The other day, I was writing a lengthy article without much progress. An hour went by, and I felt like I was shuffling words around the page rather than progressing towards hitting "publish."
So, I set aside my draft, put on a pair of trainers, and went for a long run down the local canal. I felt vaguely guilty about stopping working early, but it was a glorious Tuesday morning, and a cool mist hung over the canal. I was almost sorry when four miles in, it was time to turn for home.
When I got back to my writing desk, I opened up the draft and almost immediately saw what was wrong with it. I fixed the article and prepped it for publication in under thirty minutes. Taking a break and running helps when I feel stuck. But what other strategies can you use to boost creative thinking?
1. Read Different Genres
Consuming articles, blog posts, videos, and podcast episodes online are like surfing over the surface of an ocean. You're digesting popular ideas, bordering on clichéd. Not only that, but you're consuming information within an echo chamber.
If you want to boost your creativity, sink deeper into a topic or an idea by reading great books about your topic of choice. While it's fine to read modern or contemporary bestsellers, reading the classics may unearth an old idea you can insert into your work or retell for today's audience.
Creativity involves combining old ideas in new ways. And reading the classics helps modern creators find topics they can lend their voices to, like Ryan Holiday, who is popularizing stoicism for a modern audience.
2. Go on Daily Walks
While working in the creator economy, digital tools like smartphones, computers, and the latest apps are useful for turning an idea into something you can publish and potentially sell online.
However, they're also confining and, thanks to email and social media, distracting. If you're feeling confined, it's far better to get up and go for a walk. I like to run, but science is on the side of walking to boost creativity.
Famous creatives who relied on walking as part of their creative process include Henry David Thoreau and Charles Dickens. Dickens walked twelve miles a day, and he said about walking:
My walking is of two kinds: one, straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace; one, objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond. In the latter state, no gipsy on earth is a greater vagabond than myself; it is so natural to me, and strong with me, that I think I must be the descendant, at no great distance, of some irreclaimable tramp.
Several years ago, I took a course in transcendental meditation. Our instructor likened transcendental meditation to diving into the ocean of your subconscious.
It's a way of stabilizing your nervous system and exploring ideas typically only accessible in a dream state or after immediately waking.
TM is relatively easy to practice once you've acquired a mantra from an accredited teacher. If all that sounds like a cult, you can easily include meditation as part of your creative routine by using apps like Headspace and Waking Up. No courses are required!
Want to learn more? Read my guide to meditation for creativity.
Great creative projects are the result of hard work by many different people. For example, a bestselling author writes the first or second draft of a great story, but they still rely on an editor, a book cover designer, and potentially a marketing team.
YouTube creators publish videos every day that attracts thousands if not millions of years. However, to scale up, they need the help of a video editor and potentially somebody to manage their communities.
An entrepreneur may come up with an innovative software idea, but they still need to help of investors, designers, marketers, and developers to turn it into reality. Sure they could try and executable on a creative project alone, but that's a recipe for overwhelm and burnout.
If you're stuck on a creative project, who can you collaborate with? Where can you get real-world feedback? That may mean joining a local class, like a writing workshop, or getting on a Zoom call with prospective fans. These days, I like interviewing other creators and asking them about their processes. Then, I can create content ... and get free advice from them.
5. Set Aside the Outcome
I spent the lockdown writing a memoir about becoming a Dad unexpectedly when I was 24. I'm a few weeks shy of 40 today and now have three kids, for those keeping score.
But I wanted to do something different with this book … and I knew it'd be a tough sell for an audience of writers.
I fired up my Facebook Ads account and set up some ads to build a list of readers for the launch ... and I felt sick.
I dislike Facebook for many reasons and have always preferred organic content marketing over running ads … even for books.
So that left me with the problem of how to sell a memoir about parenting.
When I explained this problem to a friend with a similar online business, he said,
“You could always let go of the outcome.”
Usually, for me, an outcome for a book is sales … and revenue. But I wanted people to read this book. There's no back-end, course, or related products. So, I'm giving the book away for free and serializing it on Medium.
6. Get Bored
Great ideas often arise out of moments of boredom. Past successful creatives often spent hours and days and even weeks doing what looks like nothing to the outsider.
Consider Walden, who spent two years, two months, and two days in a cabin in Walden Pond, Massachusetts. That's a long time to ponder nature!
These days, boredom is an increasingly rare commodity. Waiting in line? If you're like me, chances are you'll distract yourself with a smartphone or social media. We've access to more online content and creative work than we'll ever have time to consume.
Creativity myth alert: the answer isn't consuming more content.
Instead, if you're struggling to boost creativity, become comfortable sitting with little moments of daily boredom. Rather than reaching for a phone on reflex, see where the moments take you? You could also doodle or free write with pen and paper.
7. Use the Oblique Strategies
Consider picking up a packet of the Oblique Strategies. They're prompts for creators, writers, artists, and musicians. Musicians Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt came up with the concept for these cards in the late 1960s while collaborating on a series of albums. They wanted to reduce the time it took to get into a state of creative flow, and studio production time was pricey.
Each card contains a single prompt that you can use for your projects. Examples include:
- Use filters
- Give the game away
- Be dirty
A pack costs around 50 bucks. I keep a set on my desk.
8. Try the Six Thinking Hats
Edward Bono's famous Six Thinking Hats is a visual metaphor for different types of creative thinking.
Put on your metaphorical white hat if you want to approach an idea with a neutral or objective mindset. Review the facts and figures.
Don your metaphorical black hat when you need to be cautious. Assess the risks. What's the worst that could happen?
Put on your metaphorical red hat for intuition, emotions, and gut feel. Try freewriting about the idea or issue.
Wear your metaphorical yellow hat if feeling optimistic about an idea for your business. It describes moments of optimism and hope for a venture or idea. What's the best that could happen?
Put on your green hat for generating suggestions, ideas, and alternatives. Try proven creative techniques like brainstorming or mind mapping.
Finally, the blue hat describes when you organize and plan an idea, like preparing a creative content plan or an editorial calendar.
9. Work a Little Every Day
I'm a big believer in the power of small daily wins for seeing a creative project from beginning to end.
For example, a writer who works for 15 minutes every day and produces 300 words will write 2000 words a week. That translates into the first draft of a book after several months. Not only that, but they've built a daily writing habit by working a little every day.
If you're feeling out of ideas, don't wait for inspiration. Instead, work on your latest project for at least fifteen minutes and sustain that momentum for the week. Often turning up sends a trigger to the subconscious, and a breakthrough can emerge on day three or week three.
10. Cultivate Blocks of Deep Focus
It's also a good idea to build blocks of deep work or focus into your day. Use this time to sink into a creative project without worrying about pressing commitments.
To do this, you can follow one of two approaches. The first approach involves going on a workstation every few months. Basically, you transport yourself from the demands of day-to-day life and retreat to a nearby hotel, whereby you can focus on creative projects for an entire day. Do nothing else.
The second approach is more practical for those of us with kids and family commitments or a busy job. Find at least two hours in your day where you can disconnect from the internet and other work commitments. Caveat: it'll mean getting up extra early or working late at night. Use this quiet time to focus on a single creative project rather than jumping from task to task on your to-do list.
11. Explore Your Curiosity
Creativity is a risky business. Instead of worrying about reviews, sales, and feedback, try starting a creative project because it sounds intriguing.
What are you curious about? What would you like to learn more about? If you've time and resources, dedicate a few hours each week to exploring new creative ideas and projects that fall outside of your comfort zone. Placing risky creative bets discourages rigid thinking.
I recently interviewed poet and creative coach Mark McGuiness of Lateral Action. He typically spends his mornings working on creative projects without an outcome like writing poetry or translating the classics. He spends his afternoons on projects that pay the bills, like coaching clients.
I’m working on Chaucer’s long poem, “Troilus and Criseyde,” translating it from medieval English into modern English but keeping the same verse form and I’ve done over a thousand lines of this and it’s quite an intricate rhyming scheme and iambic pentameter and, apart from the fun of doing it and spending that time with Chaucer, it’s definitely made me better at rhyme and meter and rhythm and syntax and all the kind of technical skills you need so that when I write my own stuff, it seems to flow much more easily.
How to Boost Creativity: The Final Word
Creativity is a bit like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. Like a runner who gradually runs a little further each day to build endurance, use the strategies above when you're feeling creatively stifled or out of ideas.
You can easily boost creative thinking, find better business ideas, and thrive within the creator economy with practice and repetition.