How to boost your creative thinking

When it comes to creativity, one of our biggest concerns is usually how we can be more creative, or come up with better ideas.

Research in this area is all over the place, but I’ve gathered some of the most practical studies out there to help you utilize specific techniques that can boost your creativity. All of these studies are useful for everyday creativity in daily life, so try a few out for yourself and see which ones work best for you.

9 ways to enhance your creativity

1. Restrict yourself

The research shows that an insidious problem that many people have is that they will often take the path of “least mental resistance,” building on ideas they already have or trying to use every resource at hand.

The thing is, the research also suggests the placing self-imposed limitations can boost creativity because it forces even creative people to work outside of their comfort zone (which they still have, even if they are a bit “weirder” than most).

One of the most famous examples is when Dr. Seuss produced Green Eggs & Ham after a bet where he was challenged by his editor to produce an entire book in under 50 different words. I’ve personally found that when I’m suddenly restricted to writing something in a short form medium, like an Instagram bio, it can lead to some pretty creative workarounds.

Try limiting your work in some way and you may see the benefits of your brain coming up with creative solutions to finish a project around the parameters you’ve set.

2. Re-conceptualize the problem

One thing that researchers have noticed with especially creative people is that they tend to re-conceptualize the problem more often than their less creative counterparts.

That means, instead of thinking of a cut-and-dry end goal to certain situations, they sit back and examine the problem in different ways before beginning to work.

Here’s a candid example — as a writer who handles content marketing strategy for startups, my “cookie cutter” end goal is something like “write popular articles.” The problem is, if I approach an article with the mindset of, “What can I write that will get a lot of tweets?”, I won’t come up with something very good.

However, if I step back and examine the problem from another angle, such as: “What sort of articles really resonate with people and capture their interest?”, I’m focusing on a far better fundamental part of the problem, and I’ll achieve my other goals by coming up with something more original.

So, if you find yourself stagnating by focusing on generic problems (“What would be something cool to paint?”), try to re-conceptualize the problem by focusing on a more meaningful angle (“What sort of painting evokes the feeling of loneliness that we all encounter after a break-up?”).

3. Create psychological distance

While it’s long been known that abstaining from a task (again, more on that later) is useful for breaking through a creative block, it also seems that creating “psychological” distance may also be useful.

Subjects in this study were able to solve twice as many insight problems when asked to think about the source of the task as distant, rather than it being close in proximity.

Try to imagine your creative task as being disconnected and distant from your current position/location. According to this research, this may make the problem more accessible and can encourage higher level thinking.

4. Daydream, and then get back to work

Although study after study confirms that daydreaming and napping can help with the creative thought process, there is one piece of research that everybody seems to leave out…

One study in particular shows that the less work you’ve done on a problem, the less daydreaming will help you.

That is, daydreaming and incubation are most effective on a project you’ve already invested a lot of creative effort into.

So before you try to use naps and daydreams as an excuse for not working, be honest with yourself and don’t forget to hustle first!

5. Embrace something absurd

While I’ll be covering the case for “weird” experiences in more detail later on, for now you need to know that the research suggests that reading/experiencing something absurd or surreal can help boost pattern recognition and creative thinking.

(Subjects in the study read Franz Kafka, but even stories like Alice in Wonderland have been suggested by psychologists)

The conclusion was that the mind is always seeking to make sense of the things that it sees, and surreal/absurd art puts the mind in “overdrive” for a short period while it tries to work out just exactly what it is looking at or reading.

I like reading interesting short stories like The Last Question or browsing absurdist art at places like r/HeavyMind when I’m looking for some inspiration.

6. Separate work from consumption

Also known as the “absorb state,” this technique has been shown to help with the incubation process and is far more effective than trying to combine work with creative thinking.

It makes sense too — we are often in two very different states of mind when absorbing an activity and when we are trying to create something.

I’ve found that my writing breaks down when I try to handle research + writing at the same time, and I’m much better off when I just turn off my “work mode” and consume more inspiration in the form of reading, watching, and observing.

7. Create during a powerful mood

For a long time, the research has pointed to happiness as being the ideal state to create in.

Recently though, a relatively new study on creativity in the workplace made this bold conclusion:

Creativity increased when both positive and negative emotions were running high…

The implication seems to be that while certain negative moods can be creativity killers, they aren’t as universal as positive moods (joy, being excited, love, etc) in that sometimes they may spur creative thinking rather than hinder it.

I don’t want you to put yourself in a bad mood to create something, but next time you’re in a strong emotional state, try to sit down and focus that energy on creating something, the end result could be worthwhile.

8. Get moving

Is there any wonder that ‘Exercising more” is one of the most desired good habits in the entire world?

Some research even suggests that exercise can actually boost creative thinking as well, due to its ability to get the heart pumping and put people in a positive mood. It’s similar to how other research shows that thinking about love can produce more creative thoughts; it’s not necessarily the act, it’s the change in mood.

If you’re stuck in a creative rut and want to take a break, try including exercise while your brain is subconsciously at work, it may help to speed up your “Aha!” moment.

9. Ask, “What might have been?”

According to the research surrounding the process of counterfactual thinking, looking at a situation that has already occurred and asking yourself, “What could have happened?” can boost creativity for short periods of time.

According to an analysis by Jeremy Dean:

  • Analytical problems are best tackled with a subtractive mind-set: thinking about what could have been taken away from the situation.
  • Expansive problems benefited most from an additive counterfactual mind-set: thinking about what could have been added to the situation.

The case for really weird experiences

Creativity comes from looking for the unexpected and stepping outside your own experience. —Masaru Ibuka

Think about some of the most creative people you know (yourself included!)… chances are, they would be described as somewhat “weird” when compared to less creative people.

According to the research, the cause of this is often that these people have had abnormal things happen to them, or they pursue different experiences outright (maybe those two things are correlated?).

Researchers have found, for instance, that creative people tend to have had a traumatic event occur in their lives. But you don’t need to worry about needing a tragic event to be creative! Researchers have also found that creative people are more likely to pursue strange experiences as well, such as this research that reveals that living abroad is linked to creativity in the general population.

In a more recent study (2012) on creativity, the lead researcher concluded that…

“…diversifying experiences help people break their cognitive patterns and thus lead them to think more flexibly and creatively.”

A belief that many people hold, but now there is empirical proof: comparisons with various control groups have shown that a diversifying experience — defined as the active (but not vicarious) involvement in an unusual event — increased cognitive flexibility more than active (or vicarious) involvement in “normal” experiences.

Why is this the case? The answer isn’t totally clear, but some research points to things like habituation and stagnation as being creativity killers, and these two things are generally “fought” with novel and unique experiences.

An important consideration then, is what constitutes “weird” for each person? The research at this point seems to indicate that it is more about the weirdness in relation to the person at hand, or that doing things outside of your normal habitual patterns can be enough to stimulate creativity, rather than there being a set of “weird” things to do that work for everyone.

So be sure to go out there and push your comfort zone… just don’t get too weird!

Can you increase creativity by thinking about others?

One interesting paradox in the realm of creativity seems to be what most of us would call, “beginner’s luck.” In fact, a few studies have hinted that one factor that often blocks people’s creativity is their existing knowledge.

If, for instance, you are writing a song, you are likely the kind of person that saturates themself with the particular style of music you create. This familiarity is often at odds with “originality,” as your head is filled with melodies and you tend to feel that, “This has been done before…” when trying to create something new.

Many creative people struggle with this problem, but what can be done about it?

According to research surrounding the Construal-level theory of psychological distance, the answer may lie in thinking about the creative process in more “abstract” terms rather than in concrete terms.

As an example:

When thinking about a trip you might take to Paris next summer, you might focus on how much fun it would be or how great it would be to sit in a café and watch the world go by.

When thinking about a trip to Paris you are going to take next week, though, you focus on what you are going to wear, how you are going to exchange money, and what you will do when you encounter Parisians who speak no English.

In other words: Instead of getting down to the “nitty-gritty” when trying to be creative, you should try to distance yourself from the problem you are solving. This coincides with other research that seems to point that coming up with “decisions” for others often results in more creative answers than when making decisions for oneself.

For instance, in one study on the matter, researchers had individuals perform a variety of creative tasks while varying the psychological distance between the task by having them either perform the tasks while thinking of themselves, or perform the tasks while thinking of others. The researchers used both creative & logic problems in this test.

As an example, it’s known that most people are notoriously bad at creating “unique” aliens because they often just mimic animal parts. When the researchers asked the participants to draw an alien for a story that they would write later, they struggled and produced more aliens that contained typical animal traits.

When asked to draw an alien for a story that someone else would later write, the subjects were more likely to create novel traits (evaluated by independent raters) than their counterparts.

Other research in this area has found similar results, with a variety of different logic tests as well, thus making a strong claim that the phrase, “Learn as though you need to teach,” may in fact translate well to creativity. Essentially, create as though you need to teach, or more generally, create as though the produced outcome will be for someone else.

Many artists and other creatives have made similar (albeit less scientific!) claims that support this notion, that perhaps the best way to be creative is to get your work out there and “escape” your own knowledge of the craft by pretending that you are being creative on behalf of someone else.

That will help you think about the problem more abstractly and avoid just repeating the solutions you already know about.

How to break through creative block

Running into a “creative block” is extremely frustrating for anyone, but especially so for those people who regularly do creative work. There is definitely a feeling of helplessness when you need to make progress with an idea but you just can’t seem to do it.

I know I feel extremely jealous when I come across quotes like this from author James Dickey:

I don’t understand how a writer could ever get writer’s block, so-called. My problem is having too much, and being unable to get it all down.

For the rest of us, whether you’re swamped with too many options at once, or worse, you can’t conjure a single creative idea at the moment to save your life, mental blocks can really put a damper on your creative efforts.

We often find a solution when we simply step away from the problem and come back to it later. Younger me would always do this with tough video games, and these days I find the same thing happens when I’m stumped on a new article or project.

You’ve likely had this happen too, and you come back wondering, “Why couldn’t I get this the first time around?!” It’s due to a in the brain called the incubation effect, part of the 5 proposed stages of creativity:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Intimation
  4. Illumination or insight
  5. Verification

The problem with these stages is that the one used to break through creative block (Incubation) is somewhat mysterious and vague; we know taking a break is apart of it, but what else is there? One thing is for certain: it definitely works. Around ~50 separate studies on Incubation + creativity have been conducted, and over 3/4 of them have found a major effect (others found smaller effects on creativity or no effect, but that is to be expected).

In addition, recent research (2012) has revealed that when people are interrupted while doing a creative task, they are much more likely to produce creative ideas when they resume the task if they’ve been told that they will need to do it again.

What this means: Those people who were interrupted during the creative task and not told they would have to do it again were unable to produce many creative ideas. Conversely, those people who were told they would resume the task came back with more creative ideas.

Researchers concluded that perhaps planned breaks allow people to unconsciously work on tasks, leading to the “Aha!” moment that we all know and love, which often comes out of nowhere. This means that beating mental block takes more than just a random break, and that creative people may benefit from having planned breaks where they are motivated and know that they will be tackling the problem again.

In other words:

To come up with creative solutions to problems, your chances are increased by incorporating breaks into your work-flow.

It is the exact same thing I mentioned in my productivity article, where researchers found that planned breaks from intense work sessions improved awareness and focus. Now it looks like it also improves creative thinking.

To maximize the effectiveness of your incubation periods and to spur on more “Aha!” moments, try not to let yourself get mentally fatigued by taking planned creative breaks to let your unconscious work on the problem that has you stumped.

How to kill creative thinking

Although many people say they want to foster creativity, it is often the case that employers (or other authority figures) will unintentionally stifle creativity by placing too many restrictions.

This is important to consider when evaluating how we might kill our own creativity because of the restrictions we tend to place on ourselves to appeal to the norm.

According to research from Harvard professor Teresa Amabile, there are 6 main ways that we tend to strangle our own creativity and the creativity of others (when we are in leadership positions). They are as follows:

1. Role mismatch

Of all the creativity killers, this is probably the one you expected the most. The fact of the matter is that when people are assigned to tasks/jobs/roles/creative projects that they have no interest in or passion for, their creativity takes a hit.

More importantly, however, role mismatch means undertaking a creative project that that stretches one’s abilities, but also feels like it is within one’s capacity to do.

This could correlate with other research that shows people are most happy when they feel they are busy, but not rushed. Tackling a project that strains your skills (a la “deliberate practice”) but that is ultimately within your grasp feels most satisfying (even if it is scary at first), and these types of tasks are when role + project line up nicely.

When roles are mismatched, however, it is a recipe for stifled creativity and unsatisfactory results.

2. Too much end-goal restriction

While creative restriction can have creativity benefits (above we recalled the famous story of Dr. Seuss writing “Green Eggs and Ham” on a creative bet), when work is too restricted by the end goal, creativity suffers.

The researchers noted that in organizations or groups, other restrictions that killed creativity included the shifting of goals too often, and implicitly communicating that new methods are not welcome (i.e., “We do things by the book around here”).

With narrow guidelines on reaching end goals, creativity is not usually abundant.

3. Strict ration of resources

While many “trendy” companies today love touting their Foosball tables and beanbag chairs in their lobby, the research shows that it is mental restrictions that tend to hack away at creative thinking.

Although many people pride themselves on their “comeback kid” abilities to do things at the last minute, a huge majority of truly creative work requires plenty of time and enough resources to be seen to completion.

This can be especially frustrating because the “ideas” may already be there, but when executing a project to completion, it may never see the light of day (or be fully polished) unless it has enough time and external resources (money included).

4. Lack of group diversity

Homogeneous groups are actually more likely to get along, but they suffer from another big problem — they produce less creative results.

As a solo creative person, this is still important to you: the company you keep (and you who consult with about your work) could be playing a role in your creativity.

If you’re surrounded by like-minded people all of the time, you may find yourself in an echo-chamber where creativity cannot thrive.

5. Discouragement

As we saw above, most people are fearful of creativity despite the fact that they say they support it.

One more insidious facts about this aspect of human nature is that too much discouragement is actually a creativity killer.

Constant criticism, endless evaluation and negative comments really do begin to have their effect on creative people. Once people get the sense that all of their ideas are going to be stringently picked apart and bashed if they fail to deliver, they will choose to stop producing them.

Since no idea or finished work goes without some critique however (even the classics), it is important for creative people to create some semblance of a barrier to negative comments so that it doesn’t effect their work.

6. No positive feedback

Many of us try to come off as humble, but let’s be real honest, it feels GREAT when something we’ve worked very hard on generates a positive response or outcome.

According to Amabile’s research, praise and positive feedback are also very necessary for creative people, who thrive on having their ideas impact the lives of others.

Without support, motivation and work ethic to get creative projects done will wither away.

This can be hard for beginners especially, so if you come across a creative project from a relative nobody, invest in your entertainment by leaving them some positive feedback!

Creativity in groups: Why brainstorming doesn’t work

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but study after study has shown that when it comes to producing the best, most useful ideas, brainstorming just doesn’t work.

People in brainstorming groups have been found by researchers to produce fewer and lower quality ideas than when working alone.

Here’s why researchers believe this is the case…

  1. Social loafing: Research in the area of “social loafing” shows that when people are in groups, they are less likely to fully commit themselves because others will pick up the slack (bystander effect anyone?)
  2. Production blocking: When other people are talking, the rest of the brainstorming group has to wait. This causes some people to lose focus of their ideas, dissuade themselves from mentioning them, or just plain out forget some of the insights they just fleshed out.
  3. Evaluation apprehension: Simply put, although many brainstorming groups try to leave evaluation out until later, contributors know that other people are judging their ideas when the state them. When you are by yourself, you have more time to build an idea before presenting it to anyone.

If that’s the case, then why even bother with brainstorming? There are two main reasons.

The first is that research, particularly from professor Ben Jones, has shown that collaboration is indeed an important part in coming up with brilliant ideas. Data on collaboration seems to point to scientists today doing more collaboration, and reveals that in many instances, two “so-so” ideas are made great by collaboration.

The second has to do with the way that groups work. When everyone feels like they’ve contributed, group projects tend to be more successful. In other words:

People who have participated in the creative stage are likely to be more motivated to carry out the group’s decision.

Since not all creative work can be done alone, some sort of collaboration is necessary in order to make sure no ideas get passed up, and to ensure that the entire group feels involved in actually putting the ideas into action. So what is the answer to this dilemma?

Well, according to fairly new research (2012), the internet may be the savior for brainstorming. Specifically, the use of Electronic Brainstorming was found to be more effective in coming up with the best non-redundant ideas in groups.

How does it work? First, it follows the older rules of brainwriting, which includes the following:

  1. Don’t criticize.
  2. Focus on quantity.
  3. Combine and improve ideas produced by others.
  4. Write down any idea that comes to mind, no matter how wild.

The difference is that instead of using things like post-it notes (that ‘Brainwriting’ suggests), things like internet chat rooms or instant messaging are utilized.

It seems to work well because it allows members to see ideas flowing all at once, but it solves some of the problems with face-to-face brainstorming. When it’s done online, each person doesn’t have to wait for the others to stop talking and they are less worried about being evaluated.

I prefer to use tools like Campfire for this, but any group chat software should do the trick.

The common traits of creative people

Since creativity seems to thrive with individuals and sometimes collaboration rather than group work, what sort of traits are often found in especially creative people?

As with all creativity research (since it is a very large and complex topic), the results are a bit muddy, but a collection of the research seems to point to a few traits that are found regularly in creative people.

Below we’ll discuss a few that are more common in those people with creative skills (note that this does not mean that all creative people have these traits!)

1. Creative people are eccentric

One interesting finding from Harvard is that creative people tend to have lower latent inhibition, defined as:

…an animal’s unconscious capacity to ignore stimuli that experience has shown are irrelevant to its needs.

Thus, creative people tend to be able (maybe through a combination of nature + nurture?) to take in more detail due to their ability to not block out “irrelevant” details. Perhaps this is why most of us see a red wheelbarrow, and creative poets can visualize a Red Wheelbarrow.

2. Creative people often feel isolated

Despite the hollow cries of introverts everywhere, creativity is not necessary associated with being an introvert or an extrovert.

Creative people have personality traits of all types, and being outgoing is not limiting to creativity. One thing that recent research has looked into though, is if creative people have a feeling of “isolation” among peers, even when they can make friends and colleagues easily.

This may be caused by their inability to relate to regular conversation as easily, or that their conversational partners cannot follow their “more creative” train of thought (if that sounds arrogant, don’t worry, I’ll be taking them down a peg later on).

There has also been some research on especially creative people and social rejection, indicating that a feeling of rejection of peers and a desire to feel different (thus, embracing the rejection) may spur on more creative activities.

Lastly, creative people seem to be less trustworthy of others on average than non-creatives, which may play a part in this feeling of isolation.

3. Creative people are both smart + responsible and irresponsible + immature

There are numerous studies that show creativity positively correlates with intelligence, but after a certain point, the correlation dips off.

Conversely, some research conducted on creative geniuses has shown that immaturity often goes hand-in-hand with creativity (as you might be able to imagine). The thing is, there is a very fine balance between this responsible + irresponsible nature in very creative people…

Without discipline, creative works cannot be achieved, and creative people are known for long extended blocks of work (being “wrapped up in” a project). Conversely, the immaturity shown in many creative people likely goes hand-in-hand with their ability to produce novel ideas.

4. Creative people are often arrogant

Is it easy to get along with creative people?

Although research on “agreeableness” and creativity shows no strong correlation either way, newer research that examines subsets of agreeableness points to a new finding. While not all creative people are this way, there is strong negative association with humility and creativity, meaning creative people tend to be braggarts.

This could likely stem from reinforcement and the ego, with successful creative people constantly being told how creative they are.

5. Creative people are a bit crazy

There has been a lot of research that shows creative people are a more contentious than most people. For instance, many studies show that creative people are better liars than their peers, and other research has shown that creative people were:

  • More likely to cheat on a game in the lab
  • Better at justifying their dishonesty afterwards

Creativity was more closely associated with dishonesty than intelligence! (Remember how I said that creativity only coincides with intelligence up to a certain point?)

Other research has shown that creative thinking is unusually high in criminals and lawbreakers. Most troubling of all, a few studies have found that creative people score higher on psychoticism, which includes traits like less empathy, being cold, and egocentricity.

Worse yet, the advantage that creative people have (discussed above) in having lower levels of latent inhibition may open them up for a variety of mental illnesses.

There, now creative people can hop off their high-horse.