Psychologists have done countless studies in an effort to better understand where creativity comes from, but it‘s still a bit of a mystery. Some people seem to have an unlimited supply of inventive ideas, while others find it hard to think outside the box.
According to most psychologists today, no one is truly “left brain” or “right brain”. Wherever you exist on the creativity scale, know this: You’re not stuck there. Creativity is a skill that can be learned and nurtured. There are things you can do to unlock your creative genius — and some of them are quite simple. Read on for seven strategies and tactics for generating fresh and unchartered concepts for design solutions. (Wondering where you fall in the spectrum? Take this fun 30-second test.)
#1 - GET BORED. Being frequently stimulated by outside sources can certainly help spark new ideas and keep us informed, but studies have shown that something else may be even more effective: Disconnecting completely. Unplugging every now and then can make you more mindful and self-reflective, thus opening your mind to new possibilities. In a recent creativity study, the most boring, repetitive tasks (reading a phone book) resulted in the most creative ideas. Popular author Neil Gaiman took a long break from social media early last year when he realized that he no longer had time for boredom. With smartphones in hand, we don't stare out the train window or daydream while waiting for the kettle to boil. Boredom, it seems, creates the necessary time, space and freedom to let our minds wander in search of new ideas. WYNC's New Tech City podcast recently challenged it's listeners to be Bored and Brilliant: Could people pick up their phones less often and spend less time on them when they did? And would such small changes cause an increase in creative thought?
#2 - TRY MIND-MAPPING. This popular technique allows you to visually organize information. Like the aerial view of a tree or a nerve cell, there's usually a central area or image in the middle with curved and colored lines extending outwards. Often used to determine goals over a period of time or as an alternative to traditional note-taking, mind-mapping can actually be used for any thinking activity. It's a way of allowing your brain to make connections in a non-linear way, which is closer to the way we actually think, leaping from idea to idea. Because it's a visual tool, you can use both images and colors, engaging your mind, sparking new ideas and helping you remember more. Mind-mapping on paper spread in the 1960s through writings from British author Tony Buzan who trademarked the term. Of course, now there are apps for that, which makes adding images, documents and links a snap.
#3 - FEEL THE NOISE. Ever feel more creative when working in a coffee shop? Some researchers have proven that ambient noise actually improves creative thinking. If you can't leave your office, Coffitivity recreates the sounds of a coffee shop wherever you are. Some people find that working to music helps as well, although music without lyrics may be less distracting. Music that's unfamiliar to you may make you even more productive. Of course, the opposite can be true as well. People are now exploring sensory deprivation, such as using Flotation Therapy, as a way to refresh and recharge creative batteries in addition to helping with things like insomnia, stress and anxiety.
#4 - CATCH SOME ZZZZs. It seems counterintuitive when you're trying to get work done, but we're not at our creative best when we're tired or suffering from stress or burnout. Getting a good night’s sleep as often as possible is a way of allowing your mind to rest and process the events of the day. A bit of a night-owl? If you find your best ideas crop up at night, starting work later in the day and fitting in short daily naps may help you stay healthy and rested while still producing great work. Speaking of sleep, it's now thought that humans used to sleep in two distinct segments during the night, rather than one eight-hour block. So instead of tossing and turning, try using those wee hours of the night as a sweet spot for creative thought.
#5 - CREATE HABITS. Prefer to write in your underwear at 3 a.m.? Do your best creative thinking after a long walk and a cup of Earl Grey? Allow yourself to indulge in the little rituals and routines that make you feel most productive, no matter how quirky they are—then make them a habit. Don't worry if it takes time; conventional wisdom would have us believe that habits are miraculously formed in 21 days. However, the average is actually closer to 66 days, and highly dependent on the person and the habit. Mason Currey examined the habits of creative people in his Daily Rituals series and found, while there were some similarities, that one size does not fit all—so find what works for you. An easy one? A brisk walk during lunch. A recent study shows that a simple walk can boost certain kinds of creative thought. Getting serious about changing habits? Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, tackles habits in her new book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.
#6 - TAKE RISKS. Steven Kotler has given us this recipe for creative thought: When we're faced with "unfamiliar stimuli under uncertain conditions—especially when those are dangerous uncertain conditions", a less rational, more intuitive part of the brain takes over, one that rapidly tries to make sense of whatever the hell is going on and fix it. "Risk...trains the brain to be more creative," he says. Does this mean that you need to take up skydiving or join the next mission to Mars? Maybe. The idea is to seek out new experiences, especially those that take you outside of your comfort zone, even if you may fail.
#7 - PLAY. Allowing yourself the opportunity to play without restriction helps you tap into the unharnessed creativity you experienced as a child. As adults, we're more fearful of what other people think and, as a result, dismiss our ideas as soon as they pop into our heads. When you're trying to come up with fresh ideas and innovative solutions, self-editing doesn't do you any favors. Tim Brown talks about this and the importance of play in his 2008 TED talk on creativity. During the talk, he had the audience create objects out 30 identical circles on an otherwise blank page as quickly as possible. Rather than creating variations on a theme, which would have been faster, participants struggled because they felt that each had to be completely unique. Creating a comfortable, trusting work environment that makes room for play means you're creating one that encourages creative thinking—and that's a good thing.