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A creative process

The silhouette of someone walking above the cloudline.

Over on Threads, Amanda Zamora asks:

I'm plotting away on Agencia Media and some personal writing/reporting this weekend (over a glass of 🍷 and many open tabs). One of the things I love most about building something new is the chance to design for intended outcomes — how to structure time and energy? What helps quiet chaos? Bring focus and creativity? Inspired by Ben Werdmuller’s recent callout about new Mac setups, I want to know about the ways you've built (or rebuilt) your way of working! Apps, workflows, rituals, name 'em 👇

A thing I’ve had to re-learn about building and creating is the importance of boredom in the way I think. I know that some people thrive when moving from thing to thing to thing at high speed, but I need time to reflect and toss ideas around in my head without an imposing deadline: the freedom to be creative without consequence.

The best way I’ve found to do that is to walk.

The work I’m proudest of was done in a context where I could walk for hours on end. When I was building Elgg, I would set off around Oxford, sometimes literally walking from one end of the city to the other and back again. When I was building Known and working for Matter, I roamed the east bay, sometimes walking from Berkeley to the tip of Oakland, or up through Tilden Park. I generally didn’t listen to music or audiobooks; I was alone with my thoughts and the sounds of the city. It helped me to figure out my priorities and consider what I was going to do next. When I came up with something new, it was more often than not in the midst of one of those walks.

When you’re deep into building something that’s your own, and that’s the entirety of what you’re doing (i.e., you don’t have another day job), you have the ability to structure your time however you’d like. Aside from the possible guilt of not working a traditional office day, there’s no reason to do that. Particularly at the beginning stages, I found that using the morning as unstructured reflective time led to better, more creative decision-making.

Again, this is me: everyone is different, and your mileage may vary. I do best when I have a lot of unstructured time; for some people, more structure is necessary. I think the key is to figure out what makes you happy and less stressed, and to get out from behind a screen. But also, walking really does boost creativity, so there’s that.

I recognize there’s a certain privilege inherent here: not everyone lives somewhere walkable, and not everyone feels safe when they’re walking out in the world. The (somewhat) good news is that indoor walking works just as well, if you can afford a low-end treadmill.

So what happens when you get back from a walk with a head full of ideas?

It’s probably no surprise that my other creativity hack is to journal: I want to get those unstructured thoughts, particularly the “what ifs” and “I wishes”, out on the page, together with the most important question, which is “why”. Writing long-form in this way puts me into a more contemplative state, much the same way that writing a blog post like this one helps me refine how I think about a topic. Putting a narrative arc to the thought gives it context and helps me refine what’s actually useful.

The through line here is an embrace of structurelessness; in part that’s just part of my personality, but in part it’s an avoidance of adhering to someone else’s template. If I’m writing items on a to-do list straight away, I’m subject to the design decisions of the to-do list software’s author. If I’m filling in a business model canvas, I’m thinking about the world in the way the canvas authors want me to. I can, and should, do all those things, but I always want to start with a blank page first. A template is someone else’s; a blank page is mine.

Nobody gets to see those thoughts until I’ve gone over them again and turned them into a written prototype. In the same way that authors should never show someone else their first draft, letting someone into an idea too early can deflate it with early criticism. That isn’t to say that understanding your hypotheses and doing research to validate them isn’t important — but I’ve found that I need to keep up the emotional momentum behind an idea if I’m going to see it through, and to do that, I need to keep the illusion that it’s a really good idea just long enough to give it shape.

Of course, when it has shape, I try to get all the expert feedback I can. Everyone needs an editor, and asking the right questions early and learning fast is an obvious accelerant.

So I guess my creative process boils down to:

  • Embrace boredom and unstructured, open space to think creatively
  • Capture those creative thoughts in an untemplated way, through narrative writing
  • Identify my hypotheses and figure out what needs to be researched to back up the idea
  • Ask experts and do that research as needed in order to create a second, more validated draft
  • Get holistic feedback from trusted collaborators on that second draft
  • Iterate 1-2 times
  • Build the smallest, fastest thing I can based on the idea

There are no particular apps involved and no special frameworks. Really, it’s just about giving myself some space to be creative. And maybe that’s the only advice I can give to anyone building something new: give yourself space.

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