When in your life did you feel like you were the most creative?

I don’t mean productive. Creativity and productivity are different.

I mean creative. When in your life did you feel like your output matched your input?1

The concept of achieving a flow state has become so popular that it has a detailed Wikipedia page. What if one could achieve flow for longer than a few hours at a time? What if one were able to pursue flow, relentlessly, without ceasing, for months or even years at a time?

I don’t really think of that as a flow state any more. I call it relentless creativity.” And I think I achieved it once for a period of a few months, or a year.

This period of relentless creativity began in March of 2020. This was the beginning of the COVID lockdowns, of course, but I’m not sure it was just the one event that created these circumstances. And I’m also not sure how long it lasted. For all I know, I was in this state for two years. Thanks to the way COVID compressed the feeling of time2, I couldn’t say how long the state of relentless creativity lasted with any certainty3.

I would like to experience that flow state again. And I’d like to stay there.

With that in mind, I plan on writing a lot more about achieving this state in the coming months. I thought it would make sense to start by thinking through what allowed me to become relentless creative in 2020:

  • Certainly, COVID was part of it. COVID meant there was nothing to do but keep up with the news (and lose your soul), or get to work. I chose the latter.
  • I was fortunate, though, to have a great workspace in my home. At the time, I was working on an iMac Pro in a den in the condo. There was a designated space to get to work. I couldn’t just pick up a laptop and go lie on the couch. My desk was on wheels, but I couldn’t move it too far. Our condo wasn’t that big!
  • The condo might have played a role in it too: when a third of your living space is designated to be your working space, it’s pretty easy to make your way to the studio each morning and get to work.
  • And another thing that might have helped were the clients I had at the time: thanks to COVID, my work exploded, and I had more work than ever before. I was at the magical point in my career where people wanted to work with me specifically, and had started to seek me out. Suddenly, my thoughts carried real weight, and my opinionated designs were welcomed and encouraged. (I’ve been blessed to have a great roster of clients ever since.)

All of this to say that my environment was extremely conducive to creative work at the time (James Clear says your environment will dictate your behavioural defaults.

None of that accounts for the other half of this equation: the inputs.

  • In 2020, my wife and I watched 166 movies. (That remains our record.)
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons had just come out for the Switch. I was playing it every morning. I would hop on before work for fifteen minutes and check turnip prices (IYKYK). Something about that small (and extremely cheerful) dopamine hit would trigger something in my brain and I’d happily get to work after.
  • In the evenings, if we weren’t watching movies, I was often playing hard video games. According to my notes, during COVID, I 100% completed Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Dark Souls III, and 2018’s God of War on the highest difficulty. It was in this time period that I fell in love with these high-skill-level games. For me, it was a way to cope with depression. (It’s still a way I cope with my depression.)

Between video games and movies, I was absorbing a lot of visual media every day, and I was often engaging with the material at an intellectual level. I was allowing my work to be influenced, in some subconscious way, by all the media I was working with.

I don’t mean to state that the best way to become more creative is to mindlessly binge Netflix for hours. But we all need to become inspired somehow. Curating what we engage with, and picking the thing that most inspires us to do our best work, is going to go a long way to making us more creative.

The point is: creativity isn’t exclusively a measure of our output. It’s also an indication of our input.

My thoughts on becoming relentlessly creative right now are fairly simple:

  1. Create an environment where creativity is your default. To repeat my own example: if you work with computers, there is a lot of value in getting a nice desktop and a good monitor. (I’d love a Mac Studio.) The whole point is to create a dedicated environment to do your work in. You will not be more creative if you lug your tools to all sorts of different rooms. You’re just rearranging the furniture in an effort to procrastinate.
  2. Consume as many good inputs as possible. This might not mean reading a book or watching a movie; it might mean engaging with another hobby. Maybe you play the piano to engage different mental muscles (playing an instrument has similar effects to learning another language), or perhaps you like woodworking on the weekends.
  3. I didn’t mention this above, but showing up every day to make your art is going to have a big impact on your work. Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.”
  4. And again, I didn’t mention this above, but exercise as often as possible. Some research suggests that creativity and physical health are linked. The connection is probably not direct, but even an indirect connection with positive effects is worth exploring in our own lives.

Go make something beautiful.

  1. Your output is never going to be 50% of your input. Most writers describe themselves as voracious” readers, because it turns out you need a lot of inputs to create something new. As Austin Kleon often points out, everything is a remix. ↩︎

  2. Remember in 2023, after we all started to breathe again, how everybody you talked with described events from 2019 as something that happened just last year”? COVID time compression at work. ↩︎

  3. We bought our first house in 2021 and moved there in the summer. It was a fixer-upper and consumed a lot of my attention for a year, so it seems safe to say that the longest my flow state could have lasted was 14 months (March 2020 to May 2021). ↩︎