Imagine you sit down to work at your computer determined to really get things done.
You brew a strong cup of coffee, turn off your phone, put on your favorite playlist, and resolve to not get up before you’ve made real progress on your most important tasks.
Even if you already know what your top priority is, the questions start arriving: How should I approach it? Is it time to do more research, or use the information I already have? Should I explore new options, or choose among those I already have? Should I widen my horizons, or narrow my focus?
These questions are paramount in the environment of information overload we now find ourselves in. In a world of endless content, endless advice, and endless options, how do we know when it’s time to stop taking in new information and start putting it to use?
One of the most powerful ways of understanding the creative process – the steps by which we turn our inputs into outputs – is known as “divergence and convergence.” First popularized by the Design Thinking movement in the 1990s, these terms describe the two fundamental stages of the creative process.
“Divergence” refers to opening up your senses and taking in new sources of information from the outside world, such as at the start of a new project. “Convergence” refers to shutting off sources of distraction and narrowing your focus to arrive at an end result.
Together, these two stages form the backbone of creative work going back millennia. In any field, we move like a pendulum back and forth between these two states of mind. Once you learn to see the pattern in your own work, you’ll understand how to flow with the tide of information rather than swim against it.
Let me introduce you to this simple framework and provide suggestions on how you can purposefully design your environment to support each state of mind.
Every creative endeavor begins with an act of divergence.
From the moment you decide to write that article, design that webpage, host that event, or launch that fundraising campaign, you begin to widen the scope of your attention. With the new project as a lens on the world, you inevitably begin to notice new insights and examples that might be relevant to it.
This early stage is divergent – it is about expanding the range of possibilities you’re open to, considering as many options as possible, exposing yourself to new ideas, and exploring potential pathways without committing to any single one.
Imagine an interior designer getting ready to decorate a room. He might walk through fabric stores letting his eyes roam over the patterns, waiting for one to jump out and grab his attention. He might casually flip through design magazines looking for something that suits his needs. He might talk to his client and hear about their background, lifestyle, and desires for the room.
This isn’t the time to make final decisions, filter down options, or fit within a budget. It’s the time to wander, to roam, to let the forces of curiosity and serendipity guide you to unexpected places. This is a divergent state of mind because the range of information we are considering is increasing – it is diverging from the starting point.
Divergence is the classic image that often comes to mind when we think about creativity: the artist splashing paint haphazardly across the canvas, the dancer improvising across an empty dance floor, or the writer filling a wastepaper basket with crumpled up drafts.
But divergence is not the whole story.
There is another, equally important state of mind we all must master if we want to see our creative efforts bear fruit. It’s called convergence, and requires the exact opposite approach.
Convergence is about coming to conclusions, making decisive decisions, choosing between trade offs, and prioritizing what is essential versus what is “nice to have.” You are purposefully narrowing the range of possibilities you are considering, so that you can converge on a final product (such as a document, a deliverable, or other outcome).
Imagine that same interior designer deciding it’s time to converge on a final design. He starts to discard options and make hard choices. He might pack up all but the final patterns the client has approved of, put away most of the magazine clippings he used as inspiration, finalize the budget, and start ordering the products he needs.
Convergence is where most creative people struggle, because in order to pursue one path, you have to say no to all the others, no matter how interesting or juicy they may be. There is a kind of creative grief in throwing away material that we spent time and energy to find. As lovers of ideas, we are often loath to see that scintillating dialogue cut from the script, or that fascinating slide from the deck, or that tantalizing feature from the product.
But convergence is essential if we ever want to finish anything. All the extraneous parts only dilute and distract from the essential ones. We need the self-awareness to know when reducing our degrees of freedom actually gives us the freedom to bring something real to life.
The truth is, until we produce a tangible artifact that can be shared with others, we have nothing to show for our efforts except a lot of messy work-in-process that may or may not be of value.
Know your modes
Divergence and convergence are so fundamental to the creative process, we can see it in action across every creative field:
- Writers diverge by collecting raw material for the story they want to tell, sketching out potential characters, and researching historical facts. They converge by making outlines, laying out plot points, and writing a first draft.
- Engineers diverge by researching possible solutions, testing the boundaries of the problem, or tinkering with new tools. They converge by deciding on a particular approach, designing the implementation details, and beginning to build.
- Designers diverge by collecting samples and patterns, talking to users to understand their needs, or sketching possible solutions. They converge by deciding on a problem to solve, building wireframes, or translating their designs into graphics files.
- Photographers diverge by taking spontaneous photos of things they find interesting, juxtaposing different kinds of photos together, or experimenting with new lighting or framing techniques. They converge by choosing the shots for a collection, archiving unused images, and printing their favorites.
Once you understand what divergence and convergence look like in your own work, you can use this simple framework to tell you which state of mind you should be in at any particular point.
For a given project you’re working on, ask yourself: Should I be in divergence mode right now, or convergence mode? In other words, is it time to expand your horizons and take in new information, or is it time to hunker down and synthesize the information you already have?
If you decide it’s time for divergence mode, you can purposefully create an environment to support that kind of thinking. Open the doors and windows; put on energetic music; work in a lively cafe; ask others to brainstorm with you; try out new approaches or perspectives; explore new content you find online – whatever will help expose you to new inputs and challenge your assumptions.
Here are other ways you can purposefully diverge:
- Stroll through a library or bookstore to see what books catch your eye
- Dive down “internet rabbit holes” by browsing online communities for unusual ideas
- Watch movies or documentaries on provocative topics
- Subscribe to email newsletters, YouTube channels, or podcasts outside your usual listening habits
- Peruse your notes on various topics even if they don’t seem directly related to the topic at hand
- Grab a drink or coffee with a friend from another field who might have a different way of looking at a problem you’re facing
- Walk around a new neighborhood or city and absorb the sights, sounds, and smells you encounter
Most of all, you have to be open to the surprising and unexpected to make divergence successful. This stage is necessarily spontaneous, messy, and chaotic. Which means you have to be in a more relaxed and receptive state of mind. You can’t fully plan or organize what you’re doing in divergence mode, so don’t even try! Embrace the chaos and see just how wild and unorthodox your imagination can be (while capturing any tidbits you encounter along the way for later review).
When it’s time for convergence mode, take the opposite approach: Find a quiet, secluded corner to work in; put on rhythmic music without lyrics; turn off notifications on all devices; and aggressively ignore distractions – whatever will help you avoid tangents and propel you forward to the finish line.
Here are some other ways you can purposefully converge:
- Decide on a particular deliverable you will produce by a certain time, and ignore any information that’s not strictly necessary until then
- Set a deadline and promise to deliver a draft to someone who will hold you accountable
- Make an outline with the step-by-step sequence of points you want to cover
- Chunk related tasks within your project into clear groups to tackle one at a time
- Prioritize your tasks from most to least important, or by nearest term to longest term
- Give yourself defined periods of time to make progress (known as “time-boxing”)
- Stop researching and focus on summarizing the notes you’ve already captured
The purpose of convergence is to arrive at a concrete deliverable that you can share with others within an established timeframe. To succeed, you’ll need to take steps to proactively defend your focus and push back on any demand for your attention.
The world is never going to hold back and leave you be. It’s up to you to protect your boundaries and say no to everyone else for a time, so you can say yes to your own goals and dreams.
End with the beginning in mind
The truth is, no creative work is ever truly finished.
There will always be more you can add, refine or improve. When I say “final product” or “deliverable,” I don’t mean that this is the end all, be all of your life’s work. It’s just one iteration in a long line of iterations. The final product of one round of convergence can be used to gather outside feedback, which then becomes the starting point for the next round of divergence.
We share the fruits of our labor not because they are final or perfect, but because they are incomplete and imperfect. Sharing your work before it’s finished is an invitation for others to contribute their own ideas to yours. Our ideas are always in flux, always changing. If nothing is ever truly finished, then there’s no reason to wait to share it with people and allow them to be part of your journey.
Thank you to Michael Dean, Rachel Joy, Sanjay Srivastava, Micki McGee, Isabel Hazan, Marcus Wiegert, Oscar Lagrosen, and Julia Saxena for their feedback and suggestions on this piece.
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