Creativity is a strong word that we hear very often, a quality desired by many. Some believe we are either born with creativity or we’re not. And if we aren’t born with it, we’re out of luck. I myself used to believe that creativity is something we either have or we don’t, and that I wasn’t in the “blessed” group.
But something about that thought seemed wrong, and because of that I went looking for solutions, ways to stimulate my creativity and make the most of it. I found several books and articles, read them and didn’t feel like I was getting closer to where I wanted. I didn’t feel like anything was changing in my life as those articles and books promised.
But eventually, after a lot of digging, I found something that approached creativity in a different way, it’s the book The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry. The book doesn’t present us with one single trick, and instead argues that we should structure our whole lives around creativity for it to surface. The book says that if we want to be brilliant at a moment’s notice, we have to start that process way in advance. We must have been working on our creativity for weeks, months or even years to come up with those breakthroughs when we need them.
I’ll focus on the structural aspects that I applied to my life. The book in its entirety is very practical and applicable and I would recommend anyone who wants to delve deeper to pick it up and read it.
The Obstacles of Creativity
“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”
The main obstacle when trying to increase our creativity is finding a balance for it in our lives. It’s hard to give ourselves a structure that is flexible enough for breakthroughs to come and yet methodical enough for creativity (and ourselves) to be reliable.
Truth is, we can’t always count on getting insights at a moment’s notice. Creativity might leave us alone when we need it most and we probably will lose dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of opportunities during our lifetimes. All we can do is to prepare ourselves as well as we can and go after it at all times, accepting that it might not always work out.
People who do creative work may constantly feel burned out. The world we live in is a “create on demand” world, meaning we have to constantly produce and constantly be brilliant. The only thing that isn’t required of us is that we remain healthy. Well, unless we still want to be producing the same quantity and quality of work in five years.
No matter how much advice we look for, there are no quick fixes. There’s no “one magic trick” that will get your brain thinking in ways you didn’t think possible—and trust me, I’ve looked. All we can do is do our best, structure our days and keep at the methods constantly. We have to want to improve and take ownership for our growth and the growth of our creative abilities. The more we put in, the more we’ll get out.
When dealing with something as volatile as creativity, we have to accept that short-term growth is unlikely. It may come, but more often than not it simply doesn’t. But as long as we keep putting in the hours, it will happen sooner or later. Knowing that, we might as well start now.
Well then, how do we remain healthy while being brilliant and prolific?
It’s not healthy to spend all of our energy every day or every week and then spend hours or an entire day half dead because we can’t bring ourselves to do much—and that’s assuming we realize the unhealthiness before getting burned out. This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way and despite life’s best efforts to teach me, I still try to go against it at times and always end up regretting my stubbornness. I’ve tried my best at using all of the energy I had and resting for only a few hours, but the truth is that even in the busiest of times, we need to treat ourselves well, respect ourselves and know how far it’s healthy to go.
Energy management is crucial. When we’re spent, our work will not be nearly as good as it could be, nor will our relationships, nor will our lives.
On the other hand, we can’t spend too little or be too stingy about our energy expenditure. “Nature doesn’t give to those who will not spend,” said Raymond John Baughan, which means finding a balance is crucial. When we start planning our hours (more on that later) we can’t think “in buckets.” We don’t have a reserve that is used for our work, one for our relationships, one for our personal projects and one for our hobbies. Everything draws from the same pool and if we’re not intentional about dividing it properly and having our priorities in order, we’ll face several problems down the road.
We can roughly divide everything we do into two types of activities: energy draining activities and energy feeding activities. Those will be different for each person, but taking examples from my personal life, a few of my energy drains are meetings, classes, studying (both for school and for myself), editing work, and the technical part of website work. Energy feeding activities are things like listening to music, reading fiction, writing, working out, and volunteering.
Knowing what our energy drains and energy feeds are, we can plan our entire lives around those. Some have more freedom than others when it comes to the course of their days, but everyone can sneak in a five minute break to listen to a song after leaving a particularly draining meeting—even if that means sneaking in to the toilet.
I can’t overstate the importance of constantly recharging. If we want to always be on our best behavior we need to be constantly energized and the way to do that throughout our days, before we get a chance to get home and really rest, is by being strategic about taking breaks and intentional about what we do during those breaks.
Another side of energy management that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is “pruning”. Sometimes it’s in our best interest to say no to a very promising opportunity if that means we won’t be doing our best work on what truly matters. If we really want to accept such an invitation but feel like we don’t have time, something else will have to be pruned, and this is where we have to be extremely careful.
Todd brings the metaphor of a vine keeper that is constantly looking for new growth in the vines, and the new growth often gets cut out. New growth steals energy from the older vines that already give constant fruit and if the vine keeper is not intentional about pruning the vine, it will eventually not have enough energy to keep itself alive, wither and die.
Much like vines, that’s how our creative process works. Our brains can only do so much and even though I’m a strong advocate of pushing ourselves to do more, we always have to know where to stop. Ultimately, energy is a limited resource and we can’t expect that we will spend everything and still be all right on the next day.
Well, where do we focus our energy then?
In our red zone. The red zone in football is the area of the field between the 20-yard line and the goal line. That is where several games are decided, if the ball is in that zone, the chances of scoring are statistically a lot higher.
Our red zone is composed of the projects where we spend the least amount of energy to get the biggest return.
Those projects are, among others, projects that only we ourselves can contribute to because of our personal experience, projects that increase our personal capacity, that provide cohesion and of course whatever feeds our energy goes into that zone as well.
The key to creativity is stimuli. If we don’t have a constant influx of new information coming into our lives, we won’t be thinking of creative solutions or having out of the box ideas. The easiest way to be creative is by adapting different ideas to our purposes.
And the easiest way to come across those ideas is as simple as asking.
Of course we have to go after information, but we come across hundreds of different people every day, each one of them with their own thoughts, mindset and ideas. Simply by taking interest in them and asking questions we can almost always see a perspective we hadn’t thought of. Creativity and curiosity often go hand in hand. Be fascinated by the world and people around you and you’ll find that more and more ideas will come your way.
But when it comes to stimuli, quantity is the least we should worry about. There’s already plenty out there. If you live in a suburban or urban city, look outside your window. Chances are you can already see a billboard or a commercial establishment, their logo, and maybe some other form of advertisement. If you still haven’t seen any, don’t feel too bad, you can still open youtube and look for your favorite cat video. Chances are you’ll see an ad before it starts (on top of the ad on the homepage, and those on the sidebars, and, and, and…)
The stimuli we seek should meet three criteria: it should be stimulating, it should be relevant, and it should be diverse. It is in the word itself that stimuli should be stimulating, it should get us thinking in different ways and motivate us to seek out more and do more. It should be relevant to our personal growth or work, and it should come in different forms. We shouldn’t limit ourselves exclusively to books or to movies or to ted talks or to documentaries or to anything. Each medium has its own pros and cons and the more different media we can get working in our favor, the better off we’ll be.
But with so much stimuli coming into our lives the entire time, how do we select what we pay attention to?
The key word here, like in many other places, is intentionality. Before starting anything it’s in our best interest to research it, read reviews and be sure it’s relevant to us. If it isn’t, we can toss it aside and either go back to it later, or never go back to it at all.
A bit of planning goes a long way. Todd encourages us to come up with a “stimulus queue” consisting of things we need information about, things we are curious about and things that are good for us (may I suggest some philosophy?).
But having a stimulus queue and going through it is useless unless we can actually apply it. Which is why we should not simply read, we should read smartly, take notes and practice active listening.
The way we can most effectively take our notes varies from person to person, but whatever we do, there are a few things we should keep an eye out for when our goal is to stimulate our creativity.
We should not simply write what the book says, we should keep our brains “turned on” and look for patterns, for things that surprise us, for things we like and dislike, and keep asking ourselves “why.” There’s a reason why I try to have my computer turned on whenever I’m reading, and it’s not for music. I like to research things and read up on experiments the books reference. I play an active role in my reading, and I noticed that it’s helped me learn a lot more since I started this practice.
Now that all our notes are taken and we have done our research, what is the next step?
Reviewing them, of course! Not once, but multiple times. We don’t want to have a notebook that we don’t open and constantly consult, we want to go back to all of our notes and constantly look for things we’ve missed, new breakthroughs and refresh our memory. I have the habit of going through my notes from the previous day right after waking up and only then categorize my index cards or file my papers. Ideally we should have all of them in visible and easy to access places. I’ve lost count of how many times I reached for an index card or flipped through a few pages and found what I was looking for, whereas if I had kept those things packed away in a drawer I probably would’ve forgotten about the question before I even got to opening it.
What about alternatives for books?
Don’t think of reading as a be-all and end-all solution. As I’ve said before our stimuli has to be diverse and there are many other ways find it:
Seek out experiences, go do something you haven’t done before. Climb a mountain, go camping in the wild, try your hand at a new hobby, volunteer. Whatever it is, by doing different things you can think of different ways to use whatever knowledge you already have.
Play, don’t be serious about everything. Let your younger self take over and don’t get so worked up about everything. Just allow yourself to have fun doing things for the sake of themselves. New ideas come often when we’re just doing things for fun.
Walk, but be intentional about it. Leave your phone and music at home and just go look at stuff. See what catches your attention, things you hadn’t noticed before, keep your mind concentrated on your walk but let it drift as well. You don’t have to get anywhere, you’re walking for the sake of it.
Go to events that make you uncomfortable. If you’re an introvert and got invited to a big social gathering, gird up your loins and go! Allow yourself to do things you didn’t think you could or that scare you at first. Be brave and stretch your comfort zone a little.
There’s a ton of advice about planning our work and specific parts of our lives, but if we get too attached to planning those specific parts, we lose sight of the big picture.
The main thing that we all should know is that “not all minutes are created equal.” What that means is that we all have times when we can be more or less productive, times we can do some things better than others. I’m at my best in the mornings, that’s usually the best time to do writing work. My afternoons are better suited for technical work and evenings/nights for reading. Most of the time we won’t have complete control over how we structure our time (I still have classes every morning and work most evenings), but we can lean in that direction. Whether that means waking up earlier, going to sleep later or negotiating with our boss to have a longer lunch break if we leave the office later than usual.
Regarding our time, we should have an investment mindset. It isn’t reasonable to expect that we’ll come up with breakthroughs every time we set one hour to do just that. But we can try, and we should try.
If we want to succeed, we have to do things that few are willing to do, and those things aren’t usually the most glamorous. In fact they are often downright boring, but we have to do them anyway. There’s a reason why pros still practice the basics constantly.
One of the practices Todd recommends is blocking one hour weekly for idea generation. He calls that the “idea hour.” The idea hour is an hour in which we block everything—phone, computer, lock the door—and concentrate on generating ideas. It won’t always be productive, in fact, when we’re just starting off it often won’t be productive at all. But going back to the investment mindset, we have to keep putting those hours until our brain gets used to the fact that we need it to come up with ideas during that specific hour of our weeks.
Here are a few questions to help us get going during that idea hour:
- What would the solution to this problem look like?
- What would it feel like?
- What is the ultimate state of this problem? Describe it as being solved.
- What assumptions kept us in grindlock?
- What assumptions need to be challenged to move forward?
- What other problems and solutions worked for similar problems?
- Can you find any case studies?
- What are the specific attributes of this problem?
- Can you break down this problem in 5 words?
And finally we come to planning. To putting an actual structure into our lives.
I do a lot of planning, it’s what works very well for me and it might not be what works for you. I separate my planning into three different time periods and will run you through them, from longer to shorter term.
For the longest time I’ve tried to do with yearly planning and figured it just wasn’t for me. Maybe in a few years when my life stabilizes, but for now I can’t reasonably do that when everything is still so unclear and changes every few months. I had to go down to a quarterly plan that I do four times a year. Each of these sessions takes about two to three hours, but your mileage may vary. My pace tends to be quicker than that of most people.
In my quarterly planning, I don’t focus on the specifics, and instead keep it very general. These are the main questions I go through:
- What went well in the past quarter?
- What did not go well in the past quarter?
- What do I expect of the next quarter?
- How can I do better than last quarter?
After writing down my answers to all of those questions, I quickly go through some of the principles outlined in this post and ask myself:
- What will I focus on?
- What commitments can I take on?
- Is there something I need to prune?
- Is there something abnormal coming up?
I let my mind wander freely. My quarterly planning sessions usually end up being more of a big mind dump than anything else, but it helps me to have everything on a page. After I am done writing I go through it and make a bulleted list with the main points of each of my answers.
Here’s where I get down to the nitty gritty of my structure. I already have my recurring events (classes, monthly meetings) set up in my google calendar and plan everything around that. What I look for here are opportunities to prune and cluster projects. I see if there are days when I’ll be especially busy and try to plan around those. My weekly planning sessions take about 30 minutes.
Before starting my planning, I always do a big mind dump of everything that happened over the last week so I can start planning with a clear head and have an objective look at all the events that might be influencing me. Once again I quickly go through the questions from my quarterly planning and get down to planning the hours themselves.
I already have my routine mostly down, but I still block off time for writing, reading, doing website work and studying. What I try and plan here is how much time I can spend on each of those tasks on each day, since to me what works best is doing all of these practices daily. The most important part (my writing) gets its sacred hour, which is non-negotiable and will start at the same time every day of the week. I also outline which topics I’ll be tackling over the week and possible alternatives if I get stuck.
Even though I have this structure, I remain very open to new ideas that come. Except for my sacred hour for writing, I don’t have a problem changing things around. Remaining adaptable to last minute changes is important to everyone and I would under no circumstances advise anyone to stick to their schedule 100% and not let himself deviate from that.
This is once again a more abstract type of planning, but I still like to go through and I notice my days are much more productive when I do do that.
I’ll start off every day reviewing my notes from the previous day and asking myself “what good shall I do today?” (a question I shamelessly stole from Ben Franklin) before opening my computer and checking my schedule. I’ll see what classes I’ll have and my rough afternoon plan and go over my answer to the question, asking myself if everything adds up. Assuming it does, I’ll get my day started. If it doesn’t, I’ll see what can be changed in my schedule or answer the question once again.
At the end of the day I will once again go through my schedule and ask myself if I accomplished everything I set out to do. If not, I’ll make a note to myself for the next day and if I did, I’ll give myself a pat on the back for that.
The book has a lot more to say about each of these topics, on top of two other aspects that I didn’t explore in this article (called focus and relationships). I summarized everything as best as I could and stuck to what is applicable in every situation. The aim of this article is to provide a framework to structure our days and weeks to bring out the most creative insights we can.
If I took the time to write this based on a book, it’s because I truly believe it’s worth picking up and of course, I had to make several cuts over the course of writing this. I gave you the practical parts and left most of the theory out. Everything written here I’ve personally applied and seen the results of. While I did take most of the advice from the book, there’s some of it that I was doing before coming across these new techniques and I found that my old methods worked best for me. In those cases I stuck to the old methods and those are the ones I wrote about here, instead of what the book brings. This isn’t meant as a carbon copy, after all.