Ready to Amp up Your Creativity?

An article in 99U offered its readers 10 “creative rituals” used by various creative professionals, including writers, entrepreneurs, and designers. Of course, you don’t have to be a creative “professional” to be creative. Creativity is an approach to being in the world.

And, as the article’s author Sean Blanda says:

Sustained creativity doesn’t come from a flash of brilliance or a single afternoon of inspiration. It comes from a consistent routine that serves as the bedrock for getting things done.

There’s a difference between rituals, routines, and habits. Jack Kerouac touching the ground nine times before writing is a ritual. Writing every day is a habit. “Brainstorming at the bar” (item 9 below) is a routine. There’s value to be had from all of these suggestions, but some are more valuable than others. (Hint: Don’t miss #7.)

#1 Take a Quarterly Vacation

Venture capitalist Brad Feld says that taking a week off every three months with his wife is the most impactful thing he’s done. He leaves his computer at home and turns his smart phone over to his wife for the duration. While away from home, Feld reads, relaxes, sleeps, and generally enjoys himself, returning home refreshed.

Maybe taking four weeks of vacation a year is feasible for you, but even if it isn’t, the recommendation to take time away from your regular work and routines is a good one. The amount of time you spend away isn’t as important as getting away—and really disconnecting when you do.

#2 Hold a “Retrospective” After Projects

Harper Reed (former Obama campaign CTO) said his team relied on meeting at the end of each project to ask what the experience was like, what went right, and what went wrong. They didn’t wait till the end of the campaign to do it; they conducted many such meetings along the way. That allowed them to pay attention to feedback and adjust course.

It may be easier to hold a retrospective meeting with a team, but even if you work solo you can incorporate a reflective activity into your workflow. It’s difficult to identify what’s working and what’s not working if you don’t stop, even briefly, to assess. Another way of using this process is to stretch your thinking by asking those questions near the start of a project or goal from the perspective of having completed it.

#3 Write Every Day

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, is a professional writer who also uses writing “as a tool for self-discovery” when she’s trying to work through something or make a tough decision. She believes that “writing forces you to locate your clarity.”

I’m a big fan of developing a writing practice, but I think writing only leads to clarity if you use it deliberately and intentionally. As I wrote in W Is for Writing, “in order to get the best results, you need to be clear from the outset about what you want from your writing.”

#4 Create an “Interesting People Fund”

Writer and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha invests in an “interesting people fund,” which he describes as a pre-commitment strategy. He pre-commits both time and money to meeting interesting people to make it more likely that he’ll actually do it. As he says, it takes time to develop any kind of relationship.

I think that allocating resources (time and money) to cultivate relationships with interesting people can, over time, alter your mental model. You’ll be on the lookout for people who interest you and you’ll get into the habit of reaching out to them to make a connection on more than a superficial level. This may be more important in our high-speed, digitized lives than it has ever been!

#5 Keep “Tear Sheets” to Get Inspired

Designer Sarah Foelske gets stuck once in a while; that’s when she “visits her tear sheets.” (Tear sheets are pages clipped or torn from a newspaper or magazine that show a client’s ad.) She’s saved things she likes or that inspire her, including books, beautiful packaging, or pages from magazines. She finds that getting away from the project she’s working on and flipping through her tear sheets, even if for a few minutes, can spark new ideas.

This is really an inspiration file, so it could take almost any form, depending on what inspires you. There’s such an abundance of new brain and behavior information that my habit is to either bookmark or print copies of the articles that interest me to check out later. That may seem like research more than inspiration, but it’s really both. I often get new ideas from what I read and make new connections, which energizes me—and that, I think, is the point of an inspiration file.

#6 Nap Every Day

News anchor Pat Kiernan takes a nap. Every day. He says he’s “super protective” of his nap and keeps a hard line about it. “You have to learn how to say no.” He wants to be rested and healthy, so he has learned to resist the temptation to do everything he’s invited to do.

There’s a lot of research to support the benefit of daily napping, and I know several people who swear by it. But I confess that I’m not one of them. If a nap during the day recharges you, then take Kiernan’s advice to heart and treat nap time as you would any other important appointment on your calendar. If you’re intentional about making it a habit, you’ll find that much easier to do.

#7 Envision What You Will Be Remembered For

Rapha founder Simon Mottram writes “faux business pieces,” articles for Financial Times or Wall Street Journal as if the company had already accomplished their current goals. In one article, he described how Rapha had revolutionized the cycling market and was “leading more people to discover road racing as a lifestyle and a fundamental part of their lives.” He was very specific about what that looked like and how many customers the company had. Five years later, he says, the article pretty accurately described the company’s reality.

“Envision what you will be remembered for” doesn’t go far enough. This is an example of identifying and visualizing your desired outcome clearly and specifically enough to try it on for size—and to use as a benchmark to tell when you’ve gotten to where you wanted to go. The desired outcome is not the same thing as the goal. A good goal is S.M.A.R.T., but that’s not enough. You have to identify what’s going to be different afterward and what it’s going to feel like and look like—for you and for others. (Essentially, why do you want to achieve this goal or create this thing?) Taking the time to identify your desired outcome is a habit that pays spectacular dividends and one that you can incorporate into planning anything of any nature in any area of your life.

#8 Brainstorm at the Bar

Designer James Victore says he does his “think-work” at the bar and his “work-work” in his studio. He sketches on paper, usually in a bar or restaurant. His routine includes going to the park to write (longhand) for an hour or so in the morning and then taking his writing to the studio to work on. Afterward, he goes to a bar or restaurant, has a beer, and refines his idea or does some sketching. He uses his studio for “putting stuff together” rather than coming up with ideas.

I can relate to this one! I discovered that while I can do all kinds of work in my home office, one thing I cannot do there is any kind of long-range planning. I’d tried taking the planning to various coffee shops, but that wasn’t effective, partly because I don’t—and apparently don’t want to—equate coffee shops with work. But I discovered, almost by accident, that taking my planning materials to the nearby library allows me to get an amazing amount of work done in a relatively brief amount of time. So notice how your environments affect you and figure out which environment is the most effective for the task or process you’re working on. Develop a routine around what works rather than around what you think should work.

#9 Get Out of the Building

Garrison Keillor credits getting out into the “observable world”—as opposed to sitting and looking at a blank page—as providing him with “the start of something.” He recommends walking around with scrap paper and pen to take notes on what you see in the world. These observations and notes are valuable even if they don’t make it into your final work because “everything—everything—starts with the observable world.”

Your brain usually determines what you pay attention to, so you attend to things selectively. We all do. Check out The Invisible Gorilla video on YouTube for verification. Creating a practice of not just noticing what you notice (the usual suspects), but consciously directing your attention can definitely change your perspective. Tell your brain what kinds of things to look for and it will find them. It will also make connections and see patterns that might otherwise have been invisible.

#10 Engage in “Morphological Synthesis”—or Not

Artist and filmmaker Ze Frank uses morphological synthesis to segment his thinking process into parts. He says, “You take 4-5 adjectives or characteristics and then brainstorm in that direction.” He then “flips back and forth between extremes until something interesting comes out of it” and then repeats the process. He likes it because it “forces you to explore the outside boundaries of things.”

OK, that’s interesting, but what Frank also said in the same interview is that he makes something every single day. He said it’s the only design habit he has. “No matter what, I make something.” Developing the habit of making something every day is awesome. It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be “successful.” It doesn’t have to be totally original. Just make something. If you’re a writer, write something. If you’re a cook or a chef, cook something. The result doesn’t need to be a tangible object, however. This is about creativity, after all. Create an idea or a concept. Make a new connection between ideas, objects, or people. Have some kind of impact.

I think this is a wonderful agenda to take on: what did I make today?

Creativity: It Isn’t All in Your Head


Creativity is the ability to see what already exists in a new light, to think of new ideas, and to make new things.

If whatever has been created (the new idea or object) is widely accepted (valued) in the field within which it was generated, it is called Big C creativity. Creative results that don’t meet both of those criteria are referred to as Little C creativity.

The fact that we can imagine something does not prove that it is possible. —Julian Baggini, The Ego Trick

Maybe your creative endeavors have—or will—generate widespread acceptance and approval; maybe not.

You don’t have to aim for Big C creativity, but if you aren’t engaging in Little C creativity, you’re unlikely to create anything big. And you might also be depriving yourself of a more enjoyable and satisfying life.

Even though personal creativity may not lead to fame and fortune, it can do something that from the individual’s point of view is even more important: make day-to-day experiences more vivid, more enjoyable more rewarding. When we live creatively, boredom is banished and every moment holds the promise of a fresh discovery. Whether or not these discoveries enrich the world beyond our personal lives, living creatively links us with the process of evolution. —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

What Does It Take to Be Creative?

Are creative people different in some fundamental way from other people? Do they have exceptional intelligence? Are they more right-brained? Do they tend to be messy, unfocused, disorganized, and impractical? Are all creative people artistic? Highly talented in some particular area? Are they unconventional? Do they feel things more deeply? Do they have more vivid imaginations? Do they know how to think outside the box?

These questions are common, because we tend to think of people as being either creative or non-creative. End of story. But even the most diehard “non-creative” person will occasionally, sometimes accidentally, come up with a fresh insight. And even the most relentlessly “creative” person will run out of ideas from time to time. Regardless of personality, background, talent, or experience, just about anyone can get better at being creative because anyone can learn how the creative process works.

How Does the Creative Process Work?

Depending on who you ask, the creative process has anywhere from three to ten steps, maybe more. What it all boils down to is using the right part of the brain at the right time. In fact, the creative process isn’t significantly different from problem-solving—and a case can even be made that the way to approach art is as problem-solving.

Practicing problem solving in art projects gets the mind working, thinking and open to solutions not before considered. If the student can think about an “art problem” in new ways, then they not only build skills for the art room, but they train their minds to think in a problem-solving mode. —artist Valerie Mann, speaking at the University of Michigan School of Social Work

  1. Find or identify a problem to solve and create an intention to solve it. This involves using both focused and unfocused attention. (What’s the difference between trying to solve a problem and trying to find a problem to solve?)
  2. Immerse yourself in it. Grapple with it. Obtain the knowledge or information you need to have in order to solve it (focused attention/knowledge loading/System 2). Choreographer Twyla Tharp has a good exercise for this step. Write down 20 things you’ll need to know in order to be able to solve the problem.
  3. Divert your attention. Step away from the problem to an unrelated activity (unfocused attention/System 1) to allow your unconscious to process the problem and arrive at a solution. You could turn to a repetitive task, take a walk, or listen to some music.
  4. Fine tune and implement the solution.

Each experience with the creative process expands your mental model, which increases your creative possibilities. To get the greatest benefit, though, you need to take action (Step 4). We are embodied beings, and what we do has more of an effect on our mental model than what we think.

Counterintuitive Creativity Tips
  • Creativity involves both parts of the brain—the conscious and the unconscious. The trick, if there is one, is to know which type of thinking to use when. Sometimes you need to apply focused (System 2) attention, which is linear, logical, effortful, and slow. At other times you need unfocused (System 1) attention, which is associative, non-logical, runs in the background, and is fast. Attempting to sustain System 2 attention is counterproductive.
  • New ideas are not spun from thin air. Creativity involves synthesizing, remixing, and re-envisioning what already exists.
  • Routines and habits are not by their nature creativity killers. They can actually increase your creative thinking by freeing up System 2 attention. The only real creativity killers are tunnel vision and inflexibility.
  • Constraints can be beneficial to creativity as long as you know they’re there.
  • If you want a brain that can think more complex thoughts and solve more complex problems, get in the habit of learning new things. And move!

Physical activity is cognitive candy. Exercise stimulates one of the brain’s most powerful growth factors, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). According to Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, “It keeps [existing] neurons young and healthy, and makes them more ready to connect with one another. It also encourages neurogenesis—the creation of new cells.” The cells most sensitive to this are in the hippocampus, inside the very regions deeply involved in human cognition. —John Medina, Brain Rules

  • As John Cleese says, Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating. In daily life, all over the world, we are faced with many problems, large and small. Why not operate on them creatively—and find some new ones to solve while we’re at it?