6 Steps to Get Creative

Picture from Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared
I find the joy of the ‘doing’ increases. Creativity increases. Intuition increases. The pleasure of life grows. And negativity recedes.
David Lynch

Hello there! Are you a creative person? Yes? No? Actually, the question is misleading, because creativity is not a personality trait, it’s a skill. It is something you can train. Sure, some people are born more creative than others. Some have a better aesthetic sense. But that’s just a baseline level. Do you think that creativity is limited to artistic endeavors? You’d be dead wrong and I’ll bet you that you use your creative skills every day, far from all the glamour you may have in mind. Whether at school or at work, or even during your vacations, you must have had this moment when an idea kicks in, and you find an efficient way to optimize a repetitive task so that you do it faster or get rid of it; or maybe you devised an elegant plan to visit the three monuments you absolutely wanted to see in one day. Getting more creative can help you in your everyday personal “projects” as well as in your work life. And I’ll tell you what: just like a muscle, the more you use your creativity, the more you can develop it.

Why should you train your creative muscle? Well, creative thinking will be one key skill of the 21st Century (find more here, or here). As for any training, you’ll benefit a lot from following a program. The program I’ll detail here is not a definitive answer and is surely incomplete, but it has worked for me so far and I invite you to try it. My personal experience involves creating music, building a (failed) startup whose name was TraxAir, and working in an Agile company named Theodo. Also, I recently started writing articles (hey there!).

This program hinges around training your creativity by doing. The act of doing is what will drive progress in your life. You will be put in front of real problems that you have to solve quickly. Solving problems obviously requires creativity, so doing it more will make you flex your creative muscle. I certainly hope you will be able to apply it to whatever your favorite domains are (is it research? Business? Cinema? Writing? Painting?Music? Pet stuffing?). Before reading further, think about a project of interest to you and imagine yourself going through the workout.

This creativity workout is called STRESS, and it should enable you to do more with less stress. STRESS stands for 6 steps:

  • Small is the way to start
  • To-do lists make you work faster
  • Reproduce parts of work you like
  • Evaluation is the fuel for greatness
  • Share your work
  • Start over and repeat

Let’s go over it in detail.

Step 1 — Small is the way to start

So, you have something in mind. Maybe you want to create your own startup; maybe you want to craft a music album; maybe you want to direct a movie. Or maybe you want to do all of them at once! Well, you’ll have to be patient and not bite off more than you can chew. Simplify your problem. Do something smaller. Find an MVP (as in Minimum Valuable Process) instead of going directly to the startup phase; create a single song instead of an entire album; direct a 2-minute film instead of a full-length one. If your goal is writing a blog, start by writing one article. Do not set out just yet for a long and repetitive task, such as “I want to write one article every week about a subject I care about”, because the perspective of having so much to write about will be immediately daunting and could paralyze you. If you want to capitalize on work you’ve already done, for example if you’re building a software product, “small” for you will be a new iteration on the project, such as a Scrum sprint. Limiting your scope is the best gift you will do to yourself, and you can do it in a variety of ways.

The definition of “small” will change from person to person and from project to project. You should change your definition of “small” on a regular basis. If your previous attempt at a particular deed has been unsuccessful, you should lower your expectations. If you’ve been successful a few times, it’s time to take a bigger risk. See, I thought I would not be able to write this article entirely because it seemed bigger than what I could write at first, and I was very close to deciding that I would split it into “part 1” and “part 2”. In the end it flowed more easily than I anticipated so I did not change my definition of small.

Starting small is sane because whatever you do, you will never achieve perfection on the first try. Stop being such a perfectionist, if you are one. Embrace imperfection, embrace failure, and give the best you can right now. Did you know that there is an event about startup failures? You’ll also find a lot of articles about how successful people fail a lot. Heck, there is even a whole topic on Quora! The rationale is that you can’t succeed if you don’t try, and you haven’t really tried if you’ve never failed. Start small and don’t stop at the first attempt. I used to be an incorrigible perfectionist, and it has always held me back from getting shit done, because failing at something small and seemingly unimportant is far easier than failing a long, hard, arduous project, and it makes you more focused on your goal.

Yes, you can buy this poster

Step 2 — To-do lists make you work faster

You turned your project into something small enough that you can swallow, that’s good! Now ask yourself, how do you achieve your goal? What tasks do you need to accomplish? Try to cut your project into a list of about 7 tasks so that you can have a sense of progress. What’s my progress today? Well, 3 out of 7, not bad, 4 more to go. This very article is cut into 7 parts: an introduction and 6 steps. This is deliberate, because the text involved in each part is small enough that I can write it in less than an hour. I used Trello to keep track of my progress, and more precisely the card checklists. There are of course more complete ways of measuring your progress but this is too project-dependent. If you’re into startups, go read The Lean Startup from Eric Ries.

The act of cutting your work has to do with Parkinson’s law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. In other words, if you give yourself unlimited time, your work will expand infinitely. And this is what happens a lot with perfectionist people, who endlessly tinker with their creation until it’s over-thought or over-engineered. Setting a clear list of tasks will make you take fast decisions and be more pragmatic because it also adds you a constraint. There are of course different levels in which you can cut your work. If your definition of “small” is quite big, say writing the entire Harry Potter series, then you will benefit from cutting the series into, say, 7 books, which are themselves composed of about 20 chapters, which are themselves cut into a bunch of paragraphs. Also, notice how the Harry Potter books grew longer each time because the author got better at writing a story. You can also have a look at how Will Butler wrote one song per day for an entire week, using headlines from the Guardian, and posted them on the Guardian’s website (see also step 5). Typically though, you should try list tasks that you can complete in less than half a day (find more here about efficient to-dos thanks to an excellent feedback from Maxime Thoonsen ). This avoids a tunnel effect, where you forget to have perspective on what you are trying to accomplish. This is a pretty big deal in Agile methodologies for software development, such as Scrum.

Brian Tracy shows the power of lists in his book Eat That Frog! and writes in this article that “your mind, your ability to think, plan and decide, is your most powerful tool for overcoming procrastination and increasing your productivity”. Listing and planning on paper will make you less prone to dwell on particular thoughts. We’ve all known a moment when you think for days or months about all the steps you have to take to accomplish a particular task, say finding a job, and we accomplish nothing for some time before necessity comes in (hello, procrastination). On the other hand, when we want to bake a cake, which is in itself a rather complex chemistry process, the fact that all the ingredients are listed in front of you and that you have half a dozen precise steps to follow, you seldom have to think about it twice. While having reachable goals (step 1) makes planning easier for you, I insist that you write down a plan because that will make your work flow way more easily. By the way I’ve covered my own feedback about how to set up a minimal efficient todo list in this article.

In your work, you can also benefit from having an overall deadline for your project, because it will help you prioritize which tasks are more important than the others. When your plan is defined, work on one task at a time, one after another. Seriously, it’s important.

Step 3 — Reproduce parts of work you like

It’s now time to look around you. Find a small set of things that are close to your goal, and copy them! Do you know Rocket Internet? They copy business models from other companies and even made an Amazon clone for Africa called Jumia. In music, it’s common practice to use a couple of reference tracks, as explained here by Graham Cochran from The Recording Revolution, to get inspiration for arrangement, chord progression, overall sound, or mixing. Quentin Tarantino is also famous for referencing other movies. And it’s not just him, everybody does it!

Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill are on the right side

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not glorifying plagiarism or anything, but whether you like it or not, what you will end up creating is going to be a derivative of your previous experiences, whether you do it consciously or not. Having similar works in mind will give you a clearer view of where you could get, and what your own shortcomings are. Most importantly, having references will prevent you from getting stuck (that can depend on what you do though; you can read this great article from Pheek for overcoming blockage in music, but I think it can be applied to other artistic efforts). In my work experiences, I have built several websites. Instead of reinventing the wheel when it came to define how a user should be interacting with a particular element, we would have a look at other websites whose user experience we enjoy. We could then work fast and on solid ground.

Whatever you do, get inspired by work you love, great processes, great people, and make what you learn from this your own. Sure, you can do without references, but it really helps a lot having some. For example, I systematically use reference musics when I’m writing music. I keep some notes about projects I find interesting on Evernote, Google Keep and Trello right when I find them, so that I can use this list later.

Step 4 — Evaluation is the fuel for greatness

Don’t work alone. Of course, you could do your stuff on your own, the actual creative part, but you absolutely need to get feedback. This aims at giving you a clearer view of your work. If it’s a piece of art, do they get your message? Can they appreciate it? What could be improved? If it’s a product, can your users use it intuitively? In product development it is very common to get user feedback at least twice a month, and the best products are the ones that care about their users.

You should validate that you are headed in the right direction, and you should do it quickly, even on incomplete work. This is a principle at the core of the Minimum Viable Product, but it is not limited to product development. The faster you ask for feedback, the more prepares you’ll be to let go of bad ideas, and the more you will be ready to make sometimes radical changes. If you don’t do it, you’ll end up showing something you worked very hard on, people may not like it and you’ll get hurt. Show your work early, and do it often. A friend of mine pushed this principle to the limit: whenever he wants to write a technical article about coding, he gets very drunk, writes his article right before going to bed, and then goes through two rounds of feedback from his colleagues. In the beginning his article is very bad and poorly written, and it ends up being really good (try to stay sober, though).

Who should you get feedback from? For small projects, mostly close friends, family, and colleagues. Maybe you’ll say “but wait, that’s not who my work is aimed at!”. You may also think that your work is not worth being showed to your friends or family. Well, feedback has to be kind to be efficient, and I don’t believe you don’t have someone around you that can give it to you. If you are working on a product or a bigger project, you should still try to focus on your early adopters, your end users, or your “fan base”. In any case, don’t hesitate to tell the people you get feedback from that you’re not sure if what you did is good enough and that they can help you improve it. On their part, they will surely tell you that they don’t think their opinion is valuable. Do it anyway, convince yourself, and convince them that their feedback has value. It does. Above all, be interested in their feedback, ask questions that make you check that they understood what your work is. For example, if you wrote a story ask them if they understood the plot, what they think of the characters, who they rooted for, and so on. Make a list of their suggestions (step 2 again), apply some of them to your work, and show your changes. It is important to actually validate with people that gave you feedback that you understood what he or she meant. It is also important to tell them why you did not apply the changes they proposed. Plus, they will be happy that you have taken their opinion into account. In short, be transparent. For this article I went through three rounds of feedback from very different people. They inspired me a lot of the examples that you’ve read and they challenged me a lot. I have to say that I am glad that they were here to help.

Never wait for your work to be finished before getting feedback, or you are wasting an opportunity to steer it in a better direction.

Step 5 — Share your work

Congratulations! You’ve followed the previous steps, you’ve worked hard, fast, and you’ve made all the improvements you could. However, you haven’t done shit. Hey, don’t be mad. You have to deliver your work to your intended audience. Share your work, show it! To those of you who think “it’s not ready yet! I can’t share it!”, I understand. But. Most of the time, releasing your work is the elephant in the room.

If you build a website, you will need to host it somewhere, register your own domain (and pay for it), make sure your website is well referenced on search engines, communicate about it on social networks, etc. For software projects there is a whole book dedicated to this named Release it!. If you want to release some music or some movie you’ll at least need to create a YouTube channel (which requires you to have a logo, a header, a description, and an infamous Google+ page), upload the video, select a thumbnail, and make sure you optimize your SEO (catchy title, good description, relevant keywords).

Tedious, right? But if you don’t release it, your work is worthless, it does not even exist. And maybe you’re shy or insecure and you don’t want to expose it to the rest of the World, and that’s mostly fine. If you think that nobody will like what you do, I suggest you read this great article from Todd Brison. There are also plenty of ways you can release your work, going from hanging a painting you made on the wall of your living room to hosting a big Apple-style conference to show off your latest connected thermostat. The most important part is to go all the way down the process of sharing your work and calling it final; and that matters a lot, because done is better than perfect (for full disclosure, I haven’t been contacted by any motivational poster company for publicity). After releasing your work, it is done, it is out, and you will experience a great feeling of accomplishment.

Releasing is hard but use it as an opportunity to learn and get even broader feedback. To be honest, I have no idea what will come out of my releasing this article. I don’t have many expectations but I will try to release it as best as I can. My only hope is that people will interact as a result of reading this article and I’ll either learn something new in result. In any case, I’ll make sure I track relevant statistics, such as how many people viewed it, how many liked it, where they came from, etc. Having such metrics will give me a sense of whether my future work will be an improvement or a failure. This is one way I can learn and I’m sure you can apply it too. Before releasing, ask yourself what you want to learn, and what you want to measure.

Try your best to make your project a success, by showing it the most people possible, building your network, joining a community, etc. Build, measure, learn. The next time you’ll release something, it will be much easier, and it will hopefully be more successful. If something is hard, do it more often. In the end, it won’t be so hard anymore.

Step 6 — Start over and repeat

Congratulations! This time, you got shit done. It wasn’t easy but you made it. Now it’s time to enjoy, learn, and do all the steps again.

Reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of what you’ve accomplished. Reflect on the process you followed. Read books about what you want to improve. Review your definition of small. Gather new references. Aim higher. Take more risks next time, and set a new habit for doing more.

Someone once told me, 'Time is a flat circle.' Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.
Rust Cohle, True Detective

You got shit done. Now do it better.


Too Long Didn’t Read

STRESS stands for:

  • Small is the way to start
  • To-do lists make you work faster
  • Reproduce parts of work you like
  • Evaluation is the fuel for greatness
  • Share your work
  • Start over

Use STRESS to your advantage and give your creativity a good workout!

Do you need help applying those steps? Tell us more about your project! Do you follow another methodology? Please let me know!