What do you see in this image? What new ideas will it give you?

How to Trick Your Brain into Creative Mode

Find your creative ‘on switch’ and train your brain to be creative on demand.

Erik van der Pluijm
6 min readMar 15, 2019

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Trying to come up with new ideas can be hard. Staring at an empty page, a kind of ‘writer’s block’ can easily grab you, and your mind just won’t come up with new ideas. Wouldn’t it be great if your brain just had a switch to put it in creative mode? Well, it has!

Think about it. Where does any new idea come from? Chances are, ideas just ‘pop’ into your head, seemingly coming from nowhere. There probably are moments and situations in which you have more new ideas. For me, it’s when I go running, but perhaps for you it is when you wake up at night, when you’re in the shower, or when you’re stuck in traffic.

Configure your brain

The trick to finding your personal ‘on’ switch is to identify these moments. Figure out what they have in common, and re-create the right conditions when you need to become creative.

Your brain has different mental ‘modes’ in which it operates. Some of these modes may be great to make decisions, some may be great for social interaction, others may be good for getting a lot of work done efficiently. And there is also a ‘creative mode’.

To get better at switching on your creative mode, you need to learn more about your own mental modes. You need to learn how to consciously configure your brain for the task you want to achieve. It’s something creative people practice every day. This ‘brain configuring’ is something that you get better at by observing what happens when you’re in a creative vs. an uncreative mode.

For example, I know that if I want to really solve a problem, I need to think about it really hard for a few hours, and really care about solving it. Then, I have to wait a day or so. And only then, my ‘subconscious’ will start yielding interesting solutions. The process can’t be forced. If I would press on after the initial hours, and try to push through directly, I’ll just get tired and hit a brick wall.

Also, I know that if I want to switch on a creative mood, it will take me around 30 minutes to get into the ‘zone’. I know my brain will come up with some really crap ideas first, but that’s ok. I just have to keep going and trust my brain to get me better ideas once I am past this initial stage.

The way I learnt (and am learning more every day) about configuring my own brain, is by observing and evaluating my thought process in various situations, writing my experiences down in a logbook. Also, I keep experimenting with new approaches after talking to other people about their creative ‘mode’. And if something works, it gets implemented into the configuration routine that I use to switch my mode of thinking.

What you can do:

  • Keep a logbook. Note down in what situations a particular mental mode worked well, or didn’t work at all, and try to evaluate the circumstances. What were you doing/thinking before? How long did it last?
  • Experiment. Create experiments in configuring your brain, doing different things to stimulate certain mental states. Read about the creative process of others, or ask creative people you know how they get into the ‘zone’.
  • Create configuration routines. These are short step-by-step routines to get you into a specific mental state. Practice them when you need to go into that state. Soon enough it will become second nature.

Unblock yourself

There are also some things to stop doing. Some things are enemies of the creative mode of thought. We have learned to see our mind as a machine, and we are pressured to be efficient. So we naturally try to be ‘efficient’ about creativity. It is possible to be more efficient (although I’d go for effective rather than efficient myself) — but going at it in a direct approach is counterproductive.

For instance, if you have a goal, and try to come up with ideas, it is easy to immediately judge each new idea and see if it achieves the goal. If you look at it like that, 99.9% of all ideas will look like crap. It is incredibly rare that a fully formed solution will pop into your head that ticks all the boxes.

Judging ideas immediately is very counterproductive. The brain works by association: it uses context and examples to latch onto and create new ideas. Especially when you have a bunch of half-formed ideas on the table, your brain is very good at taking parts from each and creating new, better ideas.

You need the initial crap ideas in order to get to the good ones.

Think of these ideas like ’stepping stones’. They are the raw ingredients you can turn into something amazing later on. Besides, judging ideas isn’t any fun, because what happens is you’ll sit there, punishing yourself for not coming up with any ‘good ideas’ and feeling super uncreative — and all the while, the only thing that’s blocking you is you.

Another really important blocker is having a super rigid point of view. If you go into a creative session without any flexibility, then you won’t get anywhere.

So rather than defining the solution you’re looking for before the session, having goals set in stone, and judging each new idea on if it meets those goals, next time try something different:

  • Don’t set fixed goals. Instead define clear Design Criteria that you can use afterward to rate your ideas.
  • Timebox an hour or so to come up with ideas.
  • Defer your judgement of ideas until after time’s up.

In this way, while ideating, you’ll feel secure that you’re not losing direction, because you’re going to check the outcomes against design criteria afterwards, and you’ll feel less need to judge ideas immediately. You’ll be able to go with the flow, and come up with tons more ideas — and a percentage of those will be surprisingly good, I promise!

Of course, there are other blockers as well such as stress, and many other things that might block you personally. Using the logbook, you’ll probably uncover a few of them. What could you achieve if you managed to avoid just one of those blockers?

Brain Kickstarters

And, if you get stuck, and have trouble to switch to being creative, there are some tricks you can use to get you started.

1. Don’t take it too seriously

Monthy Python’s John Cleese says it all in this amazing video:

It may be a long video, but it is too good to miss!

Having fun and using humour are some of the best ways to become creative. And being too serious (or even solemn) is to be avoided.

Play around with your ideas. Don’t treat them as final products, treat them as toys to play with. Turn them inside out, upside down.

2. The power of random

When you look at something like a concrete wall, or a Rohrschach image, you’ll see images in the random patterns. Your brain is wired to see things such as faces (the effect is called pareidolia).

What do you see? A face? Or a part of Mars?

When I was working in computer games, concept artists would use random noise to get them started on a new image. When coming up with startup ideas it’s no different.

How you can use random noise:

  • Get random words from a dictionary. Take a physical dictionary, open it up randomly, and pick a random word from the page. Do this 10 times and try to see how the results connect to what you’re working on. Or use this word generator site.
  • Random search a webpage using The Useless Web.
  • Random name generators, such as Namelix.
  • Collections of pictures and card stacks such as Ideo’s Method Cards, or Trigger Cards.

Whenever you deal a new combination, or look at a new collection of random words, play with it. Try to make combinations that are interesting to you. Only then ask yourself how they could be applied to the subject you’re working on.

3. Observation beats judgement.

When you feel you are ‘judging’ ideas, in a true/false frame, go into observation mode and closely observe your colleagues, a tree out of the window, or the wall. (Not your smartphone!) Look at all the tiny details. When you are really observing you can’t judge and that, at least for me, frees up the creative part of the brain.

Happy Ideating!

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Erik van der Pluijm
Design A Better Business

Designing the Future | Entrepreneur, venture builder, visual thinker, AI, multidisciplinary explorer. Designer / co-author of Design A Better Business