Career Advice

6 Unorthodox Ways to Spark Your Creativity

By Herbert Lui August 19th, 2014

Ugh. It’s just one of those days.

The one when you’re about to start a new project. Or one when you’ve just hit a milestone and are entering the second phase of client work. Where you think your client’s expectations are too high to live up to.

They’re not easy days.

Weathering these moments is part of what separates the professional freelancers from the hobbyists. As painter Chuck Close said, “I always thought that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Understanding how to jumpstart your creativity and get it flowing is crucial to enduring through trying days. Here are six methods that creatives use to start their creative engines:

1. Work in the dark

If you’re feeling stifled, try working in a dimmer environment. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology has shown darkness and dim illumination promote creativity. Other experiments discovered that you can boost your creativity by simply priming yourself with the idea of darkness—even just describing an experience of being in the dark.

Conversely, while darkness and dim lighting may be more effective for generating ideas, a bright area is more conducive for analyzing and implementing the ideas.

In an article for Pacific Standard, Anna Steidle, a co-author of the study from the University of Stuttgart, said, “I’d rather suggest creating an informal and benign visual atmosphere by dimming direct light and having a light bulb somewhere in your field of vision which is turned on from time to time. As far as I understand it, the turning on of the light bulb is what primes the procedure of gaining insight.”

2. Create crappy first drafts

The higher your expectations, the more difficult it is to get started. Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott once wrote: “People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think… that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.”

Everyone writes terrible first drafts. It’s practically inevitable for the majority of writers, designers, and other creatives. On the PLOS Blog, author Josh Shenk wrote, “When I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy, I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”

Consider the related concept of the minimum viable product, which entrepreneurs use to gain customer feedback and improve their products. Minimum viable products are the entrepreneurial version of crappy first drafts—the real improvements come later on (e.g., the story of how Instagram emerged from Burbn).

3. Talk through your problems

We run into creative blocks during most projects. It can be tempting to avoid the problem in front of us and indulge in distractions, but that only means we’ll remain stuck. Conversely, movement—in any direction—builds momentum for future progress.

Author Fred Waitzkin explained his solution to creative roadblocks in an interview with Tim Ferriss: “I have a couple of friends [who] I rely upon. I listen closely to what they think. I’ve done this many times. My wife Bonnie has helped me many times like this. Here is the curious thing: Often her advice or the idea of a friend isn’t what I end up doing. But listening to the ideas engenders a new idea. The whole point is that you have to get moving. Movement begets movement. You need to get unstuck.”

When you’re stuck, a simple solution is to talk out your problems with a friend. You don’t have to take any advice—but listening to ideas and responses could spark new ones of your own.

4. Write thoughts in journals

Our memories are hardly reliable sources for inspiration. We end up tainting them with cognitive biases. We also don’t notice and recognize patterns until we go back and examine them in detail.

Author and former marketer Jack Cheng created his first novel from a concept he wrote down in a journal. In an interview with One Skinnyj, he said: “I’m a big proponent of journaling, because it builds self-awareness, which is always the first step to improvement… I believe we all have a natural understanding of the appropriate timing for ourselves, but the problem for most of us is that it’s buried under layers of false expectations and misplaced obligations. Honest journaling helps you face your own fear and neglect.”

5. Change your environment

The unlikely combination of neuroscience and architecture is linked to a process known as neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells. This reaction is accelerated by physical environments.

If you find yourself making breakthroughs in new settings, you’re in good company. “Early in his career, when he was still struggling to find a cure for polio, Jonas Salk retreated to Umbria, Italy, to the monastery at the Basilica of Assisi,” wrote Pacific Standard columnist Emily Badger. “Salk would insist, for the rest of his life, that something about this place—the design and the environment in which he found himself—helped to clear his obstructed mind, inspiring the solution that led to his famous polio vaccine.”

In addition to bolstering creativity and productivity, changing environments has proven to help people build new habits and get rid of old ones.

6. Create your own constraints

Although it may seem like an unusual problem, having an abundance of resources can stifle creativity. Too many options could overwhelm the creativity of the mind and make it much more difficult to focus.

Medium, Twitter, and Blogspot co-founder Evan Williams has written about how constraints helped him make decisions more effectively: “With Medium, we have an engineering team that can build anything, matched with large ambitions, and plenty of capital. How do we ensure we don’t create something overly complex and/or fail to ship at all? By picking a date.”

Think of it like having a blank canvas as opposed to one that already has a few brush strokes. It’s much easier to work around the lines and create something based on those constraints rather than putting a brush to emptiness. Williams and his team used artificial deadlines to help them focus. You can use budgets or human capital as constraints.

Closing thoughts

Creativity can be an abundant resource if you understand how to harness and use it effectively. Figure out which times of day and environments you’re most creative. Talk through your problems, track your thoughts and memories, and have the courage to create terrible first drafts. Don’t let your ego coax you into procrastination and don’t get tricked into thinking hard work is the solution to everything.

Image by Kelley Bozarth
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