Creativity is one of those things that often befuddles people. How on earth, we wonder, does one create something brand new out of what seems like thin air?
Something like the iPhone, that only strikes us as common sense after it was made?
Most of us conclude that we are simply not gifted with the ability to create. The Ancient Greeks believed that “the inspiration for originality came from the gods.” And that’s why, we think, we can never be creative.
Science, however, points to the opposite. Over recent years, numerous research findings have found quite definitely that creativity can indeed be learned and nurtured.
Our brains just need a nudge – or several constant nudges – in order to quit being lazy and start making new connections.
Need a nudge? Here are 51 hacks that will help you to get the creativity motors running.
When a deadline is looming, you’ll probably be anything but relaxed. However, that might be exactly what you need to free your brain up to do novel thinking.
Contrary to popular belief, overworking does not help you to come up with more creative ideas. As you’ve probably experienced, more often than not it likely leads to creative blocks instead.
On the other hand, author Brigid Schulte says that “when we are idle, in leisure, our brains are most active.” In her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, she adds:
The Default Mode Network lights up, which, like airport hubs, connects parts of our brain that don’t typically communicate. So a stray thought, a random memory, an image can combine in novel ways to produce novel ideas.
- Take a hot shower. It signals the end of the day, allowing your brain to transit into “relaxation mode.” That hot showers relieve tense muscles and are enjoyable definitely adds to its appeal.
- Take a long walk. Steve Jobs did it. So do Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. Here’s why: An experiment conducted by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz found that “walking increased creativity for 81 percent of participants, with participants increasing their creative output by an average of 60 percent.”
- Read an inspirational book before bed. Studies have shown that memory retention increases if sleep “occurs shortly after learning.” Take this opportunity to fill up on inspiration, and let your sleeping brain do the rest.
- Visualize your problem just before sleeping. Point your brain in the right direction to subconsciously work on your problem right before sleeping. Just don’t obsess over it, otherwise you’ll never fall asleep.
- Try to engage in lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming occurs when you take control of your dream, becoming aware that you are dreaming. In this state, you could literally dream up a solution to your creative problems, which you can tap on when awake. Be warned, though – this takes a lot of practice.
- Surround yourself with blue. A University of British Columbia study found that blue is “best at boosting our ability to think creatively.” “Through associations with the sky, the ocean and water, most people associate blue with openness, peace and tranquility [which] make people feel safe about being creative and exploratory,” explains author Juliet Zhu.
- Daydream. A study conducted by researchers from the University of California found that “engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.”
- Take many breaks. Also known as “creative pause.” Working for extended periods of time affects your focus, performance, and interestingly, your sensory perception too. Unplugged moments allow your mind to wander and chance upon previously unseen connections.
- Lie down. Researchers at the Australian National University found that subjects were able to solved problems about 10 percent faster than when standing. Go ahead, get comfortable – just don’t fall asleep!
- Take a power nap. But not for too long – around half an hour is good. This is because, while short naps boost your brainpower, entering deep sleep after that stage will cause you to feel groggy when you wake up.
- Have fun. Stress and pressure to perform is one of the biggest obstacles to creative thinking. A number of studies conducted in the 1980s found that “creativity and intrinsic interest diminish if task is done for gain.” Relax, have fun, and you’ll find your muse returning with renewed vigor.
- Have a good laugh. In 1987, psychologists Isen, Daubman, and Nowicki found that “people who watched a comedy film were more likely to solve a problem requiring a creative solution than people who watched a neutral film.” They hypothesized that this was because positive emotions help to foster creative thinking. Additionally, researchers from the University of Maryland also discovered that comedy improves our mental flexibility, engaging our brains in ways that it does not expect.
Try new things
Kids have a seemingly boundless sense of imagination, turning blankets and beds into spaceships and fortresses in a matter of seconds.
As we grow older, we lose this ability, thanks to a cognitive bias called functional fixedness which causes our perception to be boxed in by our limited experiences.
I mentioned earlier that our brains are lazy. if we just let them be, our brains would always “choose the most energy efficient path,” writes MIT senior lecturer Tara Swart in her book Neuroscience for Leadership.
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As such, they need a little help getting out of normal thought patterns that have developed over the years. And exposure to new experiences, psychologist Simone Ritter and her colleagues discovered in an experiment, can do just that, thus boosting your creativity.
- Expose yourself to other industries. A lot of our lives revolve around the industry that we work in, or our interests. Naturally, this causes our view of the world to become very narrowly defined. Dabbling in the works of other industries will offer you more “raw material” to play around with, and open your eyes to new connections that you might not have seen otherwise.
- Work in a new environment. Same desk, same cup, same computer everyday – not exactly the picture of inspiration. Switch up your working location if you can regularly so that you don’t get too comfortable.
- Travel. Like many authors, Ernest Hemingway drafted a number of books while overseas, particularly during his time in Spain and France. “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms,” says Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School. He adds a caveat: You must engage with the local culture, or you won’t fully benefit from the experience.
- Wear different hats. Big egos are common in the creative world. As a creator, you naturally feel protective over your creation. This, however, renders you unable to see other perspectives beyond your own. Enter Dr. de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats” method, which was designed to “separate ego from performance.” Each metaphorical hat represents a certain way of thinking that the “wearer” has to take up when analyzing the project at hand. You can find out more about this method here.
- Aim for the opposite of what you want to achieve. If you’re having trouble envisioning what you want to achieve, try going for the exact opposite instead. For example, if you want to design something elegant and beautiful, attempt to break all the rules and make something ugly instead. Getting all the crap out of the way opens you up to innovate and create anew.
- Just start over. When you get stuck, it’s hard to admit defeat and start over because of “sunk costs” – the effort you’ve already put it till this point. But sticking to the script puts you in a state of mind where you can’t see past what’s in front of you. Popular comedian George Carlin is a huge advocate of doing regular spring-cleaning with his material. Every year, George would throw out his old jokes and create a new set of them, and it worked out well for him.
- Express yourself in a different medium. Everyone has their preferred communication medium of choice. Switching modes – from writing to speaking, for instance – can make different ideas easier to find. Your understanding of an idea “changes every time you use a different medium to express it,” according to author Scott Berkun.
- Free creating. Our subconscious mind is very, very powerful. It is the reason why many creative types tend to have the “Aha!” moment. Even when we stop thinking about a problem, it continues churning till it lands on the solution. Creating freely and randomly – whether it be writing, doodling, or rapping (if that’s your thing) – helps us to get over whatever mental blocks are occupying our minds, and unleash our subconscious.
- Work in a dim setting. German researchers found that, by simply working under dim lighting, you can improve your creative performance. This is due to a psychological effect called priming, which causes a person to subconsciously move ideas to the front of his or her brain. However, they add that this only works for idea generation. More analytical work gets done better under bright lighting.
- Work in a coffee shop. Distractions are bad for productivity, but a moderate amount of it is ideal for creative thinking, allowing you to break out of your pattern of thinking. This explains why we’re so comfortable working in the ambient buzz of a coffee shop. If it gets too busy, though, it’s time to seek out another cafe to take refuge in. An experiment found that a moderate level of ambient noise – around 70 dB – “enhanced subjects’ performance on the creativity tasks, while a high level of noise (85 dB) hurt it.”
- Don’t tidy your workspace. Einstein himself is credited with these words: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” And a recent experiment by University of Minnesota researchers, which found that “participants in a disorderly room were more creative than participants in an orderly room,” proved him right.
- Read something weird. Research has shown that viewing something surreal or absurd puts the mind into overdrive for a short period of time. So go ahead, indulge in your guilty pleasures once in awhile – we won’t tell.
- Work with a partner you’ve never worked with before. No two people are exactly the same, which means our ways of thinking will definitely differ somehow – especially if you’re not familiar with the other party. Find a new partner, generate ideas on the problematic topic at the same time, then compare notes. You’ll almost certainly come across fresh pathways you’ve never considered before.
- Shut out the world. If you’re always out engaging with people, then you need to do this. Cutting out all sensory input allows you engage with your subconscious, and lets “the ‘constantly-make-sure-you’re-not-dying’ part of your brain to chill out for a second, allowing the creative, relaxed part of your brain to come out and play.”
- Remove attachment to your project by creating “psychological distance.” Have you ever shown your project to a friend, and gotten a ton of useful feedback on things you’ve never noticed before in return? That’s because you’re psychologically too “close” to your own work, making you less able to come up with new creative insights, according to a study by Indiana University. It’s good to literally get away from your work desk in such cases.
- Move your office to a bigger city. Bigger is sometimes better. There’s something about being in a bustling, busy city that helps people to innovate more. A study found that “moving from a small city to one that is twice as large leads inventors to produce, on average, about 15 percent more patents.”
- Let go of fear, become a beginner. Beginner’s luck, it seems, has nothing to do with luck at all. Too much knowledge can become a stumbling block rather than an enabler because it causes fear of failure. Approach your project as a beginner, and you might find it a lot easier to ideate.
The reason why most of us find it hard to think out of the box is because our brains are just too darn efficient. Logic is always our default go-to tool when coming up with ideas, even though the best ones often emerge from intuition and association.
Getting your brain into a state where it is unable to function at its “best” seems to be a logical option when attempting to go off-script.
- Drink beer. Men (and women!) around the world, rejoice – there’s a reason to drink on the job! University of Illinois researchers found that alcoholic intoxication causes you to be less able to reason, thus improving your creative problem-solving ability. Just keep in mind that it makes your memory poorer as well, so have a pen and paper ready for those moments.
- Work at your least alert time of the day. Sleepiness is akin to being drunk, in that it causes you to become unable to focus properly. So night owls, if you’re working on a creative project, try waking up early to get some work done – and vice versa.
- Do something boring. Being bored on the job usually isn’t a good thing, but in the case of creative thinking, it might just be what you need to stimulate your mind. Psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire discovered that doing boring activities – such as tedious writing exercises – before creative tasks actually caused their participants to be better at divergent thinking. Those who did passive activities like attending meetings performed even better thereafter.
- Doze, but wake yourself just as you fall asleep. The boundary between sleeping and waking can bring about the most fantastical ideas, as painter Salvador Dali – the father of surrealistic art – knew very well. He would try to recreate these moments by putting “a tin plate on the floor and then sit by a chair beside it, holding a spoon over the plate.” When he dozed off, the spoon would land on the plate and make a loud noise, waking him up to capture the images in his mind.
Train your brain
Our brains might be lazy, but just like our muscles, they can be trained to perform well at anything, including creative thinking.
In a particular project, artist Noah Scalin’s best work was done right after it started getting hard for him to think up new ideas. The bottom-line: Everyone hits roadblocks, but those who condition and train their minds will naturally have an upper mind in tearing them down.
- Take stand-up comedy classes. Making people laugh, especially when they’re expecting it, is an incredibly tough endeavor. Which is why taking stand-up comedy classes is the perfect way to teach yourself how to stretch your imagination at a moment’s notice.
- Create a “creativity ritual.” To be consistent in training your creative muscles, you need a ritual to center yourself each time – even if you don’t feel like it. Writer E. B. White puts it this way: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” You can have a look at the daily routines of some of the greatest writers of all time here for inspiration.
- Read more, gain more knowledge. If creativity is simply the process of putting together existing information in something fresh and new, then it’s safe to assume that you need to have sufficient knowledge in the first place. Otherwise, you’ll have nothing to draw from. Read up.
- Just observe. Stanford professor Tina Seelig says that “the more attention you pay to things, the more opportunities you see.” Train yourself to be more observant, and you’ll have more material when the time comes to create.
- Talk to a mentor, or an expert. Just like working with another partner, regularly consulting a mentor or expert in your industry can help you to develop an eye for the right things.
- Hang out with creative people. Same as the previous point, but with like-minded peers. It might even be better for you, because sometimes there is pressure to conform to your mentor’s expertise than trust your creative impulses. A study found that “creative work is sensitive to the social context of the creator.” Mutual work processes seem to help with creative work, and foster peer interactions which facilitate it.
- Keep asking why, or what could be. Counterfactual thinking is often the key to solving creative problems. Every time you question a certain situation (“Why are mobile phone screens so small?”), you open up new possibilities by answering them.
- Test your mettle. Keep your mind on its toes by constantly challenging yourself. Here’s what Twitter co-founder Biz Stone has to say about this: “Creativity is a renewable resource. Challenge yourself every day. Be as creative as you like, as often as you want, because you can never run out. Experience and curiosity drive us to make unexpected, offbeat connections. It is these nonlinear steps that often lead to the greatest work.”
Besides helping us to live longer lives, scientists have discovered that exercise also helps us to perform better cognitively, improving creative thought.
Cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato found that “exercising on a regular basis [acts] as a cognitive enhancer promoting creativity in inexpensive and healthy ways.” Author Henry David Thoreau even went as far as to say that “that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
Time to take out the fitness gear!
- Take long walks. From Greek philosophers to Steve Jobs, many accomplished creative thinkers have a habit of taking long walks to get their thoughts going. Chemistry has a lot to do with why it works. Walking causes our hearts to pump faster, boosting the circulation of blood and oxygen to our brain. This in turn promotes new connections in our brains, as well as “elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.”
- Exercise regularly. Working out is good for creativity, unless you’re spending most of your effort on the movements themselves. Being active regularly is critical to reaping its benefits: “We think that physical movement is good for the ability to think flexibly, but only if the body is used to being active […] Otherwise a large part of the energy intended for creative thinking goes to the movement itself.”
- Exercise your eyes. There’s such a thing as eye exercises? Yes, yes there are. A study found that simply moving your eyes left to right, and right to left, actually helps to boost creativity. Doing this apparently increases the “cross-talk” between the hemispheres of your brain, helping them to work with each other.
Given the flowery and beautiful language that surrounds the idea of creativity and the imagination, we can sometimes be taken in by the “romance” of it all.
We think that creativity only strikes at appointed times, like an apple on the head or a moment in the bathtub. The truth is that new connections can hit at any moment, and if you’re not ready for it, you’ll miss it.
The key here is not to sit around mooning and waiting, but to keep working hard in preparation for that “Eureka!” moment.
- Go with your intuition. Our minds have a natural ability to discern where to go when we’re working on problems. Pablo Picasso says, “What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.” To him, ideas are simply “starting points” – once he starts working, others “well up in [his] pen.”
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Experiments help us to move towards greater understandings. And with experiments, it’s understood that mistakes will be made and improved on in future iterations. However, pressure to perform consistently can cause the wellspring of creative thinking to seize up. Pixar’s president Edwin Catmull puts it this way in his book, Creativity, Inc: “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).”
- Keep making small progress. Scott Belsky, who founded online portfolio platform Behance, recommends that you always “organize with a bias to action.” That is to say, approach your project in way that you’re always making small progress every time you put pen to paper. This gives you the perception of progress, helping you to enjoy your work too.
- Don’t give up. Breakthroughs happen only after trying again, again, and again. Thomas Edison, who failed 1,000 times before inventing the lightbulb, famously said this: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
- Have an idea journal. Having a record of all your half-baked ideas helps you to remember and ultimately bring them together into a cohesive whole. Inventor Leonardo da Vinci, for example, had several notebooks filled with sketches and reflections.
Most importantly, don’t allow yourself to become paralyzed by fear at the beginning. The first step is the most critical – without it, you’ll most certainly go nowhere.
- Just start doing. Many of us have a tendency to overthink things, especially at the start when inertia is high. This is also known as analysis paralysis: “an anti-pattern, the state of over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome.” The only way to overcome this is really just to start doing. Don’t be worried about form – get words down on your screen, or doodles on your paper right away. Switch over from your “thinking” to “doing” mindset – we can only be in one mode at a time.
- Limit yourself, set a deadline. It might seem counter-intuitive, but setting constraints on yourself can be all the motivation you need to get the creativity motors running. Comedian Jon Stewart says in an interview that “creativity comes from limits, not freedom.” Here are some ways you can make limits work for you (hat tip Buffer).
Do it your way
You might have noticed that some of the advice here contradict each other. It really depends on your unique situation – if all the knowledge in your head is becoming a crutch you lean on, for example, then you should be reading less and doing more. Mix and match these creativity hacks as suits your circumstances.
Did you try any of these, and did they work for you? Are there any creativity hacks I might have missed out? Share them with us in the comments below!