This particular article was triggered by a question posed to a creative community Facebook group that I follow. To paraphrase, one of the group members asked what daily habits other community members employ to improve their creativity.
Now, without going into the technical definition of creativity, and given this question was asked by someone in a ‘creative circle’, let’s assume this member was talking about artistic creativity. Call it what you will…creativity, innovation, imagination, invention, vision, artistry or enterprise…the desired outcome is the same across industries.
What daily habits can you use to trigger those creative juices, so you can achieve that ‘point of difference’ and stand apart from the crowd?
With answers ranging from getting drunk to moving furniture around among the group responses (they are a creative bunch after all… 😜), there was consensus for some rather more practical daily rituals to help boost creativity. While most people enjoy a well-earned drink, getting drunk every day in the name of artistry seems a bit…. hazardous.
These daily habits can be broken down into four overarching categories, and although each category has a range of ideas, just one or two of these triggers per day can give your creative-self a kick in the pants. Pick a different one each day to find out what works best for you. It won’t be the same for everyone.
Openness - practice it
It’s well documented that the personality trait of ‘openness’ is high among creative types. But…did you know that this particular trait also facilitates exceptional leadership and entrepreneurial success? While the ‘Big 5’ personality traits are widely accepted as behavioural predictors in the psychological community because they tend to remain stable over time, ‘openness to experience’ can be nurtured and augmented with practice.
Described as adventurous, creative, intelligent and knowledgeable, people who are high in ‘openness’ literally seek out new experiences. Curious to try new things, they will happily visit far-flung places, try different foods, take up new sports or go to stage shows, galleries, museums and libraries. They are constantly learning and adding information to their creative ‘toolbox’. Take this free test to find out how you score on the ‘Big 5’, and ‘openness’ in particular.
So why does this help creativity? Because every new experience delivers perspective and knowledge, allowing the brain to make more neural connections between related information. For example, imagine how the various stakeholders in a stage show view the same event. The actors are concerned with the boundaries of the stage, entries and exits, costume changes, remembering their lines and impressing their audience. The lighting technician will be concerned with equipment, access, design, potential shadows and hitting the right ‘mark’ at the right time. The ticketing agents will want to know which seats offer the best views so they can sell tickets for those seats at a premium, and so forth. The point is…. that each of these stakeholders has a very different agenda and a unique perspective of the exact same event. Gathering experiences allows us to understand things from multiple angles, enhancing our strategic awareness, problem-solving capabilities and…wait for it…our creativity.
New experiences deliver perspective and knowledge, giving you more to work with in your creative toolbox.
So how do we practice openness? Here are some ideas:
- Observe something new: check out a foreign language TV series, do some people watching and imagine what they’re thinking or talking about, go to a gallery or museum, or follow a sport that you know little about.
- Try something new: try out a new recipe, have a go at a different exercise activity, mix up your routine, learn to paint with watercolours, try the latest TikTok dance, practice counting in an unfamiliar language, or just sit in a different chair to watch TV.
- Read: read as much as you can; it doesn’t matter what you read, the author has an agenda – try and understand what that might be.
- Learn new techniques & methods of ‘doing’: take an online course that you can do at your own pace or visit ‘YouTube university’ and save a bunch of videos to watch while you’re eating lunch. Listen to podcasts or Ted talks to discover the creative triggers other people use, or how they approach the things you want to improve.
- Listen to music: I mean really listen to it; music is layered and complex – lyrics, melody, chorus, beat, tempo, key, samples, composition, instruments – they all come together to tell a unique story; imagine how it might sound if you change up just one of those elements.
- Try placing restrictions on a particular project: rework a project that didn’t quite hit the mark by placing various restrictions on it; for example, limiting the budget, space, levels or materials on an architecture project will force innovation.
- Reverse engineer something to work out how it was done: figure out which methods and techniques were used to create a favourite artwork by trying to ‘copy’ the look or style of it; play around with those techniques in your own work.
- Invite critique: if you’re struggling to look at something from a different perspective or you’ve looked at it for so long your brain has started auto-fixing the mistakes, invite others to critique it. Or be your own critique… leave a project for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes (after the problems have had time to percolate) – you will often find a creative solution presents itself quite naturally.
- Explore the unfamiliar: if you see or hear anything that piques your interest or triggers your curiosity, dig deeper and find out more about it; make a list, so you can explore when you have spare time or just need a constructive distraction. You could pick a country and learn some basic information about it; what’s the capital city, what does the flag look like, how do you say hello, please and thank you in their native tongue.
- Play mix ‘n’ match with your senses: put music to images (imagine you’re creating the soundtrack for a movie or advertisement), match images with tastes, or imagine how a sound might smell and so forth.
Health - look after it
Nothing can crush creativity quite like stress. That built-in fight or flight mechanism takes over your whole body, brain and all. Despite its inherent usefulness, modern triggers rarely warrant the ‘life under threat’ response that our sympathetic nervous system throws out under perceived stress.
Even if you’re not suffering stress or anxiety, reaching your creative peak is unlikely if you’re not taking care of your physical and emotional wellbeing. In fact, a recent study found there is a positive correlation between exercise and creativity that is independent of the emotional benefits associated with physical movement.
Reaching your creative peak is unlikely if you’re not taking care of your physical and emotional wellbeing.
While it may seem obvious, people often neglect to make the connection between physiological wellbeing and creative progression. So what daily habits can you pursue to look after your health and boost creativity?
Yup… as Tim Minchin so succinctly put it in lesson number four of his’ ‘9 Life Lessons’ speech (2013)… exercise!! It will help you sleep, reduce stress, boost your mood, build confidence and thwart depression. And while regular aerobic exercise is widely regarded for its physical and cognitive benefits, even walking can trigger creative thinking.
Obviously, there are many different physical activities you could try – weights, surfing, running, cycling, yoga, tennis, dance, martial arts etc. - the list goes on. The key is to pick one or more activities that you enjoy doing, otherwise there’s no way you’re going to make them part of your daily life. Mix them up… you don’t have to do the same thing every day, or even over your lifetime. In fact, if you want to see optimal results, changing your exercise regime helps you to avoid a performance plateau, muscle fatigue and boredom.
I mean… if walking is enough, there’s really no excuse. However, physical activities like yoga and dance have an element of mindfulness to them, making them twice as beneficial. Then there are team sports - they have the added bonus of being social and interactive; and… outdoor sports like hiking and surfing, where you can immerse yourself in nature.
Be mindful or meditate
Be ‘in the moment’… it sounds easy enough right? Mindfulness is sometimes referred to as ‘mindfulness meditation’ and really… the two techniques are very similar in execution and outcome. Using the breath as the linchpin, these practices are designed to free the mind, and consequently the body, from the anxiety and stress associated with past regrets and future anticipation. By concentrating on your bodily sensations, your mind is freed from any expectations, allowing you to take some cognitive time-out.
This time-out happens quite naturally with exercises like yoga because there is intense focus on the breath, coupled with acute physical awareness. You can’t be thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner when you’re trying to stand on your head. Similarly, executing a dance routine or martial arts sequence, forces your mind to focus on the ‘here and now’.
Along with positive health outcomes, the creative benefits of mindfulness and meditation are currently in the wellness spotlight. There is some evidence to suggest that, apart from enhancing one’s general health, meditation not only promotes divergent thinking, but quells convergent thinking.
Just do it! Eat clean, healthy food. Clean just refers to fresh, nutritious, minimally processed foods; seasonal foods are even better… but you don’t have obsess over it. If you don’t already eat well (as in healthy, not abundant 😉), your diet is an opportunity to practice ‘openness’. If your habit is to eat too much, practice eating only when you’re actually hungry. Learn to listen to your body and eat when your stomach starts to rumble, rather than ritually eating the three ‘square’ meals a day we were raised on. Stop eating when your body signals that its full, instead of mindlessly finishing everything on your plate. Snack on carrots or hummus, instead of reaching for salt or sugar laden (processed) snacks wrapped in packaging – you’ll help save the planet from plastic too. You get the idea…
There is so much well researched information with regards to diet and health. If you don’t know where to start, practice ‘openness’ and do some exploration of your own. Honestly, food is fuel – just use common sense and remember that ‘moderation is key’. Oh… and try not to drink too much alcohol 🤪.
Environment - play with it
Scenes from ‘Dead Poets Society’ spring to mind when I think about this strategy. Perhaps a bit old for some readers, this movie (released in 1989) reinforces the value of altering our environment to trigger a change in perspective. From taking turns at standing on the teacher’s desk to taking lessons outside, the movie magnifies the virtues of changing up one’s physical surroundings to stimulate an enquiring mindset that challenges norms and evaluates expectations.
Change your surroundings to stimulate an enquiring mind that challenges norms and evaluates expectations.
Obviously, if your desk is strong enough, you can try standing on it, but there are so many other things you can do to play around with your environment. Here are some suggestions:
- Move the furniture: although I suggested this idea wasn’t the most practical in terms of a daily ritual, it could be simplified; for example, try moving your chair and computer to the other side of the desk for a day. Or… play around with the placement of an object in your space, Elf on the Shelf style.
- Walk away: how many times have you had to walk out of a room and back in again to remember the reason you went into the room in the first place? A physical gesture or associated cue can have a profound effect on memory recall, and accessing knowledge that we already possess is fundamental to creativity.
- Surround yourself with inspiration: whether through art, textiles, books or people, immersing one’s self in an inspirational environment promotes creative expression. Considered a catalyst for creativity, inspiration also facilitates achievement.
- Work from a co-working space or café: building on the idea of ‘openness’, working in a different space around different people is bound to offer some new perspectives.
- Take your work outside: let’s face it, nature itself is inspiring; coupled with fresh air, a pleasing vista and natural light, working outside for a few hours is bound to stimulate creativity.
- Try essential oils: there is certainly anecdotal and research evidence to suggest that smells can trigger memories and emotions or enhance mood and boost energy levels. If you believe in the science, use scent to help induce creativity, or just make your environment smell nice; either way, essential oils are worth a try.
Ideas - develop them
Ideas are the seeds of creativity - they need to be recorded, filtered and developed. Ideas are part of the creative process, not the end product itself. Whether artistic or entrepreneurial, ideas must be expanded into actionable, achievable results if they are to generate viable creative outcomes. The bane of many a business expert, creative genius (in an organisational environment) is absolutely no use unless it can generate a profit and be executed with efficacy. For the artist too, creative ideas need to be transformed into tangible, pleasing results.
The seeds of creativity, ideas need to be recorded, filtered and developed into viable, tangible results.
To that end, here are some daily habits that can help turn ideas into innovation:
- Write it down: this may seem obvious but great ideas can be fleeting; they can occur right in the middle of something, making them hard to remember and record. Do your best to connect the idea to a memory cue until you can get to a bit of paper – the act of writing serves to transfer your thoughts into another part of the brain, helping to filter and incubate the idea for future expansion. Moreover, neuropsychological studies have shown that the brain does not differentiate between writing about goals and achieving goals, resulting in a tangible effect on the skills required to accomplish them.
- Share your ideas: obviously, if you’ve come up with an idea for the latest mega-money-making product innovation, you’ll be keen to keep it close to your chest, but in my experience, nothing that ground breaking has ever come to fruition in a vacuum; find somebody you trust to bounce the idea around with. Sharing should be part of your filtering and development process.
- Research: if you’ve ever studied at university (or read Mark Twain), you will know that there is no such thing as an original idea; chances are… whatever ideas you come up with, someone else has already had them and taken them down a certain ‘path’. This realisation is useful in that you can research how the idea was expanded and where or why it stopped. Really… ideas are only original by way of composition; for example, taking an existing product and using it differently than it was intended would be deemed creative and original. Similarly, combining two existing ideas in a unique way may produce a visionary outcome, commended for its inventiveness. These creative strategies happen in the music scene all the time, and just like music, ideas can always be expanded upon.
What are the key takeaways here? Well… there are way more than 4 daily habits you can undertake to improve your creativity. But… if you let the four principal concepts discussed in this article be the driver for whichever daily rituals you practice, you are bound to boost your imagination.
In pursuit of creativity... practice openness, look after your health, play with your environment and develop your ideas.
Test and tweak the suggestions above for each of the guiding concepts and develop a more personalised record of go-to strategies to suit your goals and your constraints. Remember, just like writing down your ideas, making a written list of your preferred creativity boosters will help make them a success.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway though, are the words daily and habits. Just like drawing or dancing, creativity needs to be practiced daily if the required skills are to be mastered. Think of creativity like a muscle that needs regular exercise - if you don't make it work, it will atrophy. And… as they say… it only takes 18 to 254 days of daily practice to make something a habit 😉, so best get started.
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