the 4 techniques i use to think creatively

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Here's me paying homage to the genius Jim Morrison in Paris.

Thinking creatively is not an ability some people have and others don’t. Like any skill, some of us have advantages but we can all learn how to do it. And we can all get better at it, through specific techniques and practice.

We are all creative. We are creative when we open our fridge and formulate a meal from leftovers and stale spices. We are creative when we figure out how to stop a baby from crying. We are creative when we pull together seemingly random elements to form something new.

Creativity is a concept which I think about a lot. I have to. My work as a writer means that much of my day is spent have ideas, drawing connections and turning old concepts into something new. At the moment, I write 2-3000 words a day, most of it based on my own thoughts.

I used to run art workshops at music festivals. Parents would bring their children and when I asked if they wanted to join, the answer was always the same: oh no, I’m not very creative. This is the sort of self-limiting invisible script many of us have. People assume that only those who work in traditionally creative fields - writing, making art, dancing, music etc- have the ability to make things. The ability to think creatively is a valuable asset in any career or pursuit. It enables us to find new ways to get things done, innovate and affect the world around us.

Here are some of the techniques I use think creatively.

1. Setting limitations

A common misconception is that creativity requires total freedom. During early, idea generating phases this is certainly useful, yet when it comes to getting the work done, limiting ourselves is important.

When I write, I follow a strict workflow. First, I compile notes/research in a Word document (it usually takes 5-10 pages of this for each final page of work.) I make a bullet-pointed outline, then form a structure. Next, I bulk out the points, move parts around and develop my ideas further. Once this is completed, I proof, edit more and format. I work in 30-minute blocks, with a short break between each. I always listen to either this playlist or this one.  Whilst writing, I turn off my phone and block all distracting sites. That’s it. I never deviate from this because it works.

When we allow ourselves total freedom, it can lead to time wasting or using too many resources. Boundaries lead to a need to think creatively within a certain area. This is why I often find it easier to write when I have a clear brief from a client, compared to when I get to chose the topic.

Time restrictions can also be beneficial. Parkinson’s law states that tasks expand the time allotted to them. When I need to write one piece in a day, I (surprise, surprise) take the whole day to write it. When I need to write 3 (or even more) in a day, I once again get it done in the same time.

This is why many of the most productive people work few hours or have limited time. Franz Kafka wrote whilst working in an office from 8am-6pm, cramming it in late at night. Gertrude Stein never wrote for more than half an hour a day. Immanuel Kant gave university lectures in the mornings. Most notably, Evariste Galois wrote a letter the night before his inevitable death in a duel, which has been described as the most important piece of literature in history. Restricting my time as well as my process enables me to generate more interesting ideas.

2. Quantity over quality

In Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland describe the benefits of quantity over quality. In one experiment, a ceramic teacher divided his class into two groups. One were told they would be marked by the quality of their work, the other by the quantity. When the final work was submitted, the teacher noticed something curious. The work of the quantity group was of a higher quality than that of the quality group. By churning out dozens of pots, they honed their ideas and techniques.

To have good ideas, we must first have a lot of them. I learned the technique of writing 10 per day from James Altucher and it works. Each evening, I brainstorm 10 ideas for pieces of writing or other projects. Most are discarded, yet the volume is what matters. 

Conor Oberst (my favorite musician in the whole world) has been churning out albums since he was 13. He has released dozens and appeared on many others. He tours non-stop. In a year he grows more than most musicians do in a decade, because he produces so much. His recent albums, Ruminationswas reportedly written and recorded in 24 hours whilst he was snowed into his house. It's beautiful, a pure outpouring of emotion. He is now 35 and is the best songwriter around at the moment. I rank him with Dylan and Cohen. He got that good by producing a lot, not by writing a few perfect songs. Listen to him. He's amazing. 

I have only ever improved my writing by practicing it. Since I first decided this was to be my career path, I have written millions of words, never going a day without a training session. Most of what I have written has been crap. As a teenager, I poured out embarrassing quantities of work about people I had crushes on. My first girlfriend left me and I wrote so many poems about her that they filled an entire suitcase. My first boyfriend left me and I wrote a screen play, plus a 500 page story about him. Then I grew up, burnt the lot and kept going. The more I wrote, the better I got. 

No one can wake up one day and magically produce a masterpiece. We all have to create a lot of junk before we can create something good. And we have to produce a lot of good stuff before we can produce amazing work. 

3. Drawing from diverse sources

'We all need fuel. Without the assistance, advice, and inspiration of others, the gears of our mind grind to a halt, and we're stuck with nowhere to go.' - Arnold Schwarzenegger

The initial part of producing creative work is known as the saturation phase. Inspiration is like energy - it can only be transferred, not made. Creativity is largely a process of drawing connections between existing ideas. If you have read even a couple of my essays, you have probably noticed the diversity of my references - philosophy, science, music, art, books of every sort. I absorb a wide range of information, catalog and remember it. When it is time to write, I search my mental library for related ideas. Even skills and information which seem useless or impractical prove helpful eventually. Reading a broad range of books gives me a rich pool of ideas to draw from. The first thing I always tell people who ask me how they can be more creative is this: take notes all the time. Record whatever jumps out at you each time you read, watch, hear or think something.

If we are a product of the five people we spend the most time with, then our work is the product of the 5 people we spend the most time being inspired. For me, they are currently Conor Oberst, Maria Popova, Seneca, Jack London and Seth Godin. Next week that list will be different. Funnily enough, they are all people who themselves draw from diverse sources of inspiration. 

Inspiration can come from anywhere. Christopher Kane once designed a collection based on a small piece of embroidery he found at a car boot sale. Stephen King wrote a story inspired by a woman he saw in a passing car. The film 'Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy' is framed around random tweets by an anonymous girl. I have written essays inspired by a conversation with a sniper on a train, a piece of graffiti and a passing comment in a TED talk

Steve Jobs described in his famous Stanford commencement address how pulling disciplines together enabled him to elevate his work:

'Throughout the campus, every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.'

I also like this extract from Kirby Ferguson's brilliant TED talk:

'Our creativity comes from without, not from within. We are not self made, we are dependent on one another. Admitting this to ourselves isn't an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness -- it's a liberation from our misconceptions, and it's an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves, and to simply begin.'

4. Mind wandering

‘The second stage of creativity begins when we walk away from a problem, typically because our left hemisphere can't seem to solve it. Incubation involves pulling over information, often unconsciously. Intense exercise can be a great way to shift into right hemisphere in order to access new ideas and solutions.’ - Tony Schwarz

This is why I work in spaced out blocks throughout the day, rather than in one go. In between, I take the time to read, study languages, go out and socialize. Spacing out my work gives my mind time to wander and spark new ideas. Study after study has shown that we are most creative this way. When I get really stuck, I take a shower, nap or go for a walk. I wrote the post which ended up forming the basis of my TED talk in the middle of a university lecture, scribbled on the back of my notebook. I developed my decluttering technique whilst feeding some stray cats at 4am. 

This is known as the incubation phase and leads to the illumination phase - when ideas seem to appear from nowhere. Our unconscious minds continue to mull over a problem when we walk away from it. I use the 'Edison and Dali' technique for generating ideas in my sleep. 

Creativity requires a connection to the world around us. Locking ourselves away from the world is rarely effective. I tried it. I spent a month in near total solitude and my writing was no better than normal. We all need time in the world, seeing stuff and letting our minds wander. 

Paintings in a French flea market.

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