How to Be More Creative

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Image: Alice Dietrich/Unsplash

Long before the World Economic Forum and LinkedIn called it out as one of the most important skills, people have wanted — needed — to be more creative. The problems we face today are more challenging, complex, and ever-changing. Creativity itself is also challenging, because there’s a mystique to it; it’s a force that has only recently, in past decades, come into scientific and practical analysis.

You’re reading this article because you want to be more creative. You want to have more ideas that are original, useful, and surprising; or maybe you want your actions, ideas, and products to change your existing field of work, or transform your field of work into a new one. Or, maybe you just want to get better at your job, or to make better work.

Everyone experiences the creative process a little bit differently, but creative actions share similar patterns and mindsets. Here are some ways you can deliberately apply them to be more creative:

Take Action Right Away

First thoughts come with what author Natalie Goldberg calls “tremendous energy.” “When you get an idea, don’t hold it,” author Paolo Belardi recalls his master architect Vittorio de Feo saying to him. Not taking action on an idea right after you get it risks destroying the idea’s vitality. Instead, you want to “Sketch the idea immediately; draw impulsively, and transcribe unconscious energy from the brain to the paper by doing so.”

If you’re an architect and get an idea for a concept, sketch it out on pen and paper as soon as you can. If you’re a writer, write the idea down — whether it’s a headline, a concept for an article, or just the phrase that came to your mind. If you’re a musician, record yourself humming a riff, lick, or loop that popped in your head. There’s no need to make it extravagant; make it as simple as possible to jog your memory of the work.

Remember, there’s really no right way to record the first thought. The main goal is to get out of your head, and not to give your mind an opportunity to filter, edit, or analyze the idea.

And of course, just because you’re taking action right away, does not mean you need to release the work right away. You just want to complete your task as soon as you can. By taking action right away you don’t overthink the expression of the idea.

Even if the draft is turning out poorly or rough, just get through making a simple first version of it. You can always improve, or fill in the blanks later. If you feel tormented, don’t worry about making the best version of it, or even a better one yet. Just make what you can. When you have more time, energy, and capital, later on you can pick the idea back up and fill it in more. A lot of times, you may realize the idea wasn’t such a good one, or it turned out better than you thought. Taking action is the only real way you can find things out for yourself. Be decisive, and err on the side of action.

Review Your Ideas

Our memories are fickle things; writing an idea down somewhere is the first step. But the second, equally crucial, step to this idea is actually making time to review the idea, to jog your memory and resurrect it. Better yet, you’ll have allowed time to let the idea marinate, and for your unconscious to sit with the idea and expand on it.

My favorite example is author Sarah Cooper finding an 8-year old notebook where she had scribbled, “How to look smart in meetings.” She picked the idea up and wrote 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings at Medium, which led to her first book deal.

If you work with a team or at a company, good things can also happen when you review other people’s ideas in a company’s institutional memory. It’s worth spending time and energy seeking these ideas out — through meetings, to gather tribal information, or your own investigations — and to actually think about them.

Think Smaller, and Smaller Again

Setting deadlines and making plans is difficult; a lot of times, these plans are just arbitrary guesses. And sometimes, you don’t make enough time to meet the deadline, or realize the milestone you set was a lot more difficult. If you’re going to stick to your deadlines, then you want to make the scope of the project flexible.

That means, you need to figure out what the most valuable part of your idea is, and focus on that. Leave the rest of it for another day, and just try to make the deadline. For example, if you’re making a standup video, the value of the video is in the jokes — not necessarily the quality of the shot or the set. So, focus on writing and delivering the jokes really well, and make a lo-fi version of what you wished your video could be. (Comedian Hasan Minhaj did this with his show Patriot Act.)

In their book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy At Work, Basecamp founders David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried name this exercise “the scope hammer,” deliberately invoking the image of a hammer breaking a project up into smaller, more feasible, pieces.

The idea is to lower the “fidelity” of the thing you’re trying to do and being okay with that. Developer and agile coach Henrik Kniberg writes about this method: make the earliest versions of your work usable, testable, and viewable. To clumsily paraphrase, if you were building a vehicle to go somewhere far away, build a skateboard, then a bike, then a car; not a steering wheel, an engine, and then a car.

Makerbot founder Bre Pettis writes in the Done Manifesto, “Done is the engine of more.” Done provides you with hope, motivation, and the resilience you need to keep going. “Action is hope,” is a great quote attributed to the author Ray Bradbury.

Make A Bit of Progress Every Day

Doing something every day has many more benefits than doing something just once a week or once a month. For starters, if you work on something once a week, you’ll need to spend the first bit of that time jogging your memory on where you left off.

The psychological term for this is “accessibility.” I previously wrote about psychologist Timothy D. Wilson’s definition from his book Strangers to Ourselves, “a somewhat technical psychological term that refers to the activation potential of information in memory. When information is high in activation potential it is ‘energized’ and ready to be used; when it is low in activation potential it is unlikely to be used to select and interpret information in one’s environment.”

When you do something every day, it becomes more accessible throughout the rest of your day. You may find people inadvertently providing answers through conversations, or new potential ideas popping up in times you’re not actually working on the project.

This fits in hand in hand with the previous point; when you make tasks and projects smaller, it’s possible to complete in a single day. Even if you take on larger projects that aren’t possible to complete in a single day, breaking them up with milestones can enable you to make progress and eventually bring it to life.

Make Acceptable Work, Not Perfect Work

Since creative “success” can often be a moving target, subject to torrents of trends, personalities, and tastes, releasing more creative work provides you with more chances to hit the target.

That doesn’t mean you can just make work and release it thoughtlessly. However, it does mean that you can define what acceptable work means to you, and to make more of it; not necessarily to maximize and try to make each piece of work perfect.

Doing this enables you to spread your effort through different types of work and combinations of ideas. In a sense, it maximizes the surface area for luck. UC Davis distinguished professor Dean Keith Simonton, who has spent decades studying creative geniuses, writes in The Genius Checklist that this enables you to stay competitive in the game of chance.

Aiming for acceptable, rather than constantly trying to tweak for perfect, also means that you do gain more momentum. (See “Think Smaller, and Smaller Again.”)

When you make more work, you improve your quality as well. You have more combinations to choose from, you stay more motivated, and as people consume your work and start to appreciate your releases, they become more willing to provide resources to enable you to make more work. This type of cumulative advantage is known in the science community as the Matthew Effect.

Build Assets and Equipment

If we imagined that creative work took place in a factory, then the obvious thing to consider would be assets and equipment. The goal of investing in these tools is to make creative work easier for yourself. For example, music producers can purchase loops and sound effects, and 3d illustrators literally can start their work with assets. Journalists learn templates and formats for how to write their articles more quickly.

My strongest recent example is the Zettakelstein note system, which I learned from How to Take Smart Notes; I spend maybe an hour a day maintaining and adding to it, but it makes my ideation and writing processes throughout the rest of the week much easier; the quotes and ideas are so accessible (see “Make A Bit of Progress Every Day”).

Another tool I picked along the way was inspectional reading, a decades-old method of skimming through books to decide if it’s worth reading. The process should also acquaint me with the book’s best ideas.

You can also get better with software that can make your process faster; for example, I found transcribing my voice enables me to get my thoughts together more quickly.

Whatever You’re Doing, Try the Opposite

One of author Tim Ferriss’s favorite questions is, “What if I did the opposite?

The idea is simple, but the possibilities for applications are infinite. For example, if you write in the mornings, try writing at night. If you don’t promote any of your writing, try starting. If you always write your introductions first, start with the middle or the end. If you spend 5 minutes on your headlines, try 50.

You can also look to what everyone else is doing for inspiration; if they’re writing 3 posts per day, try writing 30 per day. Or, try writing 3 per week. If everyone else is obsessed with computers, try writing or drawing by hand. If you’re right handed, try using your left hand.

Work with Your Constraints, Not Against Them

Everybody has reasons to believe that what they’re trying to do is difficult, or even impossible. Because we’re all people, we all face similar challenges — time, money, and energy being just a few of the possibilities. The way to make things is to either work around the constraints or to work through them.

For example, art director Zak Klauck designed a poster based on a pre-selected word or phrase in under 60 seconds, every day for 100 days. You can do something similar if you only have 60 seconds to spare; spend one day preparing, and then be creative for the next week.

To invoke the spirit of actor, producer, and writer Tina Fey, say, “Yes, and,” to your constraint. You’ll be surprised at what you can make happen; and remember, something is usually better than nothing. And remember that people, even with infinite resources, can’t make things the way they want — the constraint is, in fact, the thing that provides an anchor and structure for creative work.

Change Your Physical Environment

Even though Jonas Salk spent thousands of hours in his 40 by 40 feet windowless basement laboratory at the Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital, his discovery of a polio vaccine took place during his visit to the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in Italy. He would claim this was not a mere coincidence, and believe for the rest of his life that the design of the environment helped clear his obstructed mind and inspire his solution.

A change in scenery can be a powerful trigger for creativity. Houses cultivate collaboration, isolated spaces enable focus, and travelling to new places sparks creativity.

There are also different variables that you can tweak, even if you’re stuck in the same place. You can play different music, or change the layout of the room. (See “Work with Your Constraints, Not Against Them.”)

Loosen Up to Tap Into Your Unconscious Mind

We tend to think that by trying harder, the outcome of whatever we’re doing will turn out better. That’s not always the case; in creativity, sometimes things get better when you try less and let go of the outcome.

One reason for this is because the conscious effort gets in the way of what the unconscious part of mind already knows how to do. As coach W. Timothy Gallwey writes in The Inner Game of Tennis, “If your body knows how to hit a forehand, then just let it happen; if it doesn’t, then let it learn.”

In his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman noticed a “funny, semi-Picasso like strength” in his work when he was instructed to draw without looking at the paper. His theory on why it worked out:

“The reason I felt good about that drawing was, I knew it was impossible to draw well that way, and therefore it didn’t have to be good — and that’s really what the loosening up was all about. I had thought that ‘loosen up’ meant ‘make sloppy drawings,’ but it really meant to relax and not worry about how the drawing is going to come out.”

Rather than constantly forcing and demanding yourself to make an effort, let go and allow the creativity to come. Once you finish your work for the day, you’re free to set it aside and revisit it later. Scope a project down (see “Think Smaller, and Smaller Again”) to make things easier on yourself.

Think with Your Hands

If I were a better, I’d wager you spend at least 2–3 hours per day typing on your keyboard and moving a mouse or touchpad. But, those are only two of the things our hands can do, and they don’t nearly tap into our capabilities. We do our best thinking not just when we use our minds, but when we allow our mind to express itself through our hands.

As Immanuel Kant wrote, “The hand is the window on to the mind.” The instruments you use, and the ways you use them, can influence how the work turns out. For example, author Natalie Goldberg writes in Writing Down the Bones, “I have found that when I am writing something emotional, I must write it the first time directly with hand on paper. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. Yet, when I tell stories, I go straight to the typewriter.”

Psychologists John R. Hayes and Virginia Berniger conducted a study in which they learned children could generate significantly more ideas by handwriting than by typing. Similarly, authors Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer published a study in Psychological Science, where they write, “…even when allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand.

In David Sax’s book The Revenge of Analog, Landor General Manager Antonio Marazza says that after a failed attempt at making their team go digital, they bet big on analog. Sax writes, “… Landor’s Milan office gave all their designers Moleskine notebooks, and banned the use of Photoshop during the first week’s work on a project. The idea was to let their initial ideas freely blossom on paper, without the inherent bias of the software, before transferring them to the computer later for fine-tuning. It was so successful, this policy remains in place today.”

Compete with Nothing

While social media connects us, it also makes it easy for us to compare ourselves with each other. Unfortunately, the comparison is usually rigged — at the end, the viewer loses. In his TED talk, actor Joseph Gordon Levitt talks about how craving attention makes him less creative. And producer Rick Rubin talks to Tim Ferriss about how competition and caring what other people think get in the way of artists producing their best work.

One solution to this is to compete only with yourself. Don’t worry about other people’s work when you’re being creative.

But the deeper level of this is could be not to compete with anyone or anything; not even with yourself. Rather, immerse yourself in the task at hand. Like Bono wrote about Frank Sinatra, pretend like it’s the last time you’re going to do that thing. This immersion naturally lets the other stuff fade away; it doesn’t matter.

Comparisons and improvement are all valuable in later stages; but in the moments when creative work is done, you only want to be focused on the work at hand. Everything else is an unnecessary distraction.

Remix and Improve Your Old Work

When Louis Vuitton menswear designer Virgil Abloh talks about his “3% approach,” he means that he approaches design only by slightly modifying an original one. There’s no reason the original design has to be someone else’s — it can be one of your own. For example, Childish Gambino’s 2014 song, Retro, uses the same beat and chorus as his 2008 song, Love Is Crazy. Kanye West only did a show for his 2008 album in 2015.

Be creative by taking an old draft or idea that you took action on, and remix it and improve it. As Vincenzi Danti says in Paolo Belardi’s Why Architects Still Draw, imitating and copying are two very different things. You’re not trying to copy your work — you are making a new version of it.

Artist Pablo Picasso, known for copying his own work, acknowledged, “I often paint fakes.” He also said, “If it were possible… there would never be a ‘finished’ canvas but just different states of a single painting.”

Masami Akita says of his noise project Merzbow, “The music of Merzbow should be viewed as changing, while being part of a continuum. What matters to me is this line of progression, more so than the individual works that comprise it.”

When you remix your old work, the spirit is not to merely repeat yourself; but rather, it’s to expand on a thread or a bigger idea. And even though you know it’s a remix of your old work, to a new viewer, it’s something brand new. The old draft is hidden in obscurity.

Work on One Thing at a Time

At my first job at Xtreme Labs, our VP of Engineering Farhan Thawar was a proponent of monotasking. He warned against the distraction caused by multitasking. Your brain is best when it works on one task at a time, to save itself from being overwhelmed whenever additional unplanned circumstances change.

Unfortunately, our phones, media, and other things get in the way. For years, my solution has been to buy a kitchen timer, set it for 20 minutes, and just work my way down my tasklist or while writing and editing. I aim to get in the groove of deep work. Even when I write and edit this particularly long article, I’m not checking email, and my phone is usually 10 meters away from me and silent (and I’ve turned off all notifications except Whatsapp and Messages). Sure, I miss out on funny messages, and I’ve gotten rid of apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. But it’s been great for my mental clarity.

Only when I’m done, do I pick up the next thing. I’d recommend the same for you, if you’re not already doing it.

Give Yourself a Chance to Fail

“I always question artists who are successful in whatever they do — I think what that means is that they’re repeating themselves and not taking enough risks,” performance artist Marina Abramović writes in Walk Through Walls.

While constant success may feel good, and certainly is good for business, it’s also a sign that what you’re doing is probably not that original or that surprising — and not all that creative. The risk is that you don’t improve or grow, and don’t get to explore the potential you inherently are capable of.

Compared to success, failure stings, and can be painful to cope with. But, it’s also a sign that you’re setting your sights high enough and trying new things. You’re breaking new territory. Once you recover from the first couple of failures, you might also remember how easy it is to try new things, and you learn to not take yourself too seriously.

Commit to a Deadline

“I wrote something because I was facing a deadline, and I realized the meaning of it much later. I had such experiences many times,” film director Hayao Miyazaki says in Yom, Issue 1994.

I don’t know about many good things that actually happened without a deadline. If you take the deadline seriously, you make the most of your time; otherwise, work expands to whatever time you’ve allotted to fill it (see Parkinson’s Law).

Commit to getting your project done by the deadline. If you find out along the way that it’s not feasible, keep the deadline, but reduce the scope of the project.

Deadlines enable you to make sure you’re measuring progress. If you’re not good at keeping or meeting deadlines, set stakes for yourself by enlisting a friend to keep you accountable.

Make Something Nobody Else Will See

While some academics might deem creativity to only be valid if it makes an impact in the field, these days the ubiquity of social media has made us fixate on what people think about our work, our image, and our creativity.

The solution is to make stuff for the sake of making, and creating a safe space for yourself to take action. If you feel stuck or if you feel blocked, then you want to create something for yourself that you know no one else will see. Act before you think. In an interview with Grantland, Donald Glover says, “So making songs now that I know aren’t going to be heard by anybody else, it is an interesting thing. Because I think you have to do that now as an artist. I really do.”

Ultimately, that exploration, free from self-consciousness and the trends of the day, leads to new ideas that you can potentially draw from for future work. Or not — it doesn’t matter, it’s not meant to for anyone except for you.

This mindset enables you to loosen up, because there’s no pressure. Even if you think whatever you’re doing is going to suck, you should probably do it anyway. Trying to turn a bad idea into a good piece of work can be a worthy exercise. And any idea that initially seems good might not actually be that original; if you get the impression it’s good, other people probably do too — which takes away from the originality of the idea. As Ben Horowitz writes, “The trouble with innovation is that truly innovative ideas often look like bad ideas at the time.”

Rest and Let Ideas Incubate

In London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas’s representation of the creative process, there’s a phase before the creative moment of illumination, which is called incubation. That’s the phase when you disconnect from your work, and let your brain and your unconscious sit with the idea.

If you’ve ever had a eureka moment in the shower or on a walk, you’ll know this feeling. You’ve had a chance to unwind and relax. Idle time and resting set the conditions for the “Incubation” phase; the time when the brain’s conscious efforts no longer focus on the problem, and the unconscious is given space to take over. To be more creative, you need to use this property of your brain to your advantage.

There are also other times, when you might have these incredibly tremendous powerful good first thoughts, and good ideas get put together. You want to write those down, but also to let the idea actually incubate and give yourself time to sit with it. Go for a walk, lie down for a nap, or do something else and allow yourself to drift off, away from the idea.

Remove Distractions

Interruptions mess up creative flow. You don’t want anything to interrupt or take away from the creative process. You need to be mindful of distractions, whether they are physical like a notification from a phone, or psychological like the urge to pick up a new idea when you run into a roadblock.

When you’re doing creative work, you want to stay disciplined on purely expressing the idea and bringing it to life. You want to be fully dedicated to making it the best version of what it can be. And then after you’re kind of done or like you’ve completed a good strong first version of it, or prototype, then you can let your mind wander a little bit from there.

But the last thing you want is a text message, email, or a craving to interrupt your flow, and drag your mind and body out of what you were doing.

Don’t Wait for Inspiration; Seek It Out

“Reading, conversation, environment, culture, heroes, mentor, nature—all are lottery tickets for creativity. Scratch away at them and you’ll find out how big a prize you’ve won,” writes Twyla Tharp in The Creative Habit.

Author Ray Bradbury writes in Zen In The Art Of Writing, “Similarly, in a lifetime, we stuff ourselves with sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures of people, animals, landscapes, events, large and small. We stuff ourselves with these impressions and experiences and our reaction to them. Into our subconscious go not only factual data but reactive data, our movement toward or away from the sensed events.”

Consuming and creating are inherently tied in together; your take in inputs, you process them, you express outputs. Rich creative work takes place by cultivating the ideas through taking in, interpreting, and transforming ideas.

Not only are you taking in new ideas, you’re also exploring how these ideas connect together and what they mean to you. You’re understanding how people currently think about something, and what you need to say about that to achieve your creative goal. Then, you forget about the goal, and you get busy making.

Final Thoughts

You can take action to be more creative, but you can’t force it; take action, and let go of the outcome. Let your conscious mind go, give it permission to wander off and come back later in the editing and managing phases of the project. For now, just focus on letting the unconscious mind take over.

If you’re working with a team, it’s important to cultivate this mindset and attitude in the room where the creative work is happening. There are never any wrong answers, and people are just creating ideas — not editing or destroying them yet. Allow people to think out loud and go on tangents (but not to monopolize the conversation).

Remember, creativity isn’t just a skill; as Royal Holloway lecturer Oli Mould writes in Against Creativity, “Creativity is a power because it blends knowledge (from the institutional and mechanistic level to the pre-cognitive), agency, and importantly desire to create something that does not yet exist… it drives society into new worlds of living.”

The actions that you take today could be the soil from which new ideas and products grow, and, with the passage of time, will be, as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said, a layer of sedimentary rock on which human intelligence is built upon.