Three Habits for Being More Creative

#1. Spend more time doing the activity you want to be creative in.
And don’t wait for an inspiration to start doing!

There is an illusion that people who create great things do so effortlessly. But in reality, most put in a tremendous amount of time, and go through a lot of iterations. From each they learn something that works and something that doesn’t, something they like and something they don’t. Thomas Edison tried 10,000 ways to make a light bulb before finding one that worked.

Have trouble starting – no inspiration, no ideas? No problem! Start mechanically – put your hands on the keyboard or your pencil to the paper, and start thinking, writing, drawing … No inspiration necessary. Most of the time the ideas will start flowing, even where there were none before. And often, once you get going, the inspiration will make an appearance as well. It’s the same experience as with many regular ‘non-creative’ activities, for example, exercise. Can be hard to get started, but feels good once you get going.

I heard many successful authors say that they write on a regular schedule, whether they feel like it or not. If they waited for the spirit to move them – they’d never get a book finished.

Woody Allen aptly said “eighty percent of success is showing up”. In this case, eighty percent of success is simply starting and doing.

#2. Brainstorm a long list of ideas, then flesh several of them out.

If you have an opportunity to brainstorm with a group, it is both more fun and yields more ideas. Not only do other people’s ideas directly expand the list of options. They also contribute indirectly, setting off our own minds in new directions and resulting in additional ideas we wouldn’t have had on our own.

Once we have a list of ideas, we often pick a single favorite and run with it. But the value of (rapidly) fleshing out several of the alternatives is one of the first principles that gets pounded into students in design classes. Consider results of this pottery class experiment, described in Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Doing – be it writing, drawing, coding, or anything else – produces more information and knowledge than simply thinking the activity through. Various details or situations we haven’t considered pop up. So, thinking through a brainstormed option isn’t the same as fleshing it out, even if only roughly.

#3. Learn to shut off self-censorship.

Key to productive brainstorming is letting all ideas through. This is not the time to assess their merit. Yet we often apply strong censorship filters to the ideas we express. Sometimes they are of the “What would people think if I say that” variety. Other times, it may be about being stuck with the expert’s point of view, unable to adopt beginner’s mind and to question existing wisdom and assumptions.

One activity I found especially effective for learning to shut off self-censorship is improvisational theater, aka improv. In improv, since the dialogue is made up on the spot, there is no time to say anything other than the first thing that comes to mind. And after you do it for a while, you realize that, at least some of the time, ideas that didn’t seem good at the beginning,  lead to some fantastic places.  The result is a lot of fun and laughter.  It’s true – some of the time, the ideas that didn’t seem good at the beginning, well, turn out to be not so good. But not much is lost in the experiment.

Playing improv theater games

Playing improv theater games.

And this is it! To be more creative:

  1. Spend more time doing the activity you want to be creative in.  And don’t wait for an inspiration to start doing!
  2. Brainstorm a long list of ideas, then flesh several of them out. 
  3. Learn to shut off self-censorship.

You might be thinking: 

Ok. More time invested potentially equals more stuff produced. And censorship off potentially equals more unusual/uncommon approach. But how does this help me in creating something truly unique – something that nobody else has ever done before?

If you are thinking that, and even if you don’t – check out “Embrace the remix“, a great TED talk by Kirby Ferguson (video below), which provides a refreshing view on the nature of creativity.

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