and you can find a variety of terms to describe each stage of the creative cycle but I view it like this:

Stage 1: Input–>Stage 2: Incubation–>Stage 3: Creation–>Stage 4: Rest–>Repeat

Stage 1: Input

The input stage is like collecting firewood and kindling. Maybe you’ll find nice hunks of dried wood or you’ll find leaves and twigs. Maybe you’ll find a soggy branch that can’t catch fire until it dries out over time. This is the stage to gather what you can without overthinking its use.

The input stage can be active and passive. It can be intentionally taking classes, learning new things, testing new techniques, and challenging yourself. It can feel like work, but it can also be passive. It can be experiencing daily life, listening to the radio, being around friends and family.

Input can be creative and art related or it can be completely detached from your creative practices. It can be driven by a specific project you have in mind or it can be a broad quest for experiences. Anything goes in the input stage. Input is living. Seek out whatever you crave and try the unexpected. Literally, everything you experience can be creative fuel for a current or future cycle.

Stage 2: Incubation

What have you gathered? How can you use it? What project are you working on? The incubation stage is when you ruminate over the items and ideas you’ve collected during the input stage. It can be tempting to try to jump from input to creation, but the mind needs to mull things over.

The incubation stage of the creative cycle can be painful. It can be filled with uncertainty. There can be an incredible amount of fear and tension when you don’t quite know how to proceed to the creation stage.

Incubation can be in your mind or on paper. Maybe you rearrange the input you collected and sketch your ideas. Maybe you test out some techniques and styles and that practice quickly evolves into the full creation stage. There is no wrong way to creatively incubate.

Sit with your ideas and input and keep twisting and turning the pieces until something catches fire.

Stage 3: Creation

The creation stage of the creative cycle is the one that gets all the fanfare. It’s the stage that appears most productive (there are many ways of viewing productivity) and it’s the one that most artists dream of being in all the time. As if our creativity is a spigot we can turn on, and once flowing, we never have to put down our paintbrushes again. This is a lie we need to stop telling ourselves.

The creation stage is inherently active, but it is finite. It cannot go on forever and nor should it. It’s also important to note that what you produce during this time may not be tangible or physical. It is a stage of production where something is coming to life through all of our input and incubation efforts, but that “something” can take on more forms than I can list here.

And once the creation stage comes to an end we need to rest.

Stage 4: Rest

Rest is the creative cycle stage that many want to ignore. In our Western culture, efficiency and productivity reign supreme, but it is at the cost of our well-being. When you finish a creative project, or really any project, the rest stage serves as a restorative reboot. Keep the mind empty or go focus on something else. You may feel depleted at this point and you should honor that feeling and go do some self-care.

We need rest. I am stubborn and desperately want to produce something all the time, but it’s not possible. Nor is it beneficial in the long run. Avoiding rest leads to burnout. Sometimes you can challenge yourself and go from creation to the next creative cycle’s input stage, skipping the rest stage entirely, but that’s not sustainable. I’m not saying you can’t do it, but the rest bill will eventually come due.

Notes About the Creative Cycle

There isn’t a guarantee of linearity through the cycle.

Some artists can create with a linear cycle, moving from stage 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 and completing a project in one creative cycle. Though, for many of us, it’s not that simple. The transition between creative stages can look a little fuzzy. We can also take a lot of steps back and forth before stages, making your creative cycle look more like input–>incubation–>input–> incubation –>creation–>incubation–>rest–>creation–>input–>incubuation–>creation–>rest.

Does that lack of linearity mean you’re doing something wrong? Not at all! As I said before, the creative cycle is not a one-size-fits-all process, but it’s also possible that maybe there are some adjustments you can make. There is a lot to be learned from how you move through an entire cycle. If you find yourself bouncing around, maybe that means you’re not truly honoring the stage you’re in and you’re trying to rush the process. Or maybe it means the project evolved for the better as you worked and taking a step backwards will allow you to progress even further.

There is no set timeline for each stage.

Some artists work quickly and some work slowly. There are painters that can only produce one piece every five years and painters that can produce five pieces in one week. The length of each stage can vary between artists but also between cycles for the same artist.

You can be in multiple creative cycles at the same time.

Remember when I mentioned the soggy branch above? When you are in the input and incubation stage, you may not use all that you have gathered. You may have ideas jotted down in a journal that get left for years. Like a soggy branch drying out slowly, that piece of input is incubating within another creative cycle that you aren’t actively working on, but there may come a day when that input suddenly catches fire and you’re left with a burst of inspiration.

Inspiration used to feel magical to me but now I view it as coming from one of those quiet creative cycles you’ve been working through for years without even consciously thinking about it, and then *whoosh*, you seemingly enter the creation stage in an instant.

There are big creative cycles, little creative cycles, and everything in between.

Creative cycles come in all sizes. Sometimes we have micro cycles that feed into a larger project. In those cases, you can look at a project like a night of sleep. While you are sleeping, you move through the stages of sleep and complete a cycle in 60-90 minute intervals, but a full night of sleep includes many cycles with stages varying in duration and intensity. Many cycles can result in a single product (or night of sleep). Whereas, one big creative cycle can end with a multitude of end products.

Small or short creative cycles can happen within a week, a day, or maybe even an hour, whereas a single big cycle may take years to complete, but neither is better than the other.

It’s also important to realize the success of a creative cycle should not be measured by what was produced at the end of it. Whether short or long, just working through a creative cycle is productive.

How to Honor Your Creative Cycle

Now that you know more about the concept of a creative cycle, how can you nurture and honor your own individual approach to your work?

First, become aware of your creative cycle.

If you have never thought of your creative process within this kind of framework, just being aware of where you are at within this cycle can help you be more at peace with the process. Every part of the process is productive. Whether you are actively creating or seemingly just existing, it is all part of your creative journey.

Keep a journal and/or a sketchbook.

I am a big believer in writing everything down when I can. Since the input and incubation stages can seem less tangible, just having ideas on paper makes me feel more connected to these parts of the cycle. Also, keeping a journal of how you feel in each stage can be helpful. During the rest stage, you can decompress and take notes about the cycle you just worked through. How are you feeling? What went well? What didn’t go so well?

Document each stage of the cycle and consciously sit with the feelings that come up. It’s also helpful to notice where you get stuck within the cycle or within each stage.

Don’t skip stages you deem “unproductive”.

You need the quiet rest stage just as much as the active creation stage. I want you to repeat that to yourself over and over again: You need the quiet rest stage just as much as the active creation stage. Every part of the creative cycle is productive. You may not be producing work, but you are producing momentum even if it feels like you’re sitting still.

Don’t linger in a stage after it’s time to move on.

This one is hard, because how exactly are you supposed to know when it’s time to move on? It takes time and journaling, but I’ll give two examples.

Let’s say you’ve been in the input stage for a while and you’ve gathered everything you need, but you still find yourself mindlessly scrolling through creators or inspiration on social media, constantly consuming input to the point of going to numb. It’s time to leave that stage. Put the phone down and incubate.

Let’s say you’re resting, and maybe it’s time to move forward to the next cycle, but fear and self-doubt creep in and convince you that what you just made is terrible and you shouldn’t bother moving on to the next project. That feeling sucks, but your inner critic needs to be put in a timeout, and you need to leave the rest stage.

Journaling has helped me understand when I need to stay in a stage longer, and when I need to give myself a push forward.

Don’t compare your creative cycles to other artists.

We are all built differently as creators. You are not doing anything wrong if your creative cycles look different from other artists. You do not need to work through creative cycles at the same rate, intensity, or duration as others. The best thing you can do to honor your creative cycle is to be aware of your natural tendencies and learn ways to nurture them. If you need more rest, that’s okay. If you need more time incubating, that’s okay too. If you need to shut out the outside world after you leave the input stage, do it. And if you need to spend less time in any of these stages, that’s also okay!

Trust your process.

I have personally found that when I am at peace with how I naturally function as an artist, I produce better work and I’m more emotionally content. Whatever your natural process is, trust that it is serving you. If you feel out of alignment with your creative process, I would spend some time journaling and introspecting whether you are being influenced by external factors or pressure. The creative process can be finicky and demanding, but if you listen closely it will ask for what it needs.


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@kellyhelsinger or @messyeverafter

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3 Replies to “How to Honor Your Creative Cycle”

  1. I just said to someone how I need to do something soon. As someone who feels creatively tapped out and has been in the resting stage for what seems like an overly long time, I don’t know if it’s my creative self telling me to get my camera back out, or the business side (a.k.a “obligation side) telling me to get back in the game (blog posts, newsletters, social media). Let’s just say your post resonates, I just haven’t figured out how yet. 🙂

    1. It’s hard to know the difference sometimes. I hope you get clarity son! And continue resting if needed 😉

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