Reading time: Just over 4 minutes
Do you ever despair that you’re just not creative enough? Understand that it’s not a special gift; you, too can learn to be more creative.
I am friendly, quiet, highly-organized, very determined — even stubborn. I have never seen myself as the least bit creative.
Nevertheless, I have always been drawn towards creative people. At university, I hung out with a lot of actors — finding them to be a lot more fun than the people in my interesting but little bit staid department (political science). These days, many of my friends are artists or musicians. They see the world differently than I do and I like their energy.
I’d long thought that creativity was something that you were either born with or without — a kind of a magic wand that allowed you to wave your hand and produce a rabbit out of a hat or some other novel solution. But, In fact, many psychologists believe creativity is not a special gift, reserved for a limited few. Instead, it’s a skill that anyone can learn. And, like every other skill, you get better at it with practice.
Here are 10 ways you can improve your creativity.
1-Get enough sleep. Really! I’m not telling you this from a health point of view (although that’s important, too). Sleep is essential for creativity. While all of our sleep needs are different, the vast majority of people need somewhere between 7 and 9 hours. And yet so few of us get that. Never be ashamed of how much sleep you need. And never cut short your sleep. New research shows that sleep helps our bodies eliminate metabolic waste. Think of it as a way of restarting the hard drive that is your body. And the ONLY way to get this restoration is by sleeping. It can’t happen when we’re awake.
2-Allow yourself to be bored. Why are so many of us terrified of being bored? These days, it’s because of our smart phones. When we’re sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting for a bus or a train, or standing in a bank lineup, our impulse is to reach for our phones. Instead, letting our minds wander is a really good thing to do. You can look at the other people in the same space as you — notice their appearance, think about what makes them tick, imagine what their lives are like. You can look at the physical space. What are the colours? What are the objects like? What makes it pretty? Or ugly? Or boring? Allowing your mind to wander in this fashion is kind of the heart of creativity. You have no obligation. Your mind can go in any direction it likes. We don’t get new ideas by doing the same old thing all the time. We have to allow our minds to wander. For more information on the research relating to boredom and creativity, check out a great article by Clive Thompson.
3-Use sound and music. All of the artists I know work to music. None of them works in silence. Not one. Did you know it’s extremely difficult to write in silence? In fact, scientists can tell you the specific decibel level that will most help your writing. It’s 70 decibels – which is slightly louder than average conversation and about the same sound you’d experience in a busy coffee shop. I’ve long suspected that what drives so many writers to coffee shops is not the need for caffeine but the need for a certain, very specific amount of noise. If you want to use sound to improve your creativity, here are some specific tips:
- Calibrate your sound so it’s in the 70-decibel range. (That’s the sound of living-room music or a quiet vacuum cleaner.) Anything louder is going to be too distracting to you.
- If listening to music, look for a moderate rhythm and something without too many changes in tempo. You want to look for something that’s really consistent and predictable. Some scientists believe that Baroque music is best for creativity. This includes composers like: Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Corelli, and Telemann.
- Avoid music with lyrics. While your favourite music might be death metal or Broadway show tunes, neither genre will help you write. Having to listen to other people’s words will make it far more difficult for your brain to focus on writing.
- Pick sounds you already know: Our brains love to recognize patterns. If your brain is already familiar with the sound you’re listening to, then it will relax and allow you to focus on writing. If the sound is new, however, your brain is going to have to process it — leaving your writing in the lurch.
- If you’re not interested in music, here are some other suggestions: The sound of rain, surf, running water, birdsong, wind. You can find all of these sounds for free on Youtube. And if you want to reproduce the sound of a coffee shop, I highly recommend a free app called coffitivity.
4-Get exercise. Exercise not only helps your body, it also improves your creativity. In particular, aerobic exercise stimulates Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which encourages the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. I have chronic back pain so I can’t run but I find walking at my treadmill desk — while I write — makes me more creative and helps the words flow far more easily. See more on the link between creativity and exercise, here.
5-Be more childlike. Young children are naturally creative not only because they’re determined to learn but also because they’re diligent about having fun. (They haven’t yet had this attitude “trained” out of them by school.) You, too, can channel this mentality to improve your creativity. Check out a terrific article on the website Inc. for some tips on how childlike thinking can make you a better leader. (Spoiler: exactly the same tips will help you become more creative, too.)
6-Take more breaks. Many of us think we’ll accomplish more if we work longer and harder. But creative people understand the true value of breaks. I’ve long cited a clever experiment by productivity expert Chris Bailey to prove this point. Chris spent a month working 90-hour weeks to see how productive that made him. His conclusion? “I got a lot done, but only during the first few days of the week; after that I didn’t have the time or mental space to recharge, so my productivity practically fell off a cliff.” When I work with writers in my Get It Done program, many of them are eager to “make up” writing time they missed during the week because they were too busy. I always tell them to take the weekend off. The rest is more valuable to them.
7-Surround yourself with creative people. Yeah, I know. We’re in a pandemic right now and we can’t see most of our friends. The solution, I think, is to read about creative people so we can see how they do it and become inspired. Here are some suggestions: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. (Yes, I know he’s a plagiarist but hold your nose and read this book; it’s remarkable.) Just Kids by Patti Smith. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
8-Understand that creativity isn’t easy. People who are creative make it look easy, in much the same way that Michelle Kwan made a triple axel look easy. But creativity can be tough and discouraging. It’s not about playing with paints in a light-filled studio on a sunny day. Instead it’s about sticking with your program when you’re discouraged with it and frustrated. In many ways, creativity is a disruptive force, resulting in all sorts of havoc. Decide how much creativity your life can handle and set up routines and practises (meditation, anyone?) that will help you handle it.
9-Do it “just because.” The worst question for a creator is, “so, what are you going to do with that?” It suggests that — to be meaningful — everything we make needs a purpose. No, it does not! Sometimes creative work is just for the fun of it. You can create something because you feel like doing it. Don’t let concerns about function drain the creativity from your soul.
10-Give yourself enough time to be creative. For some reason we think that being creative should be fun and easy and we get surprised when it isn’t. The secret? Practise. Block off time in your schedule for creative work. Treat it like an appointment with yourself. Having a good if/then routine will also help you preserve your time commitment to creativity.
And keep reminding yourself that creativity is not a special gift, reserved for a limited few. It’s a skill that anyone can learn.
Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
My video podcast last week explored how to make your content unique. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
Do you see yourself as creative? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 28/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!