Let’s say you’re sitting in a meeting with your team. Unfortunately, it’s not going well. The project you’ve spent months on is suddenly on the rocks. Things are unclear and you need a way forward. People start throwing out ideas but they’ve all been done before. You need something creative. The room goes silent.
Creativity is the lifeblood of companies. No matter what your title, I guarantee you depend on some form of creative thinking on a daily basis. In fact, a study from Adobe found that 80% of people feel that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth. Yet, only 25% believe they are living up to their creative potential. Why is that?
For some reason, creativity has become one of those nebulous qualities most people feel you’re either born with or without. I’m just not a creative person! I can’t think creatively! I need to be inspired! But the truth is, creativity isn’t some innate talent. It’s a skill. And just like any other skill, we can learn how to be more creative on demand.
There are a ton of misconceptions out there about what creativity is and how we can harness it. In this guide, we’re going to dispel those myths, run you through the exact process that helps promote creative thought, and then cover 21 specific strategies to help you and your team be more creative, innovative, and imaginative on a daily basis.
What is creativity exactly?
Everyone has a different idea of what it means to be “Creative”. Maybe you associate creativity with painting pictures or writing poetry. Or maybe you see it as coming up with the next billion-dollar business idea. Maybe you even think creativity is just another form of problem-solving.
Before we get into exactly what creativity is, let’s dispel some common myths and show exactly what it is not:
Something you’re born with: Research shows that both creativity and non-creativity are learned. This means that your ability to be creative doesn’t come down to some genetic lottery. But that how you act and treat creativity will impact how creative you are.
A lightning bolt of inspiration: Creative people love to think the “a-ha” moment of a new idea is out of their control. But the truth (as we’ll see) is that the true creative process involves everything leading up to, during, and after that moment of inspired thought.
The results of tortured time spent in isolation: Sure, the myth of the lone creative genius works well for movies and books. But in reality, creativity happens in groups where you can riff off each other’s ideas and create new connections. As Steve Jobs famously said, “creativity is just connecting things.”
If creativity isn’t some muse sneaking into our isolated creativity chambers and whispering Eureka moments into our tortured heads, then what is it?
There are many creativity definitions, but my favorite comes from psychologist and author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one… What counts is whether the novelty he or she produces is accepted for inclusion in the domain.
That’s a lot to swallow, so let’s break it down.
In short, Csikszentmihalyi is saying that creativity is transformation, either through creating something wholly new or innovating an existing space. But, and this is where it gets interesting, that creativity also depends on the transformation being used.
Going back to our example meeting where we needed a creative solution, no one is going to think you’re “creative” if you suggest throwing banana peels at the competition and hoping they slip. They’re just going to think you’re crazy.
For the purpose of creativity in the workplace, it all comes down to combining originality with functionality. When you put those two together, magic happens.
Digging in: The 5-steps of the creative process
I’ll admit that even that creativity definition is a bit too high-level. Sure, we can all agree that being original and coming up with functional ideas is great. But *how do you do it on a consistent basis? *
It all starts with understanding that being more creative is a process. Not just an outcome. Creativity isn’t just what you create. It’s everything you do to come up with, build off of, and implement that idea.
Luckily, psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers have been studying human creativity for years and have come up with some pretty solid explanations as to how it works. One of the simplest ways to look at it is the 5-step creative process popularized by James Webb Young, an advertising executive, in the 1940s:
Step 1: Gather. If, as Steve Jobs said, creativity is just connecting things, then our first task is to find things to connect. During the start of the creative process, you need to focus on two elements. First, learning and researching what you want to find a creative solution for. And second, general knowledge, distractions, and tangentially related ideas to help spur new connections.
Step 2: Digest. When it comes time to find a creative solution, experimentation is key. Look at what you’ve gathered from different angles. Try to fit ideas together. We’ll cover a ton of exercises to help with this later on, but the key is to not be afraid to try something crazy to see if it fits.
Step 3: Step away/Incubate. With all these options and ideas, the next step is to… walk away. Becoming more creative is like working out. You put in the time at the gym, but the true results happen when you rest (and your body repairs and grows your muscles). Give your brain time to relax and get loose. This way, you’ll subconsciously be making connections and creating new creative ideas.
Step 4: Insight. This is the shower moment. Some point after you’ve gone through the first few steps, your creative ideas will start flooding back in, almost on their own.
Step 5: Develop. As Csikszentmihalyi said, creativity depends on ideas being useful. The final step of the creative process is to put your idea out into the world and get feedback as you develop it and implement it.
Putting the creative process to work
Author and habit coach, James Clear, has a great example of how the creative process works in practice. Back in the 1870s, there was a young printer’s apprentice named Frederic Eugene Ives in Ithaca, New York. After 2 years of learning the ins and outs of the printing trade, he went on to manage a photography lab at Cornell University.
At this point in time, printing photos in newspapers was incredibly time-consuming. An engraver would have to etch a copy of the image onto a steel plate (that would often break after just a few uses!)
Ives, as you’ve probably already guessed came up with a solution. In what he described as a “flash of insight,” he saw what would become known as The Ives Process laid out in front of him. So how did it happen?
Gather: Ives started by learning about the printing process as well as working in a photographic lab. This let him understand the issue he wanted a creative solution for, as well as get familiar with the topics it addressed.
Digest: Next, he began tinkering and experimenting with solutions.
Incubate: As those solutions grew closer to what he wanted, he stepped away and took a break.
Insight: Just as he awoke the next day, the image “appeared” in front of him.
Develop: He then continued to develop the idea, patenting several solutions until his final process, which was used for more than 80 years!
19 ways to become more creative (and promote creative thinking at work)
It should be pretty clear by now that the creative process is one that you can learn, follow, and develop yourself. So now it’s time to get creative! Ok. I’m waiting?
Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to, creative thought doesn’t usually happen on its own. It takes specific techniques and strategies to coax out your ideas that are incubating and run with them. Or new ways of thinking to help push connections together and find novel solutions. But who has time to wait for that to happen?
Let’s go through a number of creative exercises that can help inspire and speed up the creative process both for yourself and when working with a team.
Planning and promoting the creative process:
Let’s start with bringing some creativity into your day-to-day. Here are some easy thought experiments, techniques, and strategies you can use to help become more creative at work and in your life.
1. Give yourself permission to create junk
Creativity is a numbers game. Yet most of us only look at the finished product and not all the failures and pieces of junk that came before it. Think of it like survivorship bias—how we tend to only focus on the stories of people who succeeded (like the entrepreneurs who created million-dollar companies or best-selling musicians) and not all the people who tried and failed.
But to be more creative, you can’t expect to start with a winner. Instead, you have to give yourself permission to create junk. To chase ideas that seem ridiculous or won’t work. To learn from the suck and use it to build off of and create new connections. Remember, Picasso created more than 50,000 works (and they definitely weren’t all masterpieces!) While Thomas Edison famously said:
I make more mistakes than anyone else I know, and sooner or later, I patent most of them.
2. Schedule your creativity
“I am going to be creative at 9:45 AM on Monday morning…” said no one ever. But why? Falling into the myth that creativity can’t be controlled does nothing but stifle your ability to be more creative. Instead, most writers, authors, painters, and creatives of all types, know that consistency is key.
Here’s an example: Srinivas Rao, host of the Unmistakable Creative podcast and best-selling author tells the story of what happened when he forced himself to write 1,000 words a day at a scheduled time. Not only did it lead to some amazing results (like a book deal and tons of exposure for his business), but some unexpected byproducts, such as:
Less pressure to create: No more procrastinating on creative work. When you know exactly when, where, how long you’re going to do it for it’s easier to create more (and create more junk).
More motivation: Rather than some unattainable goal (like, come up with a new product feature or redesign our website) regular chunks of creative time are easier to get motivated to do.
Regular progress: What’s that old saying about slow and steady? Doing a little each day means you see regular progress, which leads to more motivation, which in turn helps you create more. The cycle goes full circle.
3. Embrace constraints (both in time and resources)
You might think you need more time and more resources to be more creative, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. As prolific sci-fi writer, Issac Asimov wrote:
“In ten hours a day you have time to fall twice as far behind your commitments as in five hours a day.”
In fact, research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that when people face scarcity in resources “they give themselves the freedom to use resources in less conventional ways–because they have to. The situation demands a mental license that would otherwise remain untapped.”
In other words, how do you do the task when you don’t have the tools or resources you’re used to having? How can you get creative and find solutions that weren’t apparent before?
This research is backed up by a study from the University of Amsterdam, which showed that when people are faced with constraints, they’re more likely to make connections between things they normally wouldn’t—a skill psychologists call “global processing,” which is one of the key elements in creative thinking.
And it’s not just time and tool constraints that can help spur creativity. In another study from the Journal of Product Innovation Management, researchers looking at product designers found that having a lower budget significantly increased how resourceful and creative people were and even led to better results!
Don’t believe me? Even architect Frank Gehry and inventor Max Shepherd both listed constraints as being one of the most important factors influencing creativity.
4. Start at the end and work backward
One of the biggest problems most of us have when it comes to being creative is what’s called “the messy middle.” It’s the part of a project where you know the kind of thing you want to create, but have no idea of how to get there. Creativity is what will get you to the solution you want. But starting at the beginning doesn’t always work.
Instead, creativity expert Michael Michalko suggests a different approach: reversal. In his book Cracking Creativity, Michalko shares the story of Henry Ford whose creative reversal of the car making process completely changed the industry. (Before Ford’s assembly line technique, car manufacturers kept the vehicle stationary and had their workers move around it to install parts).
While it’s not always clear how this will work out, one creativity strategy is to do a pre-mortem. Imagine you’ve finished a project and everything went how you wanted it to go. Take a second and write your learnings. What steps did you take? What difficulties did you have to deal with but overcame? Where did you have to make big decisions? Working backward can unlock all kinds of creativity.
5. Switch into a Beginner’s Mind
Now, what if you put a reversal on the reversal? Instead of focusing on the output of your creativity, you ignore your goals and let your mind wander freely.
Sounds a bit crazy (and not very practical in a business sense), but researchers and creatives agree that it can be beneficial to silence your logical and rational minds at times. In a recent article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researcher Rex Jung and his colleagues concluded that creativity is more likely to happen when you want to loosen associations, let your mind wander freely, imagine new possibilities, and silent the inner critic.
Zen Buddhists call this “beginner’s mind”—the ability to put aside your expertise and biases and look at a problem with fresh eyes. As Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.
It isn’t always easy, but one of the best ways to push yourself into beginner’s mind is to replace “Yes, but…” with “yes, and…” As designer and developer Stef Lewandowski explains, saying “but” is just another way of limiting yourself. While saying “yes, and…” keeps you open to new ideas and connections.
7. Give yourself creative space by putting your phone away
One of the reasons it’s so hard to be creative is that we don’t give ourselves enough space. Remember Step 3 in our 5-step creative process? Stepping away from a problem is how we let ideas incubate and creative ideas bubble up into our minds. Yet most of us spend our “down” time swiping through Instagram, answering emails, or getting mad at people on Twitter.
As Manoush Zomorodi, author of Bored and Brilliant, writes:
An idle mind is fertile ground for the seeds of creativity, but our endless swiping, tapping, and digital interactions ensure that our minds never have an opportunity to drift into this ‘default mode,’ where fresh ideas germinate.
The amount of data and sensory input we get from smartphones and laptops is insane. To really incubate ideas, you need to get away from your devices and their distractions. Whether this means putting them physically away, going into DND mode, or using a distraction blocker is up to you. What’s important is that you give yourself the space you need to be more creative.
Inducing incubation (and insight!)
Becoming more creative isn’t just about what you do when you’re trying to create (or come up with innovative solutions). Unlocking your inner creative mind can take many shapes and forms. Here are a few strategies you can try:
8. Take a walk in nature
Some of the greatest creative minds loved to walk. Steve Jobs was well-known for ambling around Palo Alto during the workday. While Charles Dickens averaged 12+ miles of walking through the lush Kent countryside or the bustling streets of Victorian London. This wasn’t just because of their restless minds.
In fact, A 2014 study from Stanford found we are much more creative when walking around—up to 81% more— as opposed to when sitting still. So if you’re hitting a creative slump, hit the road. For an added benefit leave your phone at home (to keep your mind in creative mode and not distracted) and try to spend some time in nature.
Not only does being outside help reduce stress and increase brain function, but one study found it can even increase what’s called our Remote Associates Test—our ability to make innovative and creative connections.
9. Use music to unlock your creative potential
The human mind has an instinctual response to music. Whether it’s a driving beat making us want to workout harder or a piece of classical music that helps us relax—what you listen to can impact the way you think, feel, and act.
While silence has been shown to be the best option for working through hard problems, a study published in the Journal of Music Therapy found that listening to your favorite type of music lowers your perception of tension, making you more likely to be happier, productive, and more creative.
But beyond just listening to what you like, music with specific qualities can actually help you to be more creative. One study from Dr. Emma Gray and Spotify found that songs paced at 50-80 beats per minute are best for unlocking creative potential. While another study found that noise levels of around 70-decibels (about the volume of a not-too-busy coffee shop) increase creativity without becoming distracting.
10. Declutter your space
Creativity might come from the chaos of ideas bouncing against each other. But in order to get there, you need to rid the chaos from your surroundings. Clutter—both physical and digital—has been shown to reduce creative thinking, increase stress levels, and ruin our ability to concentrate and focus.
Once you’ve done a proper cleanup, keeping your space in optimal shape comes down to a few steps:
Apply constraints to what you accumulate: Whether its Twitter followers, open tabs, or notebooks, setting hard limitations is the best way to stop accumulating more.
Become a Digital Minimalist: Deep Work author Cal Newport suggests clearing out any digital tool that doesn’t bring you high value. You can either do this by subtracting (deleting one tool at a time) or adding (deleting everything and only adding back valuable ones).
Conduct a monthly review of your space: Set time aside to clean, sort, and discard your physical and digital clutter. You can even do this daily, cleaning up your desktop each evening so you get a fresh start tomorrow.
11. Do something unrelated that makes you happy
Stepping back to let creative ideas incubate doesn’t mean blocking those ideas out of your mind. In fact, doing something unrelated to your creative problem but that you enjoy has been shown to help push the process forward.
A new study by Harvard’s Malinda McPherson found that, while we’re drawn to sad movies, sorrow-filled songs, and tragic tales, feeling positive emotions actually draws us into a deeper state of creative flow.
Even better, these “unrelated” tasks can end up becoming fodder for even more creativity down the road. Remember how Steve Jobs said creativity is just connecting dots? As he goes onto explain, that’s harder for some people than others:
“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
This is why to be more creative, you need to be more adventurous. Read things that don’t directly relate to what you’re currently doing. Find hobbies. Go down a Wikipedia or YouTube rabbit hole. The more diverse content you consume the more you can create.
12. Use divergent and lateral thinking to find a new approach
It’s pretty common to hit a creative block when you’re trying to come up with new ideas. Unfortunately, this is one of those rare situations where more effort actually leads to fewer results.
Instead, you need to find a new angle to approach your creative problem. Luckily, many creative thinkers have come up with simple prompts to help speed up the incubation process.
For example, musician Brian Eno has a deck of cards called his Oblique Strategies, which offer up prompts like “Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify.” Or “Repetition is a form of change.” There are even iPhone apps like Roger von Oech’s Creative Whack Pack—a simple app that uses creative prompts to break you out of your normal way of thinking.
Each set of prompts is designed to take you out of the normal “vertical” style of problem-solving (reason and logic) and promote “lateral” thinking—where ideas come from unconventional connections.
13. Do the same thing over and over
Of course, like all things to do with creativity, sometimes the opposite technique will work better for you. Instead of abandoning your approach and trying to find some new and novel approach, many creatives have benefited from doing the same thing over and over.
James Dyson famously created 5,000 prototypes of his vacuum over five years before finalizing the technology. While Looney Toons animator Chuck Jones asserted that you have to draw 100,000 bad drawings before you have a good drawing.
This all comes down to development (step 5 in our Creative process). Having the resilience to keep going when things don’t work out right away and look for tiny tweaks is how some of the best creative ideas have been developed. In fact, in a study done by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, 143 creativity researchers agreed that the #1 trait underpinning creative success is resilience and perseverance.
14. Show up when you don’t want to
Being more creative is a process. And sometimes that process sucks. Just like doing the same thing over and over might seem boring, showing up and doing creative work without “feeling inspired” is equally tedious. Yet, as we’ve already seen, that’s a cop-out.
Creative work often comes down to discipline. As Jack Kerouac wrote:
Genius gives birth. Talent delivers.
Or, in the words of legendary artist Chuck Close:
Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.
A great creative idea needs time to incubate, develop, and grow. And that means being consistent with when you work on things. If you’re hitting a creative slump or block, schedule that time and commit to it every single day. Often the friction of being more creative is only at the start.
15. Set tiny goals (with tight deadlines)
We don’t need to be inspired to be more creative. But we do need to be motivated. And one of the best ways to keep you disciplined with your creative work is to harness the power of proper goal-setting.
More specifically, we need to set tiny, achievable goals with tight deadlines. This way, we stay motivated, know what needs to be done, and get to see regular progress. Here’s an example:
Anthony Trollope, a prolific author in the 1800s wrote 47 novels, 18 pieces of nonfiction, 12 short stories, and 2 plays. His secret? Stick to a strict schedule of writing 250 words every 15 minutes throughout the day.
Not only did this help Trollope write as much as he did, but more importantly, it helped him silence his inner critic. Perfectionism can kill your creativity. But when you know the goal you have to hit and make yourself accountable to it, you can silence the critic and be more creative.
Spurring creativity in others: How to make your team more creative
Sometimes creative thinking isn’t just about you. In this last section, we’re going to cover some strategies for helping your team and the people around you learn how to be more creative.
16. Warm up with some creative confidence exercises
Creative ideas can often seem pretty out there. And it’s no surprise that many people on your team might be afraid to say what they’re thinking and risk coming across as uninformed or naive. However, creative confidence in a group setting is an important part of any business.
Here are a few exercises to help you build creative confidence from IDEO partner Tom Kelley:
30 Circles: This is a simple warm-up exercise to get people thinking creatively and loosening up their associations.
Start by setting a timer for 3 minutes. Then, give each person a piece of paper with 30 circles on it. When the timer starts, everyone tries to turn the circles into as many different objects as they can (i.e. clock faces, golf ball, pizza…). Afterward, come together as a group to compare and discuss. Were there any trends? Anything totally crazy that no one else expected or thought about?
Empathy maps: This is a more in-depth exercise for when you’re coming up against a creative wall or need to dive deep into what you know about the customer you’re building a product for.
Start with a large whiteboard or flipchart and draw a 4-quadrant map. Label the sections “say” and “do” on the left side, and “think” and “feel” on the right. Now, use Post-its to capture ideas around what your customers say and do. You can even color-code your ideas to take it a step further (green = positive, yellow = neutral, red/pink = frustrations, confusions, or pain points).
Once you’re done, move onto the right side and fill in what customers “think” and “feel.” Finally, Step back and look at what you’ve created. What conclusions can you draw? What contradictions or patterns can you pull out?
17. Brainstorm (the right way)
One of the most common group creativity exercises is to brainstorm. Unfortunately, few of us know how to brainstorm properly. We either sit in a room staring at a blank white board while everyone’s too afraid to speak up. Or, we all start yelling our ideas over each other and the loudest wins. To be more creative as a group, we need to harness the power of group thinking without getting sucked into its worst qualities.
Brainstorming as an official practice was popularized by advertising executive Alex Osborn in his 1948 book, Your Creative Power. In it, he outlined four key rules for proper brainstorming:
No negative feedback
Focus on quantity over quality
Use others’ ideas as launchpads
Encourage big thinking
Make sure to enforce these whenever you’re trying to brainstorm as a group. If you need help with running a brainstorming session like this, we wrote a full guide to running more effective meetings (including templates and agendas for team strategy and brainstorming sessions.)
18. Take a creativity field trip
Sometimes you need to get out of your space to get creative. Staying in the same office or same boardroom and chasing the same problems can lead you down the same path.
That’s why Scott Barry Kaufman, director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Imagination Institute and author of Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind says “the key is to put yourself in a space that shifts your thinking.”
According to a study out of the Netherlands, abnormal or jarring life experiences—both good and bad—can inspire creative thinking. While too much routine will make your thinking equally conventional.
Try taking your team on a creativity field trip. Get out of the office and go somewhere that inspires thoughts (like a museum or gallery) or is just plain different. That more obvious shift in physical space can cause less obvious shifts in how you think.
19. Assign creativity counselors
The huge benefit of trying to be creative in a group is that your collective brainpower can foster creativity. All your individual experiences and approaches to problems are dots just waiting to be connected. Unfortunately, without a little bit of coaxing, many of those dots never make it to the surface.
David Burkus, the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas suggests creating a "Creative Anonymous" support group. Somewhere your team feels safe and confident letting creative ideas out.
There’s lots of precedent for these sorts of groups. Just think of the salons during the Enlightenment where diverse groups of people would get together to exchange ideas, debate, and perform. Or famous writing groups like the "Inklings," which featured British writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and others who would meet informally at pubs or each others' homes to discuss influences, show off drafts, and generally just draw strength off of each other.
In fact, one story goes so far as to say that C.S. Lewis actually had to argue with Tolkien that the manuscript he'd been reading at meetings was strong enough for publication. That story? A little thing called The Lord of the Rings.
Andy Warhol put it best when he asked: "Why do people think artists are special? It's just another job."
Today, creativity is a part of everyone’s jobs. With these strategies and insights, you should now be able to turn your creative thinking on like a tap instead of waiting around for a wave of “inspiration” to crash over you.