Sometimes, though thankfully not often, I get stuck in a creative rut and I struggle to come up with anything new and exciting in my research work. But, as a PhD student, I understand creativity is at the centre of my research; the PhD thesis must make an ‘original contribution to knowledge’. Therefore I’ve made sure I have a toolkit of strategies to help me escape from the valley of creative despair and get back into producing novel ideas.
If you are currently feeling uninspired, lacking insight and generally not producing creative ideas for your research, business or work, then this post is for you! First know that creativity can be learned. Whilst I agree it seems to come to others more easily than the rest of us, there is no doubt that practising your creativity skills will help you to improve.
Below I’ve shared 17 of the methods I use, which may help you to ignite that creative spark and get you going with what it is you do best. Each method comes with a take home suggestion of an idea you can try out today. When relevant I’ve included some scientific studies to back up the method.
In my usual style, this is a long post because it is an accumulation of many years of trying different things. Make sure to bookmark or highlight what inspires you, so you can refer back to it later; when you need it.
Let me know in the comments below which one inspired you the most, or if you have a go-to technique which is guaranteed to get your brain juices going.
Understand when you are in the creative zone and optimise getting into it
Chris Fenning calls it ‘hyperfocus’. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it ‘flow’. Others call it ‘getting in the zone’. Whatever you decide to name it, this state of mind is the most productive and rewarding work zone you will ever be able to harness.
This is when you are so absorbed in something, the hours fly by and the work just seems to flow out and get done, without you even breaking a sweat. At this point we are in the magic zone of work just stimulating enough to keep us engaged, just hard enough to keep us motivated and with just enough time incentive to have a subtle sense of urgency.
However, it is important to be aware that not all ‘flow states’ are created equal; my creative flow state is very different from my ‘get stuff done’ flow state. I find early mornings best for the creative bits; planning, idea development and writing, whereas my afternoon focus sessions, around 3-5pm are better for delving into complex statistical problems.
Whatever schedule you find works, there will be a time when creative ideas flow much more easily. Make sure you can identify when this is and design your day around optimising this period of time.
Take home: learn what needs to happen to get yourself ‘into the zone of creativity’
Try to connect to completely unrelated ideas
The following method is super fun.
"Obvious connections are the obstacle to novel ideas." David Kadavy
Give yourself two completely unrelated objects or concepts and try to develop links between the two things. I once tried to connect a toaster to soil microbes… I came up with a series of questions about whether microbes have breakfast.
It’s easier to connect things than you may think and you’ll be able to come up with some really unique angles, by viewing topics from different directions. In his TED talk, Tim Harford talks about how medical students can become better eye doctors by studying art.
Want to make it more challenging? Try connecting three things together. And the more unrelated they are, the harder it will be.
Take home: pick one thing related to your work and another completely random thing (something in your kitchen, a word, your best friend) then find connections - I would absolutely love to hear in the comments what you have managed to find a link between!
Talk a walk and/or change your surroundings
One of the best ways to free your mind from the daily stresses is to give your senses something else to focus on. Taking a walk is one of the best ways to combine some exercise and some gentle thinking time.
Exercise improves creativity, independently of whether you end up in a good mood or bad mood afterwards. But you don’t need an all out sweaty session to be creative.
Many people regularly work from alternative work spaces such as libraries, parks, coffee shops and communal office spaces. Changing up your surroundings offers a sense of grounding, a new perspective and some fresh air. These are all great for developing creative ideas. In fact, even just looking at green spaces can improve your creativity.
I love heading to a coffee shop, and observing and listening to the gentle hubbub of people. Sometimes I’ll see someone who inspires a character in the book I’m writing, or I’ll overhear someone say something interesting. Alternatively, sitting in a quiet and comfy corner can help inspire a new perspective on an experiment I’m working on.
Take home: go for a walk, take a notebook and scribble ideas and thoughts as they arise even if its nothing to do with your current problem. Just the process of letting your mind wander is great for developing more focused ideas later
Do something that pushes you outside your comfort zone
When we are in our comfort zone, we aren’t exposed to many threats. However we define those ‘threats’; a tight deadline, a new experiment, an outreach event or a visit overseas, pushing our self a little further than we can currently feel at ease is a great way for incentivising the mind to come up with creative solutions.
Things which push me outside my comfort zone are exercise (yup), talking to other people and going somewhere new. Whilst I don’t want to stress myself out by doing too many of these things all at once, pushing the boat out at least a few times a week, is key to developing a sense of purpose and achievement, now and in the longer run.
Take home: do something that makes you a bit nervous. Record your feelings afterwards. Did it go well? Did something or someone inspire you? What could you do better?
Have a creative outlet you use at least semi-consistently
I write on this blog regularly. I find it helps engage my creative mind. Do you have a creative outlet you can delve into at least a few times a week?
Although crafts or music may immediately come to mind, it could be things like journaling, redesigning your office space, volunteering or making your to do list more inspiring. It needs to be somewhere you are in control of the creative decisions and where you can see the fruits of your labour.
Having your own creative outlet away from your work to which you can orientate yourself, I find anyway, a useful anchoring and creative drive space to work those creative brain muscles.
Take home: take and post a photo everyday for 30 days on the app of your choice. You’ll find this helps develop your creative eye, appreciate the finer things and develops a consistent creative habit.
Have a brainstorming session alone or with friends
Brainstorming sessions tend to come up with a certain type of idea. They are best used if you are on a tight deadline, but do try using them when plenty of time is available. Over time they can develop a vast number of ideas.
I tend to work as more of a lone wolf so for this technique I use one of two methods. I either, start a blank page in a notebook and write words and lists scattered across the page or, I use a mind map if I need more structure in my thinking. Whatever method I use, I don’t constrain myself to a structure.
I then add to these over the following weeks as ideas pop into my head. Quite often I’ll find one area that resonates with me more than others.
Brainstorming can be useful but I find it’s best done over a longer period if you want the best return from your ideas. It works well with point 17: "Put the project to one side or ‘on the back burner’".
Take home: pick a project, grab a blank piece of paper and list or map out everything that comes to mind. Something like a home improvement project or thoughts on something you have read are great ideas to do this. Keep adding over the following days and see where it develops. What is resonating with you? How did you come up with the idea?
Get a good night’s sleep - not too long, not too short - for a few days in a row
I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better after a good night’s sleep. When I wake up naturally rather than by an alarm clock I feel so much more rejuvenated. It’s even better when a few of these types of nights happen in a row.
Having a regular sleep routine where I am in bed by a certain time really helps in this endeavour. If I want to get up early it’s no problem, but only if I go to bed early. I’m lucky in that I don’t really suffer from the issue of going to bed ‘too early’. Perhaps its something to do with my ‘chronotype’.
Finding out and understanding how your behaviour naturally changes over the course of the day could really help to identify your best sleep times, and therefore help develop more natural waking times. There is a rich plethora of research around chronotype and performance, particularly in athletes. If you want to optimise your creative performance, try looking into chronotype.
On the opposite end though, there is also the negative impacts when I get too much sleep. If I have a lie in, I feel lazy and find it much more difficult to get started. I’ll admit I have the occasional lie in; I think we all need one of those from time to time. As a general rule, though, even at weekends I’m up between 5-6am.
Take home: try and find your sleeping sweet spot. Keep a physical or mental diary about when you went to bed and how you felt when you get up in the morning. If you had a particularly great or awful night’s sleep, also write what was on your mind as you hit the pillow.
Engage a different part of your brain
Although the theory between right and left brain thinking styles has largely been debunked, there is a link between the side of brain you use and the task you are doing.
If your work is largely devoid of emotion, try doing something emotional to engage the right side of your brain. If you have been working in silence for the better part of the day, try talking to someone to engage the right side more.
This one may sound kind of odd, but if you have been sitting at a computer using a mouse in your right hand for the last hour, try having a stretch and focus on the left side of your body. Left and right body activities are co-ordinated in the right and left side of the brain respectively so switching to a different side of movement can help give the other side a rest. Likewise if you are using your hands a lot, try moving your feet around for 5 minutes, or if you’re focusing close up on a screen, stare into the distance for 5 minutes as you take a loo break…
Take home: if I’ve been working on statistics or at a computer for a few hours, try switching to something more passive and creative like reading a non-fiction book to help give parts of your brain a break.
And if you are looking for a reading snack, my newsletter BrainSTREAM will provide you with just the right amount of brain exercise:
Keep yourself busy with other things, but not too busy
I find I’m most creative when I have a slight consistent pressure on my time, but not so busy that I can’t think of anything but work.
If I have been particularly busy and focused on something, it can take me a few days to get back into the creative zone - kind of like the need for a holiday before or after ‘the holiday’.
Take home: make sure to have 'creative' time scheduled in your calendar. Pay attention to what happens before that period; i.e. don't schedule it straight after a stressful meeting.
Learn to balance divergent and convergent thinking
This is something David Kadavy highlighted in his book, ‘Mind Management, Not Time Management’;
“So the challenge in doing more and better writing, or the challenge in any creative work, is to balance divergent thinking with convergent thinking. You need to generate ideas, but you’ll move forward with only the best ideas.”
Divergent thinking is when you generate ideas by casting your net wide. In this type of thinking there are no silly ideas and you mind is free to wonder through the possibilities. Convergent thinking is a honed thinking. We want to focus on one thing until we’ve finished or exhausted our options. As an example, divergent would be like thinking about what articles to write on your blog and convergent would be the writing of a single article and all the ideas it contains.
By identifying what type of ideas you need to generate, this can help provide some focus towards your creativity by having a purpose or a constraint for your thinking. Sometimes constraining yourself to within a context helps generate a more in depth, all angles, mindset.
Take home: try doing convergent thinking, then switch to divergent. What do you notice?
Try quantity over quality
When I first tried writing for quantity over quality, I was sceptical about the effectiveness and quality of my writing. However, a week into a 2000 word a day challenge, I quickly noticed the benefits of forcing out the words rather than the usual reliance on a more passive, qualitative, writing style.
Sometimes forcing ourselves to be creative, however horrible it sounds, may be beneficial.
Take home: set yourself a 'production' target for 30 days and stick to it.
Speak or listen to someone else
‘You tend towards your peers’ is advice I’ve always believed.
This is not a green light for dumping your friends, but do reflect on who you associate with the most and how they make you feel. Surround yourself with inspiring and insightful people, and you are more likely to be inspiring and insightful yourself.
Ever felt inspired after listening to a TED talk or inspiring presentation? Talked to someone and thought, ‘wow’ you are going places? Engaging with others is a great way to create a creativity wave. It can give you two opportunities to generate creativity; first when you are listening or talking to them and immediately afterwards when all those feel good endorphins are coursing round your body.
Take advantage of this; make notes of your thoughts as they enter your head in a notebook, rather than notes of what they are saying. Plus immediately after you have finished write a summary of what they have said.
I have found this remarkably useful. In an interview I did with Theo Stowell, I wrote down what we talked about immediately after we spoke; writing the article was easy. In an interview I did with a fellow PhD candidate, I didn’t and I am dreading writing that article because there is so much transcription to wade through.
Take home: listen to this curated list of TED talks on ‘The creative spark’. What are your takeaways? Are you inspired? Write these thoughts down immediately into something more concrete; something you can refer back to, to feel that wave of enthusiasm you felt at the time of listening to it.
I’m going to be honest, I haven’t tried this one directly, but I’m very excited to give it some investigation.
Last night I watched Episode 5 of Behind The Diary of a CEO (⬅ highly recommend this and The Diary of A CEO too) and in it Steven briefly mentioned about how he found it easier to be more creative and engaged with his podcast guests when he had not just eaten.
That got me wondering if the reason why I am more creative in the morning is due to not having eaten anything for the last 11 hours.
There's evidence to back this idea up; if we eat too much our brains don't work so well. So in theory, if we try to be creative when we are in a more hungry or 'fasted' state, then we should perform better.
So I'm curious to try this.
Take home: keep a diary with details about when you ate and how creative or engaged you are. Are there any interesting observations about when and what you ate and how creative you were?
Optimise your sensory environment e.g. change your wall colour
Colour can change how we perform on tasks. If you are looking to be more creative, then blue may be a great colour to look longingly into for a little while. This is why the walls of my little office nook are painted in two shades of blue. I find it calming and relaxing and less clinical than white or even beige walls.
Red on the other hand demands attention and is better for “detail-orientated tasks”. Think about the colours you look at as you navigate your phone, computer and apps. How conducive are they to your different moods of thought?
The same thoughts go for your visual environment. Does your desk contain clutter or copious post-its which send your mind spiralling into stress mode. As much as you can create yourself an environment conducive to creativity. Think about all your senses; smell, visual, audible, perception, even taste. Get all these in the right place and creativity will start to flow.
Take home: take a look round your place of work. What can you do to make it better for creativity?
Surround yourself with something living that isn’t another human being
Sometimes being able to cuddle up with something fluffy and/or living is all I need to relax and get those creative juices flowing. My cats are great for this purpose. It might even be a teddy and a blanket at times. After all, we all thought our teddies were real at one point too, right? Right?
There are even charities where you can go and spend time with animals; therapets for example and some universities and even businesses will have these on site once every few weeks.
Interestingly, there is no consistent link between owning a pet and happiness; non-pet owners can be just as happy as those who have a furry or scaly friend. So don’t be rushing out to get a pet for this purpose. Perhaps there is something else you find comforting like a blanket, pillow or super comfy chair which envelops you in a hug every time you sit on it.
I can’t deny the positive feelings I get when curling up with a cat sat on me, purring away. Being in a positive mental state, is a lot more conducive to my idea generation and spending time with my furry friends helps me get into it.
If you are green-fingered, I find it also works for plants. As I give them some TLC; water, fertiliser and cutting of the dead bits, my brain focuses on the task at hand. Watering my plants in the morning is actually one of the ways I try to kick off work brain mode.
Take home: snuggle up with something you like and just enjoy.
Always have a 'system' to capture thoughts and ideas, so you don't have to use precious brain space for remembering things
"If we’re trying to store information in our short-term memory, we have less brain power left over to do any other work." David Kadavy in Mind Management, Not Time Management
It could be as simple as a stack of post-it notes beside you as you work; having somewhere consistent to capture, irrelevant thoughts as they pop into your head is invaluable to keep your brain space as empty as possible.
The more you can write down and remove ideas like 'remember to send an email to so-and-so' and 'I should probably...' the easier it will be for your brain to focus on the task at hand.
I'm actually not very good at this one. I quite often have a notebook beside me, but not always. Definitely work in progress as I work out my 'system'.
Take home: have an easy system for capturing unrelated thoughts as they enter your head, then process them later outside of your creative period.
Put the project to one side or ‘on the back burner’
Sometimes, focusing on something else is the best way to move something forward creatively. In ‘Mind Management, Not Time Management’, David Kadavy talks of using this approach to ensure we keep moving forwards with our projects.
Front burner projects are those which require all our energy and attention. A back burner project is one that we leave to simmer in the background attending to as and when we need to. It's related to the point above, whereby once we can rely on our systems put in place, our habits and strategy take care of the rest; we don't have to think about it because it is engrained in what we do.
In that sense, our creativity can be focused on the front burner projects which demand our attention and when the time comes we can move things around to where our creative attention is needed. Keeping everything on the front burner is a recipe for disaster.
Putting something to the back of your mind gives your brain the perfect chance to mull it over sub-consciously. That's why we often get insights at the strangest of times.
Take home: identify your front burner and back burner projects. Practise moving them around in your mind and in your work systems. Notice how the creativity within them changes as you move them around.
I could go on ...
To be honest this post could go on and on; truly endless inspiration indeed! As I have sat on this post for a good month or two I realised I have more ideas I could add to this list. But it is already long enough.
If you have got this far; thank you! I hope you have found this list useful and insightful and your inner creative is waiting on the side lines to be unleashed. I'd love to know how you get on with these. Are there any that resonate particularly strongly?
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