Everyone wants to be more creative. But there’s this idea in our culture that only certain people are creative. You either have it, or you don’t.
Creativity, however, is good for everyone. It’s as natural to humans as swimming is to a fish. There are so many psychological benefits to increasing your creativity, including:
- A greater sense of freedom
- Increased self-awareness and authenticity
- More faith in yourself
- Stress relief
- Better problem solving
Studies have even shown that creativity can boost your immune system, heal trauma, improve memory, and manage negative emotions. In almost any job, “creative thinking” or “problem solving” is a desired skill.
It can be hard to approach creativity as a practical problem. Too often, gurus hide the “secrets” to creativity behind esoteric concepts like “inspiration” and “the muse.”
But there are practical ways to help unlock your creative juices every day.
Creativity is born out of feeling and out of intuition — if we work on developing our feeling and intuitive sides, we can increase our creative output. You need to clear out a lot of the excess “noise” that interrupts your daily life so that you can build the time and the space to notice what’s happening in your life.
If we shift our approach and come to creativity as a habit, we can unlock some of its mysteries. Below are seven things I try and do every day to keep my creative mind sharp.
1. Write in a Journal
“Leap, and the net will appear.” — Julia Cameron
I just cited a few studies on the beneficial nature of creativity, both for your mind and body. What’s interesting is that a lot of these benefits are uniquely tied to journaling.
One of the key concepts of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way — which functions as a road map to creative recovery — is morning pages.
The idea is simple: every day, first thing in the morning, you write three pages. That’s it.
There are a few other suggestions Cameron makes (and they are excellent suggestions), but they do not change the basic principle.
- Write them long-hand, with pen and paper
- Write them in a stream of consciousness style
- Don’t think about what you’re writing
- Don’t share them with other people
In addition to the physical and psychological benefits of keeping a journal, using one invites synchronicity into your life.
Synchronicity is developing an eye for catching patterns of meaning. Have you ever bought a new pair of shoes and then suddenly noticed those same shoes everywhere? The universe didn’t create more shoes. You started noticing something that had been there the whole time. That’s synchronicity.
By writing in a journal, you focus your attention on your life and invite more meaning. You are then more aware of meaningful symbols and interactions in your daily life. Capturing this web of significance is the key to creativity. Journaling helps you see it.
2. Take an Artist’s Date
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” — Pablo Picasso
“The most potent muse of all is our own inner child.” — Stephen Nachmanovitch
In addition to morning pages, Julia Cameron recommends a second tool to unlocking creativity: artist dates.
She describes these two approaches as a radio receiver and transmitter, with the morning pages acting as a transmitter (sending your raw thoughts out into the universe) and the artist date as the receiver (opening yourself up to the universe’s response).
As in the morning pages, the instructions for an artist date are simple: once per week, take two hours alone to do whatever you want. The two key components are that the activity must be undertaken alone, and it must be something you want to do (not something you “should” do or think is “important” in some abstract way).
Why go alone? Simple: it’s deceptively hard to be alone with your thoughts.
Even introverts, when alone, like to throw themselves into some form of escapism: books, video games, movies, the internet, social media. Being alone with yourself is terrifying. We don’t know what we will think. We don’t know how to handle, how to process all our thoughts. We don’t know what we truly want, and if we did know, it might frighten us.
The artist’s date helps you learn to be alone with your thoughts. When you hear your thoughts, you hear your voice — the key to unlocking your creativity. Only when you learn to listen to your inner thoughts can you produce your best work, the kind of work that no one else in the world could produce.
The second reason to go alone is that creatives usually find themselves caught in the needs and desires of other people. There’s an irony here: the sensitivity, which is an excellent strength in the world of art, gets turned against the artist by other people, who, though well-meaning, bend the artist to be a champion of their desires and wishes.
If you’re always stressed out and in a combative mood, it’s almost impossible to sit down and do the deep work required for creativity.
This leads us into the second requirement of artist dates: you must do something you want to do.
The artist’s date helps you reconnect to yourself as a child — when it was easy to be creative when creativity was a natural impulse and not something that needed to be coaxed out.
Children are very frank about their desires. They will tell you, with no filter, what they like, and what they do not like. As adults, we lose this skill. We gain the skills of social fluidity and relationship building by sublimating our desires.
Artist dates help us coax out those ill-used and forgotten expressions, not to the degree that we become childish, but so that we may become more child-like by reconnecting with our deepest urges, unfiltered by the needs, expectations, and desires of others.
For an artist date, you may choose to go to a museum, buy crafts, make something silly, put stickers on a journal, go bowling, go out for ice cream, see a movie by yourself, or go for a drive to a neighboring town. Whatever you can think of, do it. Once a week. Do something that excites you, that thrills you, that even scares you a little. The point is to play with it. The point is to have fun. Because if creativity isn’t fun, then it isn’t anything.
3. Go For a Walk
“I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind works with my legs.” — Jean-Jacque Rousseau
“My thoughts will sleep if I seat them. My wit will not budge if my legs do not shake it up.” — Montaigne
Have you ever gotten so stuck on a problem that it drove you crazy? You couldn’t stop thinking about it, but still, you got nowhere? You just kept circling the drain, going back and forth, back and forth. It was not until you were far away from your work, on a walk somewhere, that the perfect solution crystallized in your mind, and you rushed home to make a note of it.
Walking is the perfect antidote to creative quagmires. Walking forces you to slow down, helping you notice things. Those things become raw forms of creativity.
The walk functions as a metaphor for life’s journey. No challenge in the world cannot be solved by putting one foot in front of the other.
It’s no accident that in poetry, we refer to the customary beats of the form as “feet.” A poem walks its way across the page. If you look at the most celebrated poets in history, you will often see a propensity for taking walks. The swinging rhythm of their poetry mirrors the physical swinging of their bodies through the world in which they inhabited.
William Wordsworth composed many of his poems while walking through the woods around his home. Wallace Stevens walked every day to work as an insurance salesman and stopped to write poems on his way. Aristotle was known to do his thinking and lecturing while walking, which is why his students became known as the peripatetics — literally “those who walk about.”
Walking outside has been shown by science to improve memory and attention. Walking is also just good for your health. It’s a low-impact activity that’s been shown to help your cholesterol, improve heart health, and manage diabetes.
Walking, like all exercise, is also an effective way to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety. Even better than a city walk is a walk in nature, where the surroundings engage the brain in an effortless manner that calms us and allows for reflection.
Studies have shown that men who embark on daily walks of two miles or more have half the chance of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. What’s crazy is that this association goes both ways. One of the first signs of dementia is a slower, shakier gait, implying that mental faculties affect your walking as well. Cognitive abilities like memory, planning, and processing information decline almost in parallel with the ability to walk fluidly.
At its most basic level, walking literally provides the sensation of moving forward, which is the perfect antidote for all those times you feel stuck, trapped, or unsure how to proceed.
The pilgrimage is a rite that can be found in almost all the world’s religions — the walk functions as a metaphor for life’s journey. No challenge in the world cannot be solved by putting one foot in front of the other.
“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.” — David Lynch
We spend so much of our busy lives trying to come up with ideas. We are always on the hunt for solutions to our increasingly complex problems.
Meditation, like walking, does not only help lower stress, it also enhances creativity. Dany Penman, in Mindfulness for Creativity, identifies three skills that meditation provides to improve creative problem-solving:
- It opens your mind to novel ideas
- It improves your attention
- It nurtures resilience
Novel ideas form the raw clay of creativity. Improved attention helps you notice things. Creativity is a willingness to fail. Not all ideas will work. Maybe only 1 in 10. Perhaps only 1 in 1,000. You will fail many times before you hit a breakthrough.
Meditation helps you deal with stress by helping your body switch from a “fight or flight” response to a more attentive mode. If you’re always stressed out, and in a combative mood, it’s almost impossible to sit down and do the deep work required for creativity. Meditation helps clear out the cobwebs from the rest of your life so that you have mental space for creation.
You only need about 10 minutes of meditation to improve your creativity. No matter how busy your day, you can find 10 minutes. Get started by trying one of the many online meditation courses, like Headspace or Calm.
5. Anthropomorphize Your Inner Critic
“To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” — Joseph Chilton Pearce
One of the major blocks to creativity is the core negative beliefs we have about ourselves and artists in general. At some point in your life, you’ve probably thought the following:
- If I become an artist, I will forever be poor and struggling financially.
- No one is interested in what I have to say.
- Nobody cares about good art anymore.
- If I do the art I really want to do, my parents/spouse/friends/siblings/neighbors/boss will hate me.
- Art is a waste of time in the long run.
- Everyone does this better than I can.
There’s a deep irony in being an artist — in getting in touch with your creativity. Artists are sensitive, which is a skill they cultivate to create better and more meaningful art, but that means that artists are sensitive. They are vulnerable to criticism, are stuck deep in Dunning-Kruger self-doubts, and are easily thrown off by the life-scripts of well-meaning parents, teachers, and friends who steer them away from the arts and towards “practical” careers.
To work and live as a creative, you must learn to defeat your inner critic. Otherwise, every day will be a struggle. You will torment yourself with the simple act of creation, and you will never be able to put in the work and time to develop your art.
Resistance, is a useful signal. Whenever you hear its telltale grumblings, it signals you are on the right path.
Defeat your inner critic by anthropomorphizing them. Give them a personality, a name, an appearance. Make them into a person you could “greet” every morning. Draw them if that helps. Write a story about them. Maybe your inner critic’s name is Craig, and he’s a drab businessman who works fifteen hours a day shuffling papers in an ugly building with no windows. He never gets to see his family, and he’s jealous of your creative abilities and wants to see you fail.
Turn your creativity against your inner critic and declaw them. Remove their powers over you. Reduce them to something silly, easily dismissable, and then every time you hear their telltale voice (“you will never make it”), smile, and remember who they really are. “Oh, that’s just Craig, who’s upset because he’s never gotten a raise even after twelve years in the company.”
Every morning, say hi to your inner critic. Acknowledge them and remind yourself how silly they are. Remove them from your voice. They are not “you,” they are something else. You don’t listen to them because they have no idea what they are saying.
Stephen Pressfield calls this inner critic Resistance in his book, The War of Art. To Pressfield, this inner critic, Resistance, is a useful signal. Whenever you hear its telltale grumblings, it signals you are on the right path. When the inner critic emerges with a particularly vicious criticism, you know that what you are about to do is important. It’s important to you, and it’s important to the world. You must do it. By reframing Resistance, you can learn to recognize it as a sign of growth and not a sign of stagnation.
6. Read Mantras to Yourself
“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.” — Napoleon Hill
You unlock creativity when you silence the background chatter of your life — which always hums like white noise — and learn to listen to the still, deep voice that is your own.
The default mode of our brain is overactive. We are constantly distracted, following one thought after another. Mantras help us relax the relentless energy of our mind through calming rituals.
In Sanskrit, mantra means “a tool for the mind.”
When you perform a mantra, you repress the brain’s default mode, making space for more relaxed, centered thinking. Brain imaging tools have revealed that when you silently repeat a single word, there is a measurable “quieting of the mind” and fewer thoughts.
There are many resources online for mantras to read to yourself every day, but I encourage you to create your own. Write down a manifesto for your ideal self. It’s helpful to think of this ideal version as a completely different person. Imagine what that person is like and write down all of their positive qualities.
Every day, read those qualities to yourself, changing them into the first person. Act as if you already possess them.
7. Write Down Your Creative Goals
“When you write your goals and dreams down first thing every morning, you deepen your own sense of belief and desire in your goals. If you don’t believe you can achieve your goals, you won’t.” — Benjamin Hardy
To achieve your creative goals, you will need to work consistently with no sign of success or financial reward in sight for a long time. This is very hard to do. Many would-be creatives abandon the path at this point. The efforts do not seem to be worth the rewards, and there are so many other distracting, immediate-reward paths to follow.
The most successful creatives in their field have been churning away at it for years, even decades. They toiled without any hint of success for a long time. Creative success is like a logarithmic curve. For all your time spent on it initially, you will move only in incremental steps towards your goal. Still, at a certain point, your effort starts to compound, and even a little bit of work will produce more and more success, increasing exponentially.
To get to that point, though, you have to put in a ton of work with virtually no results. To make it through, you have to be consistent. You need to write down your goals every day to remind yourself why you are working.
Many creatives get stuck because they try to rely on bursts of energy and “creative spurts” to achieve their goals. Don’t be like them. Treat your creativity as a job and be a professional about it. Show up even when you don’t feel like it and put in the work. You will reach those goals eventually.
Try these different techniques for yourself and see what works. Some of them may give you greater mileage, and others may do little for your creative process.
Every creative has their system, and part of the joy of the work is discovering your own. Discovering what works for you. Always try testing things out and, above all, learn to listen to that little voice inside. That’s the voice of the muse and the source of all creativity. These are merely some ideas to get you started.
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