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?

Routine: the Key to Creativity

At least six days a week for the past year, I have gone for a morning walk in my neighborhood. I never deviate from the route, and 95% of the time, I take bouncy music along via my iPod. I can do this walk almost completely on autopilot. There are a couple of street crossings where I have to check for traffic, and the pavement has a few dangerous lips I’ve stubbed my toes on. But I’ve since trained myself to walk heel-toe to lessen the risk of tripping.

Because my conscious attention isn’t focused on what I’m doing, my mind is free to wander. And wander it does! I get my best ideas during my morning walk. Solutions to puzzles or problems bubble up to the surface. Patterns get detected. Connections get made. It’s rare that I don’t have at least one “Aha!” moment while I’m walking.

That’s no surprise, since the conditions are perfect for generating creative insight. I’m not trying to take credit for this, since I didn’t set this situation up intentionally. In fact, I started this particular walking routine primarily for health reasons. Initially, the usual mind chatter occupied my thoughts throughout most of my walk. But over time and with increased repetition, that began to change.

Now, even if there’s something mundane or annoying on my mind when I start out, my brain quickly lets it go and kicks into a different gear. I don’t have to do anything to make this happen. That’s the beauty and wonder of a routine like this. I don’t need to exert any effort to get my brain to come up with ideas or “be creative.” All I have to do is clip the iPod to my belt, put on my jacket, head out the door, and take the same walk I’ve been taking nearly every day for the past year.

Check out poetdonald’s comment on my previous post to get someone else’s experience of routine opening the door to creativity. (And thanks again, Don.)Enhanced by Zemanta

Creative Thinking = Making Connections

Q: Do you have to get out of the box in order to think outside the box?*

Popular wisdom has it that in order to think creatively—think outside the box, that is—we need to trick ourselves. Or at least we need to apply some special technique or exercise to get our stodgy old brains to see things from a different perspective.

For the most part, this is a counterproductive waste of time.

If we want to be creative or think creatively, we don’t need to manipulate or play games with our brains. We just need to get out of their way and let them do what they already know how to do.

The problem is that we identify with the slow, energy-sucking conscious part of our brain and not with the quick, energy-efficient unconscious part that sees patterns and makes connections outside of our awareness. Most of the action in terms of problem-solving, insight, and creative thinking actually takes place in the unconscious, which then serves up its ideas to our consciousness. It’s an amazingly wonderful arrangement that’s already in place.

The best thing we can do to help this process along is exactly the opposite of what’s usually recommended. Don’t change routines. Don’t take a new route to work. Don’t try a change of scene. Don’t go to a different café or coffee shop. Don’t try to think about things in a different way.

In terms of freeing our minds for creativity and creative insights, the more aspects of our lives we can turn into routines, the better. The less attention we have to put on things that don’t really matter, the more attention our brains can devote to problem-solving and idea-generating.

This is from an article by painter Robert Genn:

 Choreographer Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit describes her morning routine of rising early and going through the same morning rituals; same coffee, same bun. She puts on the same leotards, goes down the same elevator to the same street corner, puts her same arm up in the air and gets into the first cab that comes along.

By the time she gets to the studio she has made no significant decisions. Stepping out onto the dance floor, her dancers await. It’s eight in the morning and her first decision is yet to come. It will be a creative one.

Genn has some suggestions for streamlining routine activities, such as:

Simplify morning rituals.

  • Keep regular habits by day and week.
  • Work in a space unsullied by impedimenta.
  • Use a day-timer—plan your work; work your plan.
  • Always ask—”Is this action necessary?”
  • Be businesslike—discourage time-wasters and interlopers.
  • Be efficient and mindful of wasted motion in your space.
  • As far as possible, get stuff delivered and taken away.
  • Be modern—pay bills, bank, book flights, etc., online.

Genn and Tharp have to be creative almost every day. They aren’t trying to get out of the box. They recognize that the box helps them be creative. It keeps them out of their brain’s way.

I’ve experienced the benefits of getting out of my brain’s way over and over and over again. My unconscious has connected some dots that didn’t even seem to exist in the same domains. I don’t take credit for those insights and ideas. My conscious brain didn’t come up with them. But I take credit for maintaining routines and practices that free my brain do its thing. I take credit for loosening the reins.

*A: You can’t actually get outside the box, so there’s no point in trying to think outside it.

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