How to get into a creative mindset

Creative work is great. It’s fun. It’s always new.

But it can also be tedious. There are times when you stare into midair, waiting for inspiration to strike. And while inspiration is busy elsewhere, you secretly wish that you had some forms to fill out. Or invoices to check. You start shuffling things around your desk. You catch yourself checking your phone twice a minute. And — wondrously — this still doesn’t inspire you.

If you’ve ever been there, you know: Creativity cannot just be switched on and off like a lightbulb. However, psychology offers some tricks on how to get into a creative mindset.

1. Do something creative beforehand

First of all, don’t succumb to the urge to fill out forms or check invoices. You’re going to be less creative after having done so.

In an experiment, researchers let some people play freely with Lego. Others had to follow instructions in order to build the “Space Moon Buggy” shown on the package. The free play is creative. There are endless possibilities what can be created from a heap of Lego bricks. Building a Space Moon Buggy according to the instructions, however, doesn’t need creativity. Instead, it requires so-called “convergent thinking”. Convergent thinking means: Playing by the rules in order to reach the (one) correct result. You need the same kind of mindset in order to do calculations, fill out forms or add data to a system, for example.
 The Lego experiment showed that those who had been building freely scored well at subsequent creative tasks. In contrast: people who had built the Space Moon Buggy according to the instructions couldn’t simply shake off their convergent, play-by-the-rules mindset. They showed less creativity in subsequent tasks.

What does this mean for you? When you have to be creative, try to avoid tasks that require you to stick to rules beforehand. No calculations! No forms! Additionally, you might benefit from a small warm-up before the actual task. Just do something creative. For example, draw an image with your non-dominant hand. Or collect as many associations to a word as you can find.

2. Boost your mood

You will like this tip: Have a nice chat with someone. Watch a funny video. Treat yourself to something tasty. What improves your mood is also good for your creativity. Experiments have shown that people are more creative when they are in good spirits.

The reason for this has to do with how our brain processes information. People are better at retrieving information from their memory if it fits their mood. When you’re in a bad mood, you find it easier to remember bad things. When you’re in a positive mood, you can access positive memories and associations more easily. Since usually there are more positive than negative connections in your mind, you have access to more information when you’re in good spirits.

3. See the fun in the task

Once you’re upbeat, this next piece of advice might come easier to you: Concentrate on enjoying the task.

Psychologists distinguish between two kinds of motivation. On the one hand, you can be keen on doing something because you enjoy the thing itself — for example, you paint because it’s fun for you. On the other hand, you can be motivated by the promise of winning a reward — an art contest, for instance. Research suggests that the first kind of motivation is better for your creativity. Therefore you should focus on what is fun and interesting about the creative task at hand — not on the money or appraisal you might get for completing it.

4. Let yourself be provoked

Creativity is all about being open to new approaches and solutions. For this, it helps to be exposed to different opinions. Research has shown that looking into the position of a minority — a person or group that swims against the current or has very unusual beliefs — makes you more creative.

Therefore, reading a controversial article, watching a game-changing TED talk or having a discussion with that weird-minded colleague of yours can put you in a creative mindset. It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree. Or if they’re right or wrong. The important thing is that you see past the end of your nose.

5. Travel — even if only in your mind

Speaking about the world beyond the end of your nose: People who traveled or lived abroad are more creative. Unfortunately, you usually cannot just squeeze in a little vacation trip before tackling your task. But you don’t have to. Even thinking about distant places makes you already more creative. In an experiment, people were more inventive when confronted with a problem that was set in a distant country. Participants solved the same issue less resourcefully if they thought it happened in their neighborhood — even if the place was totally irrelevant to the problem.

So some pictures from distant countries above your desk and a small thought journey can already boost your creativity.

6. Get moving (but not too much)

You’re so stuck that even thought journeys don’t work? Then get up and get moving! A short walk can stimulate creativity.

However, it’s not “the more the better”. Intense physical exercise activates convergent thinking (the play-by-the-rules mindset we talked about in point 1) in people with high fitness levels. As for not-so-fit people: They score worse at creativity tasks after intense exercise — probably because of the exhaustion. So better save the full workout for when you’re done being creative.

Originally published at on May 17, 2016.

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