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Creative Blocks

7 Ways to Boost Your Creativity

How love fuels creativity and 6 other ways to free your mind to do its best work.


Creativity can seem innate, but like many things, it is actually a delicate balance of nature and nurture. In other words, creative thinking can be enhanced by external forces, and isn’t necessarily reliant on “good genes” or natural ability.

Luckily, new research points the way to a variety of mental and environmental approaches that can help us improve our creative output:

1. Restrict yourself

Famously, Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs & Ham after betting that he couldn’t produce a story using less than 50 words. The research shows Seuss was on to something. Most people naturally take the path of “least resistance” and build off of older or existing concepts when brainstorming, which can lead to less creative ideas. In order to put the brain in overdrive, you can mimic Dr. Seuss and place restrictions on yourself while creating, which will prevent you from falling back on past successes. If you usually write 1000-word short stories, try to create a story in under 500 words. Only use a small handful of chords in your song or colors in your design. The limiting nature of the task can bring out your most creative side.

2. Re-conceptualize the problem

Researchers have noted that creative people tend to re-conceptualize problems more often before starting a creative task. As Einstein once said “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Instead of looking at the end goal of a creative project (i.e. “I need to create a memorable painting”), it’s better to re-visualize the problem from other, more meaningful, angles before starting (“What sort of painting would evoke the feeling of loneliness that we all feel after a break-up?”). Oftentimes, the best approach is to picture the intended audience of your next creative project. What inspires them? What are they sick of hearing about? What are the problems they face but are rarely able to talk about?

3. Separate work from consumption

It has been shown that we are particularly terrible at creating when we try to combine the gathering of information and actual creation. Researchers recommend only consuming information in an “absorb state” where you are not attempting to multitask. In essence, the absorb state is a form of “batching” that emphasizes forced consumption over output. No interrupting yourself to start working on segments of your project while you are consuming information, instead use tools such as Evernote or Pocket to remember key ideas, insights, and articles that you will apply later when creating.

4. Stay positive

Although negative moods can sometimes spur creativity, researchers have found that it is during strong positive moods that our best creative work is done. In fact, the feeling of love or even thinking about love was shown to best encourage creative thinking. Getting yourself to a “positive place” is not as trite as it may sound—any number of mood boosters (quick exercise, envisioning the future, recalling good memories) will do the trick to influence your mood, and your creative efforts will be at their best when your attitude is positive.

5. Use counterfactual thinking

Counterfactual thinking, also known as asking, “What might have been?” has been shown to increase creativity for short periods of time. To experiment with this technique, take events that have already happened and re-imagine different outcomes, alternating between the subtractive mindset (taking elements out of the event) and the additive mindset (adding elements into the event). A silly example of counterfactual thinking in action can be seen on The Big Bang Theory, when one of the main characters makes a game of the phenomenon, asking his roommate: “In a world where Rhinoceroses are domesticated pets, who wins the Second World War?” You, however, can apply it to more realistic scenarios, such as mapping out outcomes whenever you are doing creative problem solving, subtracting or adding “what if” elements that would have affected the outcome.

6. Daydream… after getting started

While research has shown that daydreaming can help with creativity, it is important to note that studies have revealed that daydreaming only works when you’ve already committed effort towards a project. The reason? Daydreaming can be beneficial because it allows for the incubation of ideas. But incubation is only effective when we already have information to chew on. So be sure to get started on your project before drifting off.

7. Think about others

Research has shown that this “psychological distance” is an important part of being creative. For instance, one study found that people who thought their work would be used by someone else came up with more novel ideas. Conversely, those who were told that they would be using their own creation later came up with less novel ideas. One such test in the studies above included telling participants that their drawings would later be used by other subjects to create a story. Those who had been told this came up with much more “creative” drawings (as evaluated by a selected board). When creating, even for personal projects, think about how someone else will enjoy, use, and incorporate your creation into their lives. — How about you? What do you do to put yourself in the best mindset to generate new ideas?

Gregory Ciotti

  • Walter Chen

    great post, greg. i find 2, 3 and 5 to be especially important.

    • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

      Thanks man! Surprisingly, I’ve been producing some great results with #1, even though I scoffed at the research at first. Having uncomfortable self-restrictions actually seemed to spur on more novel ideas for me, the complete opposite of what I expected.

  • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

    Oh my goodness, #3.

  • Karthik Radhakrishnan

    This article was different than other ideas of similar topic. I really liked the description, “CAN” be enhanced:)

    My favorite is restricting self, as this usually proves that “You have limited time and achieve it” mindset. The increasing demand for ideas have to nurture these type of mindsets first. TIME TO MARKET needs to be low and this means, restrict yourself to find the best solution sooner. Glad that you put it at #1:)

  • David Unsworth

    Or you could just be creative, you know, naturally.

  • http://www.AchieveTheGreenBeretWay.com/welcome Michael Martel

    Great post. I had never thought about #7 before. That is a great way to approach something. By putting myself in the shoes of different people I can come up with a variety of use cases and scenarios. Thanks!

    • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

      Very welcome Michael.

  • jonroosevelt

    Great. The only point I have some observation is the fourth – that talk about positivity. I mean, there is some really different areas. For instance, probably the best songs ever made were written on negative times. There’s an inner look and a state of meditation about sadness and other negative situations which can help the creative process. Anyway, it’s more about a non scheduled process of creating something.
    Thanks for it.

    • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

      True, I mentioned that negative moods can bring about creative works, but they are less common, and being in a negative mood is not as universally beneficial as a positive one.

    • renojroberts

      It’s entirely possible to dwell on negative scenarios (hypothetical ones, or real events from any point in the past) while maintaining a positive mindset in an immediate sense. Maybe the positivity referred to here is more about a sense of joy and confidence in the act of creating.

  • http://www.sparkyourself.org/ Sophie | Spark

    Excellent article – and ideas I hadn’t come across before. I especially like number three, I often leap straight from absorbing into doing, so I’m going to try to spend more time in the ‘gathering’ stage without being tempted to work whilst doing so!

    • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

      That’s probably my biggest problem too Sophie, not being able to put the notepad/Word doc away when I’m reading something good.

  • jonschlackman

    Lot of good stuff here. Going to save for reference, Thanks!

    • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

      Very welcome!

  • http://www.behance.net/adardarnov Adar Darnov

    I definitely relate to the idea of committing to either absorbing information or creating for any given moment. As an illustrator I make sure to collect all my visual reference before I start drawing. That way all the research is finished and when I’m drawing I don’t have to switch back and forth mentally between creating and searching for something.

  • Marcin Lichwała

    I’ve found this article very inspiring and decided to create a cheatsheet to stick over my desk so that I can look at it every time I need an impulse of creativity.

    Here you have a link to the pdf which you can print yourself: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BytZH6w-ShJHY3M4cThGbmlwRXM/edit?usp=sharing

    Thanks Gregory, great job summing up the ideas!:)

    • Sean Blanda

      Ha! That’s amazing!

    • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

      A great comment… or the greatest comment?

      Seriously Marcin that’s amazing, thanks so much for the kind words and for sharing.:)

      • Marcin Lichwała

        Glad I could help:) I used your tips while creating the cheatsheet so if you like it then let it be the proof of concept itself ^^

      • Susan Jones

        I am struggling desperately to get from consumption to production here… printing and takin’ the step:)

    • grayeyedgirl

      I was just thinking, “How am I going to remember all this?!” Thank you, Marcin, I printed out your PDF!

    • Mariana

      I’ve just done the same! haha but with a paper and colour markers

    • Keira Bui

      You’re awesome! Thanks a lot for the cheatsheet.

  • Simon Cooper

    One way Ive always looked for inspiration or creativity is to start with a line or a mark on the paper. A random line anywhere on the page. Then another mark, then another, etc. Until finally something starts to emerge.

  • Shlomi Zigart

    Great article
    Thank you:)

  • ian

    I have a hard time staying focused. This idea leads to that idea which is totally different from the story I was writing. I think the third step is really going to help me sort through the cloud and be more productive. Thank you

  • rejja

    great one

  • Jeet Palavwala

    Very nice article!

  • DYoung

    Do something mundane, requiring minimal effort, this helps to allow the brain to act in a less pressurised manner and allows unconscious processes to surface. I scribble out ideas whilst in front of the tv in the evening and progress them the next day.

  • http://www.octopus-creative.co.uk/ Octopus Creative Design

    I agree with a positive mood producing some of the best creativity. Getting yourself into that mood as a designer is key. I’m most productive early in the day, an hour’s walk with the dog before getting into the studio really helps clear my mind and approach creative projects afresh.

  • Jade Adele

    Wonderful tips. Thank for the post. I have an essay-writing technique that closely resembles the “batching” you speak of.

  • David

    Good hints and precise explanations, thank you very much. I had a nice time reading and will test your advices.

  • Marco Aurélio Rodrigues

    Really nice article. Thanks for sharing

  • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

    Love this Julie, I’m actually jealous that you thought of it before me.😉

  • Yanina Piccolo

    Great! Excellent article! Thanks

  • Porkchop

    Greg, I day dream so often, now I am going to out it to some use, thank you.

  • Porkchop

    Greg I day dream so often, now I will put it to some use, thank you, this was a fabulous article.

  • Ryan

    I don’t think I understand the “Counterfactual Thinking” method. What do you mean, Greg?

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Left to right: Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and Director Adam McKay on the set of The Big Short. Photo by  Jaap Buitendijk
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.