When you’re an accountant, you can do your thing with accounts whenever you need to. It’s a skill you have. You turn it on, you do your magic numbers thing, tick it off your to do list and go back to eating Pringles or watching Netflix or whatever else you were doing. But creativity doesn’t work quite like that.
If you’re a creative, your job is to do creativity. And sometimes the creative juice just doesn’t flow.
Here are some ways to train your creative muscles to do your bidding.
It’s important to realise that creativity doesn’t just mean coming up with a spectacular design that belongs on the walls of the Tate. Creativity is important in most aspects of our lives because it’s how we solve problems. It can be as much about deciding how we’re going to approach the situation as it is about creating a beautiful piece of design.
1. Move around
It’s one of those things that tends to cause eye rolls when people are told to walk around for health reasons, but physical movement can also have real benefits for your creativity.
There are two types of thinking that we use in problem solving: divergent and convergent. Divergent thinking is where we come up with lots of different possible ideas (brainstorming). Convergent thinking is where we follow a logical sequence to arrive at the correct answer.
Creative activities need both.
Walking around has been found to boost divergent thinking. Walking and brainstorming go exceptionally well together, so if you need to decide how best to approach a task, do yourself a favour and take a walk. You’ll generate more varied ideas and there’ll be less temptation to jump straight into the construction phase, which limits your creative thinking. Also, if you have co-workers sat around you, taking a walk is a good way to get away from them for a while (for strictly creative reasons, of course).
The Stanford study that looked into this effect found no particular difference between walking indoors or outdoors, so take your pick. Of course, being outside (especially in nature) has other mental benefits too, such as stress relief, so if you can take a wander in a park, so much the better.
Once you’ve gathered your ideas, that’s the time to sit and get on with it. Sitting or standing at your desk improves your convergent thinking and gives you better focus.
2. Tweak your environment
Nothing sparks creativity like changing things up, so making improvements to your work environment can really keep your creative skills sharp.
Studies have shown that dim lighting generally improves creative thinking. Electric light is at the other end of the spectrum (inadvertent lighting pun, there) and is pretty terrible for all types of work, concentration and mental health. So if you have control over your work environment, try drawing the curtains or using low wattage lamps to keep the light level low and your creativity high.
Just as nature helps our state of mind when we go walking, it can help at your desk too. Despite what is commonly thought, indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air, and having a plant nearby can help give you cleaner air, lower your stress levels and increase your attention span.
Sound is an important part of your environment too, but something to be used with caution. Contrary to the way most trendy offices have it, having the radio on with its high level of annoyingly inane DJ banter can lower concentration and increase stress levels. Keep to music for doing admin, instrumentals if you’re writing (to avoid word clash), and if you need to be creative, seek out ambient sounds. Coffee shop chatter, and nature sounds like rain or the sea help our minds to relax, which improves our ability to be creative.
Lastly, make use of your environment. Change your location for different types of work. Read on a sofa, plan while wandering around, design at your desk then review work on your tablet at your local Costa. The novelty of changing locations will keep you motivated, and the moving around will be good for your health, too.
3. Limit your options
You’ll have heard this many times:
… the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of invention.
Or variations of it. It’s a Plato quote, one so old that people now try to come up with clever counter-quotes to it. But it’s lasted so long because there’s an important truth in it: when we create, we are creating solutions to problems. If there are no problems, our minds stagnate (or “Contentment: the smother of invention,” as Ethel Mumford put it).
It’s been shown that the more limitations we have on a project, the more creative variety we’ll come up with. It’s a familiar problem, though usually from the other side: almost every creative person knows the fear of the blank page. Give us unlimited options and we’ll give you… well, not very much.
So, if you’ve got a project that’s too wide-open, put some limitations on it yourself. Your creativity craves challenge, so give yourself a strict time limit, word count or design constraint. The work will be harder, but that’s good, because the result will be better.
You can practice this on work that doesn’t pay your rent. Take up a creative side project and give yourself no budget. Force yourself to think of new ways around problems. Your creative mind will thank you for it.
4. Add novelty
The part of our brain that deals with processing new things is vital when we want to create new things. So feed it with new experiences.
Travel to new places. Abroad, near home, city, countryside, wherever, just somewhere you haven’t been. Explore at random (don’t worry, Google Maps can always get you back to your car). Learn about historical places and the stories behind them. Read something by an author you’ve never read before. Get out of your comfort zone.
Your brain, like a muscle, needs training to perform at its peak. The more you experience new things, the better you’ll be at creating them too.