If you’re creative, you can transcend traditional ideas and come up with meaningful new ones. And you don’t need to be deemed “a creative” to be creative—these ideas can come from anyone.
However, it does take practice. You need to strengthen that creative muscle by seeking new experiences and learning how to improvise. By being curious, open. By allowing space for your creativity to flourish.
Not sure how to unlock your creative potential? I’ve compiled some tips from me and a few of my fabulously creative colleagues to get you started.
1. Take a class. Act like a creative person, and you’ll be one. So sign up for a class that makes you create something. For people who tend to put creative projects off, this is also a good incentive to actually commit. One of my favorite classes was a children’s book illustration course, as it combined storytelling, drawing, typography, and layout/design. I also aim to stretch my artistic skills by taking different types of drawing and painting classes, trying out new media and new approaches. However, you don’t need to stick to writing or art—maybe dance or music is more your jam. Don’t have time to commit to a class but up for mini-creative spurts? The next two tips may be perfect for you.
2. Doodle. If you’re a doodler like me, you’ll be glad to hear that recent studies have shown that doodling can help your focus and creativity. It also may help you let go of the concept of a masterpiece, which isn’t helpful when conceptualizing. So feel free to scribble away while you’re on that conference call or trying to find a solution to a problem! If you’re looking to doodle on a more regular basis, check out the Petite Planner’s Oodles of Doodles challenge for ideas. Each month, she posts a lists of prompts and invites her Instagram community to participate.
3. Write. Then write some more. More into words than doodles? You may want to create a tiny writing habit (for example, writing 50-100 words as soon as you pour your morning coffee). It’s important to get into the habit, as otherwise it becomes easy to let other priorities take over. I’m writing a script in my spare time, and I block off at least a few hours every weekend to work on it. If you don’t have a specific project, you may want to sign up for the Daily Page’s daily writing prompts.
4. Constrain yourself. Creative challenges can become more manageable when you need to make the best out of what you have. With fewer resources, you’re forced to use what is available to you in novel ways. To push yourself, you could set constraints when you’re writing (stop using adverbs and find stronger verbs!) or doodling (how creative can you be with 30 circles?). For larger or ongoing creative projects, you may want to set constraints around your project type or format. Aiden Duffy, a senior designer on our team, keeps her visual design skills sharp by creating typography-based posters in a standardized format. (They’re really amazing—take a peek! She posts them on her Instagram account @duffydoes.) Constraining herself to a specific format forces Aiden to really push the typography and mix in unique imagery to keep the work fresh. In addition to making a creative challenge more manageable, this tactic can also result in a thematic series that shows off an aspect of your creativity not revealed in your other work.
5. Sink deep into your travels. Travel can open the mind to new ways of thinking. According to Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of numerous studies on the connection between creativity and international travel, foreign experiences increase your mind’s ability to make deep connections between seemingly disparate forms. But floating in a pool does not make you a swimmer. While traveling in itself may be a boon to your creativity, what’s key is immersion and adaptation. So instead of hopping from place to place, you need to truly engage with the local culture. That’s right—an excuse for longer vacations! Or, if you can swing it, you may want to take a page out of our marketing manager Jeanmarie Steele’s book: Work remotely abroad (commuting to coworking spaces when available) and enjoy the local culture on the weekends. She finds that her weekend getaways to coffee farms in Colombia, surfer towns in Bali, and wineries on Croatian islands not only provide more opportunities to engage, they help inspire her when she gets back to work.
6. Check in with nature. Today, we’re constantly distracted with technology and a million to-dos, making it difficult to focus and come up with new ideas. Your brain needs a chance to recover in order to do its best creative work. Nature gives it that chance, as recent research from neuroscientist David Strayer shows. It allows your mind to wander, create meaning, and imagine the future. According to a 2013 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, you don’t need to go on a long excursion. The study’s researchers found that walking in any green space (such as a city park) for as little as 25 minutes could give your brain a rest and boost cognitive function. When I have time on the weekends, I head to the mountains, but during the week, I take my dogs to pockets of open space or college campuses with great sweeping trees. And so I’m not distracted by technology, either I don’t bring my phone or I turn on its airplane mode.
7. Get your sweat on (a.k.a. exercise). Of course you should exercise your brain by doing things like researching and reading widely, learning new skills, and so on. But it turns out that exercising your body helps your brain’s performance too. According to Justin Rhodes, associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, "When we exercise, blood pressure and blood flow increase everywhere in the body, including the brain. More blood means more energy and oxygen, which makes our brain perform better.” You might follow the lead of our CEO, Gina Michnowicz. She finds an early morning walk-and-talk with a coworker makes it easy for her brain to tackle the day’s challenges. (Well, she makes it look easy, anyway!)
8. Take breaks. It’s hard to be an Energizer Bunny the entire day and still feel creative. You need breaks. You could incorporate some of our other tips and exercise, doodle, write, or visit a park during a break, but even a quick stroll around the block or down the hall may give you exactly the recharge you need. And if you’re like our director of brand and strategy, Kim Park, who finds it challenging to step away from her work, you may want to actually schedule a break or two.
9. Connect with creative people. You’ve probably heard the saying “steal like an artist,” meaning use someone else’s idea as a springboard for your own innovative take. Well, sometimes this comes from reading inspirational articles about brilliant marketing campaigns or checking out what intriguing tactic your competitor is executing, but other times it comes from connecting with creative people. They may be helpful to brainstorm with, of course, but you may simply find that their perspectives expand your own and that their creative productivity helps inspire you. If you work remotely, you may want to try out a coworking space to make these connections, as our marketing and business development manager, Jack Edgar, does. After all, as he pointed out to me, the more creative minds you surround yourself with, the more likely you’ll find people you really connect with.
10. Embrace solitude. Connecting with creative people is great—but sometimes what’s really called for is a little solitude. Without the world distracting you, you can truly focus. As the authors of the book Wired to Create note, “It’s important to make time for solitude, to give yourself space to reflect, make new connections, and find meaning.” Solitude helps us clearly access our thoughts and inner worlds. But it’s not always possible to create a truly solitary experience. At those times, it may be sufficient to find a hidden corner in your office, shut your office door (if you have one), go to a coffee shop where you know absolutely no one, or close out the world with a pair of headphones.
11. Listen to music. According to a recent study, listening to “happy” classical music—that which elicits a positive mood—can positively impact your creativity. (The other classical music mood options in the study were calm, sad, and anxious, with the control group listening to silence.) While I haven’t tried to pin down the mood of the music I listen to, what generally works best for me is classical and electronic music: music that provides a certain energy but doesn’t pull my attention away from the task at hand. However, you may find different types of music work better for different projects. For example, as part of a screenwriting class I took, we were told to find a soundtrack or song that specifically connected with our work, then listen to it while writing. (Amy Tan mentions in her memoir, Where the Past Begins, that she does something similar.) So try out different types and see what works.
12. Be patient. Inspiration not coming to you? Don’t stress out about it. Stress is not helpful for tapping into creativity. Maybe it’s time to turn to a new task for a bit, or meditate or stroll around the block. Give yourself time to daydream. Then, after your break, go back and iterate. When I need to work on fixing a story issue or fleshing out a problematic relationship between characters, I write down what I need to decide so it’s top of mind, then I go outside, pen in hand, and let my mind work while I watch the birds.
Remember: Creative thinking is not only for artists. Just start with these tips to begin your creative practice, and creative thinking will follow. And if a tip doesn’t work for you, come back to this blog post and try another!