Welcome to my ultimate guide on how to be creative.
Most people think that being creative is innate—you either have it or you don’t—and if you don’t have it, it can’t be learned. I’m happy to tell you that this is not true. Creativity is a bit like sleep in that you can’t force it, but you can definitely create habits and environments that make it come much more easily.
As you read through the following tips on how to be creative you will see that even the most non-creative person need not be doomed to a life of accountancy.
Okay, I admit it: two of the tips are really just controversial facts related to creativity, but at least you can use them for interesting conversation topics.
Do something new
Newness and creativity are linked in the brain, because both are associated with a neurochemical called dopamine.[1,2,3] If you stimulate dopamine through one you’ll get the benefits of it spilling over to the other. So, if you want new ideas, do something new. This is why you may often get cool ideas when you first play with a new bit of gear.
Here are some tips to get you started:
- Work in a different location for a day.
- Listen to different music.
- Meet someone new.
- Change your routine.
- Buy a new piece of gear.
- Learn something.
- Read an article that has a different viewpoint from yours.
- Revamp your online business profile.
- Wear new clothes.
What other ideas can you come up with?
Brainstorm while skydiving
So, step out of your comfort zone and feel your creativity rise! The cool thing is that just imagining something exciting will have much the same effect as doing it. So, even when you’re stuck in your office, you can just vividly imagine your next exciting adventure and then put that fresh creative power to work.
Here are some ideas:
- Plan your dream date.
- Ask for more money (from your next client, not your date).
- Plan your ultimate vacation.
- Eat at a new restaurant.
- Cook something new.
- Invite someone new for dinner.
- Join a new club.
But don’t over-do it
Novelty and excitement are like spices and not a meal in themselves. Part of dopamine’s motivation factor is that it creates an inner restlessness, a drive to make changes.[6,7] Unfortunately, if you live in this state of constant mental itchiness you’ll likely feel unsettled, like something is missing or not right in your life. If you keep going down that path, you’ll burn out. The tortured artist stereotype is real and has been linked to messed up dopamine pathways.
Here’s a weird fact: artists are often more likely to suffer from mood disorders than military personnel. Let that sink in for a moment. That just goes to show that stress is often more about how you deal with a situation than the situation itself.
Stress kills creativity
Stress shuts down the brain centres involved with creative thought.[9,10,11] Sources of stress a lot of people don’t think about include working when you need to use the bathroom, not enough sleep, caffeine (which does not give you energy, per se), low blood sugar, a messy workplace.
But wait a minute, didn’t some of the best artists in history live stressful lives? Yes, but there is a difference in how stress affects you, depending on what kind of stress it is, what kind of support you have, how long it lasts, what kind of art you create, and several other factors.
What you don’t want is stress that goes on and on, with no social support. The cortisol released from this eats at your brain and puts you into survival mode, which sucks for creativity.
So, take a deep breath and repeat, “I am happy and ideas come easily to me”. And go pee.
Get a life
See me, feel me, touch me, heal me
A neurochemical called oxytocin is released every time we have a positive social interaction or physical encounter—from warm hugs, to a great conversation, to massage, to sex. As an added bonus, oxytocin increases creativity.[14,15]
On the flip-side, it lowers your ability to make snappy decisions and problem-solve until your levels go back to normal. So, next time you’re basking in the afterglow, brainstorm your next great business idea. Or maybe just go out with friends more often.
To stand out from the crowd, don’t follow the herd
You won’t become extraordinary by doing what everyone else does. History’s greatest innovators were people outside of the status quo, who were unafraid of peer pressure. In order to create at your best you may have to go it alone.[16,17] This is a hard road to travel, but the good news is that once you’ve made it, people will flock to support you. This may happen posthumously, but at least you’ll be famous.
Big rewards lead to failure
This is strange, but very large rewards can actually make people fail. In one social experiment, scientists tempted poor foreign workers with increasingly large amounts of cash for completing tasks. Once the cash bonus hit a certain amount, the workers became overwhelmed and their performance went drastically downhill. Apparently, too big of a reward creates too much pressure and drives people to perfectionism and screwing themselves over.
I find that a good way through this potential for self-sabotage is creative visualization, where you specifically create an imagined reality where this big reward is actually your new normal. Once you get over the feeling that this is a huge life change and see it as just a part of life that many other people regularly experience as normal, then the pressure reduces. Because humans are animals of contrast, it also helps to imagine an even more massive reward sometime in the distant future that makes the current reward look small by comparison.
Thinking of doing what you’re doing for the benefit others is another good way to take the attention off yourself and reduce your nerves.
Chill out and go with your flow
You know that mental state you get when you’re lost in doing something and time passes without you being aware of it? The name for that is called being in a state of flow. Brain scans show that this is correlated to higher levels of alpha and theta brain wave activity.[19,20] What does that mean for you? There are hacks that can put you into those states, without needing a Ph.D in neuroscience.
Here is a list:
- Meditation.[21,22,23] You knew this would be here, right? Far from being pseudoscience or a religious activity, meditation is scientifically proven to put you into a receptive state for creativity, as well as lower your stress, increase your empathy, and a bunch of other things.
- Do a simple, repetitive task. This can be anything from yoga to washing the dishes. It puts you into a relaxed state of focus that invites ideas to flow.
- Sit next to running water. You know how you get ideas in the shower? Apart from the fact that you’re performing a simple task, like the above, running water has an effect of its own on our mental state and can help to put you into the creative zone. Meditate next to a stream or ocean to save on your water bill.
- Have an attitude of curious exploration. This encourages new ideas far better than hyping yourself up into an intense focus.
- Exercise. I address this later in this article.
- Hang out in nature. This is also covered further down.
Science says: know the rules before you break them
In studies of jazz musicians, researchers discovered that the part of your brain responsible for your inner critic shuts up once you hit a certain level of mastery. Of course, there is a little more to it: once you get to the point where you know what you’re doing, you have to let go and improvise. For ultimate creativity, master your craft, have a basic structure to follow, then improvise within that rough outline.
See into the future
In one of my all-time favourite studies, researchers took two groups of people, one of which groups learned a piano piece and had to practice it over and over for two hours a day for a week. The second group learned the same piece of music, but instead of practicing at the piano, this group just mentally rehearsed. At the end of the study, the researchers scanned the brains of both groups and found that everyone experienced nearly identical changes in the brain.
Here is another study that will clarify what this means. In this study, people either did actual physical exercise or they just visualized themselves doing exercise. At the end of the study, the exercise group had increased their strength by 53%. The group who just visualized and never lifted a thing increased their strength by 35%. A similar study resulted in only a 12% difference between real physical exercise and visualized exercising.
What this means for you is that you can significantly improve simply by imagining yourself doing something. This extends to every area they’ve studied. Want to be a better artist? Imagine yourself being a better artist. Want to change how you feel about anything at all? Imagine feeling different about it.
In order to make this as effective as possible, follow these key guidelines:
- Make it vivid. Involve your senses as much as possible. See yourself in that new situation, feel the texture of whatever is in your hands, smell the scents around you, and so on.
- Clearly envision the steps involved, as much as possible. See yourself doing the steps to succeed.
- Feel it strongly. Imagine how it will feel to go through that experience and feel those feelings as you visualize.
- Be deliberate in your intention. Make your visualization clearly focused on a specific outcome and don’t bounce between different possible situations.
But don’t just fantasize
The odd thing is that while creative visualization is incredibly useful, fantasizing or daydreaming has almost the opposite effect. When it comes to getting stuff done, daydreaming makes you less likely to chase your goals. There seems to be two reasons for this. One is that when you daydream you are less likely to imagine yourself acting out each necessary step and more likely to mentally skip to the end where you’re rich and famous and there is a statue in your honour. The theory is that this gives you a feeling of having already accomplished everything and you lose motivation.
However, anecdotally, people have become very successful by doing that very thing — vividly imagining that they’d already succeeded. The crucial difference is that those people dreamed with positive expectations and didn’t just wish they could happen. They also deliberately took action towards their dreams. So, if you daydream about the future, envision one step you can take towards that future and then do it.
It’s easy being green
Quick, guess which colour room would make you more creative—red or blue?
Most people would choose red, but that’s partly because of how I phrased my question. Studies show that red rooms lead to faster decisions and better problem-solving abilities. However, subjects in blue rooms came up with considerably more creative ideas.
And green is even better. In one study, people who looked at the colour green before brainstorming were able to come up with 20% more ideas than people who looked at other colours.
The best muse is amusement
It’s official; watching stand-up comedy on YouTube makes you more productive. Research shows that people who listen to comedy are better at coming up with creative ideas. This is true even when you interrupt your workday several times to do so.
My school teachers were wrong after all! I was actually helping the other students by being the class clown.
Exercise is good for everything
Can we finally just admit that exercise makes everything better? It improves your health, helps you age well, boosts your moods, aids your sex life, improves your attractiveness, and now we know it makes you more creative.
Write it down
There is a famous study from Harvard University in 1953 that showed that people who wrote down their goals became far more successful than those who didn’t. This study has been quoted by pretty much every motivational speaker, ever. The problem is, it doesn’t exist. The study was prepared, but never completed.
Fortunately, there are other studies that do show this advice to be true. Writing down your goals increases your likeliness of achieving them by 42%. This is important for creative types who start projects and don’t finish them. Write them down!
The second thing this is good for is preserving your ideas. Obviously, you are more likely to keep track of them with a written record. But you are also twice as likely to not buckle under peer pressure and conform to groupthink. If you write down your ideas you more likely to stay original.
Frolic in a meadow
Plants can help you think creatively, too.
In one study, people in an office with a potted plant in the corner were able to come up with creative ideas at a significantly higher rate than the group without a plant. Interestingly, there was a difference between the men’s and women’s foliage-fuelled streak. Men came up with a higher number of creative ideas, while the ladies tended towards more flexible concepts.
The good news is that you hardly have to do anything to benefit from all of this. Buying a plant is as close to a set-it-and-forget-it process as you’ll find here.
Of course, feel free to talk to your plants, since studies show that they respond positively to this, especially if you are female. If you have a plant in your meeting area, not only will the plant get the benefit of your conversations, but your clients and staff will feel subtly more relaxed by its presence.
When it comes to choosing your new nature-powered office enhancer, look for plants that grow well indoors, such as succulents like aloe and cactus, as well as rubber plants, ivy, and peace lilies.
Start in the middle
People love resolution. This is how TV cliffhangers work on us. Our brains are wired with an innate desire to experience the conclusion.
If you are stuck at the start, start in the middle! Not only will this change of structure provoke new ideas, but your brain will set in motion a need to see it resolved and you’re more likely to get it completed.
Do it for someone else
Being motivated by your own self-interest leads to worse results compared to when you work on behalf of someone else. Keep your clients in mind and think of their best interests and you’ll be amazed at how much better you perform.
Walk in their shoes
Empathy and creativity are related in the brain. Not only will empathy for your client lead to better ideas, but they will also be more personal and meaningful for them. Win, win!
Conversely, empathy and creativity are both negatively correlated with dogmatism. Do you know someone who is stubborn and opinionated? Chances are that they also suck at relating to others and are uncreative. Part of the reason for this could be due to the fact that creativity and empathy both require using your imagination to separate yourself from your personal experiences.
Think outside of the box
Studies show that people who watch a lot of TV are more likely to just come up with the same ideas as everyone else and are less likely to consider original thoughts. This is true even for educational programming.[47,48]
Create your cloister
Interruptions break the flow of ideas and can serious jeopardize your creativity. Having an environment where you can think without being interrupted is important. This includes social media, phone calls, and emails.
Stay away from your deadline
While looming deadlines can be a kick in the butt for motivation, creativity comes more freely when there is a healthy distance between you and your creative goal. This is probably due to the fact that urgency increases stress and stress reduces creativity.
For people who really want to use last minute panic to get their butt in gear, jot down notes well ahead of your deadline and then you can use the adrenaline the day before it’s all due to put those ideas into something concrete.
Muzzle your inner critic
Editing is crucial for polishing your ideas, but only after the creative process. The very act of internally talking to yourself reduces the creative process. If you examine every idea as you go it’ll be almost impossible to truly get into a flow state.
So, first freely create without any kind of examination at all. Then work your ideas into something promising. Do those two things before you critique the details.
Let it go
John Cleese says that he was always more creative when he came back to an idea later and rewrote it from scratch. His theory is backed up by research that suggests our subconscious mind works on our ideas while we rest.
The important factor here is to go with the flow and not try to remember absolutely every detail in order to make your second draft identical to the first. Use your first draft as inspiration and let new ideas come to you.
Don’t be attractive
Good-looking people are more likely to conform to what everyone else is doing out of fear of rejection. Go figure. So, for the hotties out there, are you really doomed to a life where people accept your mediocre opinions just because you’re pretty? Yes. I’m sorry. (Don’t take everything I say seriously).
Vote liberal[Disclaimer: This is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, not a political endorsement either way.]
Ah, yes, the most polarizing point in this article! Remember, I’m just the messenger, coming to you from the frontiers of science.
Studies show that people with liberal ideologies are more likely to be creative, open-minded, less conventional, curious, and novelty-seeking than their conservative counterparts.
But don’t fear, conservatives, because there is good news for you, too. The same studies show that conservatives are more orderly and better organized, which is important for actually getting stuff done rather than just thinking about it.
Of course, the more narrow-minded someone’s views are in this area, the more likely they are to be less creative, either way. But even that can be overcome. To become more politically moderate, more empathic, and therefore more creative, people with extreme views just need to ask themselves the question, “Why?”, three times in a row when faced with a polarizing perspective.
That little mental exercise helps people move away from knee-jerk emotional responses and towards a more rational perspective. Being rational does not necessarily improve creativity, but being more open-minded certainly does.
There are a lot of tips here. Rather than changing your life all at once, pick one or two to try. Then come back later and choose a couple more. Keep going until you find the ones you really click with. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to call on them whenever you need a burst of creativity. The more your practice them, the more creative you’ll be.