Five simple techniques that will make you more creative
Writer’s block? Creative slump? Failed brainstorming? Try these techniques to reignite your innovating thinking.
Individuals and companies have so many burning questions around innovation, creativity, and brainstorming. How can I become more creative? How can our organization become more innovative? Why do our brainstorming efforts eventually fail? What are the secrets?
I’ve encountered a thousand different forms of this question in my lifetime. I remember one of the earliest being when I was in high school. The principal and a few teachers formed a research committee that included a couple of teachers and a small handful of students. The goal was to create a program to spark, encourage, and productively guide the creativity of the students in the school. Basically, more science and art, and fewer creative pranks.
We were seeking the holy grail of trying to find a program and process that was already successful, hoping that we could emulate it. We discovered that no one was completely successful, although there were some interesting aspects of the different programs. I think we missed the larger opportunity and clearly weren’t tasked with solving the root problem:
Traditional educational programs are not structured to encourage creativity.
Unfortunately, the working world isn’t much better. Structure, workplace issues, and reward systems abound that are destructive to the creative process. We want more creativity and innovation, but are we really willing to make the changes necessary to foster them?
A creativity crisis
Richard Florida fears that we are facing a “creativity crisis.” If we are entering the era of the “Creative Class,” with an increasingly large percentage of the global working population being employed in creative occupations, it is only going to become more critical that we can tap into our creative skills on a daily basis. But, it’s clear that the U.S. isn’t poised to lead the way.
Since 1990, even as IQ scores have risen in American students, creative thinking scores have dropped. Historically, universities in the U.S. have attracted students from around the world, which injects a diversity of experiences, thinking, and creative styles into our schools and businesses. But, our most recent policy changes have created barriers to entry, admissions have dropped, and now visitors are reluctant to come here.
“Over time, terrorism is less a threat to the U.S. than the possibility that creative and talented people will stop wanting to live within its borders.” — source
We have a great deal of work to do in our educational system to develop and nurture creativity, instead of crushing it. We also know that we are at risk of losing the creative minds who are ready, willing, and able to come here and be a part of our entrepreneurial spirit.
This will all take time. But, the demand for innovation is immediate. Every company I’ve spent time with — as an employee or consultant — wants to find a way for their employees and their organizations to be more innovative. Almost everyone I know needs creativity in their daily work, as an employee, entrepreneur, writer, or artist.
So, what can we do here, right now, to bring back the spark of our own creativity? How can we all restructure our lives and daily practices to fully participate in the creative class?
Five simple, yet powerful, techniques
I’ve studied the innovation problem, researched creativity literature, read dozens of books, and tested many different approaches throughout the years with my own teams. Many of the approaches failed. But, I finally found a mix of techniques that give you the best chance of success in creating and sustaining a viable innovation process that delivers results. We also found techniques that any individual can apply to improve their own creativity and innovative thinking skills.
Get very uncomfortable
First, I’ve found that original thinking and innovation only occurs when you are uncomfortable. If you are continually immersed in your comfortable daily routine at home, on the commute, at work, etc., your mind runs on autopilot. To spark creativity, you need to overload your sensory system and shock your system into a higher level of alertness.
I find that one of the best ways to do this is to travel. International travel seems to have the largest impact, as you can imagine. When you are surrounded by a completely new environment (e.g., other languages, different food, new sights and sounds, etc.), you are entirely awake absorbing the data around you. You are exposed to novel experiences and novel solutions to problems (at least they are novel to you). It makes you think about things differently.
Reduce creative friction
Second, to make the most of this new “heightened state”, you need easy access to tools to capture your impressions, thoughts, and new ideas. This can be a simple paper notebook that is small enough to slide into your pocket, which I highly recommend. There is debate about whether the physical act of writing by hand triggers different neurological pathways that enhance creativity and learning, or not.
Who cares? That’s not why I do it. It is simply faster and less distracting than pulling a device out, launching an app, ignoring the other apps and notifications, and trying to capture an idea. It is just faster. I also find it much easier to sketch concepts on paper to illustrate and capture concepts. But, maybe that is my design background poking through.
You can also use something like Evernote on your mobile device, which I use daily as well. It is important that it is easily accessible and you can quickly jot down ideas. You don’t want to lug around and fumble with a laptop when you’re trying to capture a flash of inspiration.
I recommend that you get into the habit of carrying some note-taking tool with you at all times. Constantly observe the world around you and use it to capture opportunities. Create a “This Sucks” list. As you go about your daily routine, take note of irritating events and failures.
For example, “It sucks that I have to wait in line for this” and “I can’t believe that there isn’t a better way to handle it”. Each of these is an opportunity for a solution or as Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, said;
“Look for friction in the system and create a solution that reduces or removes that friction” (paraphrased).
Disrupt your routine
Third, shake up your daily routine. I know that you can’t always go for a trip when you need to be creative. But, you can apply simpler versions of this process locally. We get set in our ways, consciously — or unconsciously — optimizing how we spend our days in a familiar pattern. Familiarity not only breeds contempt, it also stifles creativity.
So, take a new route to work. Use different transportation. Explore a new neighborhood during your lunch break. Have your meetings outside, walk, and talk. Meet new people. Go to a concert. Try new food. Just make sure that you shock yourself out of your usual comfort zone.
When it comes to routine, I am just as guilty as most. I will work in my home office, day after day. Sooner or later, I face writer’s block. I can’t come up with a single crazy, creative concept for my morning list of 10 ideas. That’s when I know that I need to pack up and leave. I’ll work out of a new coffee house, drive up to Lake Tahoe to work near the shoreline, or just stop at a new town and explore. This never fails to spark new ideas.
Return to nature
There is some interesting research on the benefits of “green exercise” and time in nature. People are even partaking in “forest bathing” to boost their mood and immune systems. I’m a big believer in spending time in nature, for all of these reasons and more. But, I’ve also discovered that a weekend hike or trail run has huge benefits for problem solving and creativity as well.
If I find that even my weekly visit to a new work location doesn’t do the trick, I know that I need to head out for a trail run to recharge my creative juices. You may see this as anecdotal evidence. But, neuroscientist David Strayer discovered in his research that “four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50% in a group of naive hikers.”
Psychologists hypothesize that our daily lives are consumed with work demands, device notifications, multitasking, and constant interruptions, all of which place a huge load on the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Unfortunately, this is also the area we rely on for our higher-level thinking, reasoning, problem solving, and creativity. The fatigue of our attention and cognitive abilities leads to a lack of that “spark” we need for inspiration.
When you need a creative boost to solve some sticky problem, remove yourself from your usual environment and head for the forest or even a local park. Turn off your devices, stop thinking about the problem, and just be physical. When I run and let my mind wander, I’m struck with flashes of inspiration later. Supposedly intractable problems suddenly have simple solutions. I was just too stressed and in the moment to realize it before.
Renew your wonder
Finally, a last interesting technique is to try to view the world through the “eyes of a child”. If you have children, then you know that they have very creative and unique interpretations of the world around them. I love hearing how they view problems and the solutions they offer.
Some people use a similar technique by pretending that they are an alien visitor from another world. They are seeing our planet for the very first time. They interact with everything as if it is a novel experience. I don’t recommend trying this with other people who don’t know what you are up to, unless you really like taking risks.
The basic idea is that we become accustomed to how things function in our lives. Some of these experiences are decades old, and we no longer question the absurdity of them. As a child, I bet you did. My children were always saying, “Why do we have to do that? Why do we do it that way? That’s stupid. Why don’t we do this instead?” More often than not, they were right. Why do we do some of the silly things that we do? Just because we’ve always done it that way.
So, use this technique to break free of your preconceived notions of how the world works. Ask all of the “Why?” and “Why not?” questions that you normally suppress, or have forgotten to ask. Approach the problems you are trying to solve as if you have absolutely no knowledge of any existing solutions (e.g., you’ve never interacted with this situation before).
It isn’t easy to clear your mind and play a completely naive role. But, the more you practice it, the better you will become. The more frequently you do this, the more interesting your observations will become. Plus, it’s kind of fun.
A community of creative people
If you’re interested in joining a community of ambitious people who make creativity and innovation a part of their daily work, check out my free Slack team. We’re loaded with designers, engineers, product visionaries, writers, artists, and other creative folks. We’re not afraid to be weird.
Are there other creativity techniques that work well for you? Share your favorites in the comments. Thanks!