Creative thinking is the act of expressing an idea or solving a problem in a novel and useful way. Though it might seem abstract, thinking creatively really comes down to knowing what you want to accomplish, coming up with possibilities, and then testing them against reality.
Said with a little more panache, “Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye.” Most people mistakenly think creativity rests solely on eureka moments, but professionals know systems are what help you consistently bring abstract ideas into the tangible world.
Principles for thinking creatively
We’re better off starting with a set of principles for creative thinking before getting into habits and tactics. These aren’t strict rules, but instead recurring patterns in the creative process that are worth noticing.
Why? Because whenever you’re stuck, applying one of your principles is like wearing a lens: it helps you see the problem in a specific and familiar way, which can help speed up the path to insight.
1. Explore before you refine
Traditionally this is described as divergent and convergent thinking, but I prefer Bill Buxton’s labels of exploring and refining; the two distinct phases necessary to first deeply understand the problem space, and then iterate on your best solutions.
The exploration phase is about width, or giving yourself permission to generate lots of rough ideas. To do this successfully, you have to inhibit precision to a degree. Time spent trying to generate high-fidelity ideas, or complete, polished thoughts, is counterproductive because you’re attempting to raise a skyscraper on a foundation of assumptions.
Even with a strong starting vision, you won’t know what finished feels like, or what a bad idea looks like until you’ve made progress. The whole point of exploring through small steps and ugly drafts is to litmus test the unknown before you commit.
The refinement phase is emotionally easier to handle. We’re more confident there because the anxious feeling of working on the wrong thing has subsided, at least a little. But exploring is ultimately what keeps our batting average where it needs to be. If you want to consistently produce valuable work, don’t assume your first idea is your best one.
And when your inner perfectionist is calling, remember the 10-90 rule: the last 10% of the work usually results in 90% of the polish. There’s time to do things right—but only after you’ve confirmed you’re doing the right things.
2. Make your work repeatable, but not repetitive
There’s a saying in the music industry that’s always resonated with me: “You have a lifetime to write your first album and a year to write your second.”
The idea being that if all your wildest dreams come true and you’re launched into the limelight, you now have to follow up the debut without the option to toil away in obscurity. Momentum is everything, and once you have it you don’t want to lose it.
Related to this, many otherwise impressive projects fizzle out due to the pressures of success. When something gets traction, you feel an obligation to deliver—the freedom of low expectations and feelings of play are diminished, if not gone entirely. Many people aren’t prepared for that, and they often try to up the ante with everything they release without a sustainable way to do so. You know what’s next: burnout.
This is a hard problem without a “cure-all” solution. But, most people would do well to remember that careers, side projects, and business ventures built on creativity need ways to ensure their output stays repeatable, but never becomes repetitive. Consistent habits put you where good ideas can find you.
3. Focus your creativity on unsolved problems
Figuring out how to do things in a fundamentally new way is one of the most rewarding feelings in any field. But, not everything is worth doing differently.
As Marty Neumeier writes in The Brand Gap, creative people “describe how [the world] could be. Their thinking is often so fresh that they zag even when they should zig.” That’s a nice self-congratulatory pat on the back, but the message rings true. Some work is simply the cost of entry; the undifferentiated heavy lifting. With these tasks, quality execution is required to even compete, but there’s a lot less room to stand out or find a competitive edge. (As an example, think of something that would be absurd to see as a selling point on the back of the box.)
Sometimes “best practices” really are the best practice; you have to ask yourself what the point is in trying to reinvent the wheel if the wheel is exactly what you need.
We’d be better off admitting how beneficial it is to stand on the shoulders of giants and should, as Paul Graham writes, “Travel widely, in both time and space.” Comparison can unearth time-tested solutions that solve age-old problems; it can even lead to old solutions solving new problems. Old books can teach new tricks.
The point isn’t to limit yourself or to default to borrowed ideas, the point is you should conserve your time, energy, attention, and creativity for opportunities with high upsides and room to differentiate. The pursuit of originality where it isn’t needed is one of the leading causes of wasted effort.
4. Create alone, move forward together
Collaboration comes with administrative overhead and a bias toward ideas that the entire group agrees with. Be careful: creativity is about courage, not consensus.
Great work is rarely produced by committee. No interpretation has crystallized this idea for me quite like this quote from Gilbert K. Chesterton:
I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.
Creative people often learn the hard way that tools like in-person brainstorms and meetings are useful for outlining what can be done, but they’re awful for putting paint on the canvas. While groups can surface ideas the individual may have missed, they frequently favor a blend of what’s already been suggested—otherwise known as consensus.
If a large group converges on the same idea, how can it possibly be daring, or even original? People overwhelmingly prefer the familiar; we all come bundled with that bias. And when working together, it’s easier to defend the well-established over championing the new and unproven. As Isaac Asimov wrote, “For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.” You need time alone to be foolish.
That’s not to say group feedback isn’t valuable, however. As we’ll explore in the next section, feedback matters. Groups are often far more competent at piecing things together than they are at creating the individual pieces. So use group settings to chart the course, get visceral reactions along the way, and push past the finish line. Create alone, then decide and move forward together.
5. Get honest feedback early and often
One of my college professors, who was also a non-fiction author, had a hilarious way of describing his book writing process: “Start with boundless optimism, followed by unceasing paranoia.”
The lesson within the humor is that a blank slate makes anything possible, so new and nascent ideas must be safeguarded so they aren’t squashed too early. But in the later stages of any project, feedback and critique are crucial as you look for what is wrong, or could eventually go wrong. The problem, of course, is feedback can be hard to receive. When work hasn’t seen the light of day, you can fantasize however you like about its quality. Feedback brings you back to reality.
Receiving feedback is like any other skill, though, and there are ways to get better at it. The first step is reframing what it is entirely: “Feedback is a gift” is a phrase we often use in my business, and it rings true.
The fact someone would bother to evaluate what you’ve made speaks to its value. And when I hear, “This hasn’t hit our standards yet,” I know you think I can make it great.
There are exceptions, of course. Trolling and brutish criticism aren’t constructive and deserve to be ignored. Feedback is also a two-way street: a culture of trust and assumed positive intent are essential for maintaining the high standards and healthy tension needed for collaboration. That’s exactly where you want to be; a little friction is the only way to make sparks fly.
Receiving feedback gracefully is still a hard thing to do, and its importance is somewhat of a truism. But, that doesn’t make the idea any less important—great creative work is contingent on a willingness to be judged.
6. Follow fixed deadlines with a flexible scope
Disappointment is always a matter of expectations. The wider the gap between “what I expected” and “what I received,” the more disappointment we feel.
If the output you’re most known for—let’s call it your signature work—is high-effort, high-impact, following a schedule that dictates “one of these every week” could lead to the wrong kind of compromise. That’s why I prefer Jason Fried’s approach of setting a fixed deadline with a flexible scope. Deadlines that remain firm create a forcing function where the scope has to adjust instead.
What I always like to add is that an end user’s expectations can be adjusted based on how you package things. Audiences find satisfaction in different ways for different formats, and quality comes in many shapes and sizes. The level of polish you apply is a strategic choice and should fit the scope of the product.
As an example, in the world of editorial, it would be unreasonable (and undesirable) for every piece to be a feature story. Longform takes time and is often equally exhausting to consume.
There’s a reason why everyone claims to love documentaries but spends most of their TV time rewatching Seinfeld. And so well-made editorial products deploy shorter—but still high-quality—columns and formats to break up the monotony and add variety. The crossword puzzle helps sell the newspaper, too.
As obvious as this idea may seem, I know too many talented people who have created unnecessary stress for themselves by tying their identity to the single format or style they initially became known for. If your signature work demands a certain amount of time, find another outlet with a smaller scope and let your audience know that it is indeed different. That way, you can commit to the most important part of the creative process: shipping things consistently.