Illustration: Jenn Kwon

Creative Bad Habits: Treading The Path of Least Resistance

A few years ago, I was asked to give a talk at a conference. Attending were a few hundred people who pride themselves on being at the forefront of the digital revolution. My presentation was after lunch, so everyone was filing back into the auditorium right before I went on. I began my talk by asking the group how many of them were sitting in the same seat they were in that morning. Almost every hand went up, followed by a little nervous laughter.

This incredibly creative group of people returned to the room and did exactly what they had done the last time they were in the room.

The psychologist Tom Ward points out that when we think about anything, we follow the path of least resistance. Without realizing it, we instantly and automatically categorize every situation we see based on our previous experience. So, despite our best efforts to do something bold and new, our memory drives us back to things tried and true. Our efforts at creativity are thwarted before they get on track.

In the context of creative work, that means that our creative output is governed by the information that is in our memory. Ward and his colleagues have asked people to perform creative tasks like drawing aliens. Often without realizing it, most people start with a familiar animal and then modify it to create the new one. As a result, almost all of the drawings have key properties of animals on Earth such as symmetry, eyes, and legs.

The path of least resistance is a central part of the way that our minds are designed, because nearly everything that we have to do in life should be governed by our past experience. Generally speaking, we do not want a creative way to cross the street, brush our teeth, or make dinner that is completely disconnected from our past experience.

The first step in overcoming the path of least resistance in creative situations is to recognize that it constrains the way you think. Every new idea you have is rooted in one or more old ideas you have encountered in the past. So, when you find yourself in a creative rut, you need to start thinking about which of your memories is influencing your creativity. Why are you interpreting the creative problem you are solving in the way you are? What aspects of your experience are driving you in that direction?

Generally speaking, we do not want a creative way to cross the street, brush our teeth, or make dinner that is completely disconnected from our past experience.

Then, you have to change the memories you are using. There are several ways to do that:

Expand the information you have in memory.

Break out of your comfort zone. Read a book by a new author. Listen to music from an unfamiliar composer. Go to a lecture on a topic you know nothing about. These experiences will help you see the world in a new way by offering you new (and additional) memories to pull from.

Re-frame the creative problem.

You pull things from memory automatically when you encounter a new situation, which means you have to do some work to describe every creative problem in a new way. Once you know what aspects of the creative situation are influencing your memory, focus on different parts of the problem. Use other words. Constrain your brainstorming. The people in Tom Ward’s experiments, for example, were generally thinking about animals from Earth (and often intelligent animals) when drawing aliens. If they described the task as drawing a simple a “living thing” or a “being,” they would have been reminded of a wider range of things that would have led them to create something more novel.

Change your collaborators.

Take stock of the five people you spend the most time with. If you are like most people, you seek out others who share your tastes, beliefs, and outlook. Spending your time with people who agree with you is pleasant, but bad for your creativity. If you really want to be pushed out of your comfort zone, find people who approach life and work in a radically different way than you do. Then, try to work with them. It probably won’t be fun (at least at first), but it is likely to force you to consider things from new perspectives.

How about you?

How do you break out of a creative rut?

More insights on: Creative Blocks

Art Markman

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Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas and Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. His research explores the cognitive science of creativity, motivation, and decision making. Art is the author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership.
load comments (15)
  • David at MyYearInFlux

    Totally agree with this post. I’m spending a year outside my comfort zone in an effort to rediscover my creative mojo, trying something new every single week. Three months down, and it’s going well.

    Glad to hear there’s theory to back up what I’m fast discovering…too much comfort zone = bad

    • Art Markman

      Or at least, it is bad if you are trying to be creative…

      • David at MyYearInFlux

        Yeah, obviously if you’re delivering or recovering from heart surgery, sticking to your comfort zone is rather a good thing.

  • Kait

    A good article, thanks.
    Though I have to say, the ‘same seat = not creative’ analogy seems to pop up regularly and I don’t think it’s a good example. If I came back into the auditorium I would sit in the same seat simply because I wouldn’t want to sit in someone else’s seat – after half a day in the same seat, people have settled in more or less and I wouldn’t want to cause confusion or be impolite. It’s really a measure of the politeness of the audience.

    Absolutely agree about the constraint of memory and past experience on creativity, though I wouldn’t consider the above to be a situation in which I could exercise creativity (and potentially annoy someone in doing so)…happy to autopilot my way back to the same auditorium seat to free my brain up for more interesting cognitive activities!

    • Art Markman

      It is true that there are social constraints on changing seats. Though, I suspect most people never even consider them, particularly in a large auditorium. It is different in a small meeting room, though.

  • mymorna

    Interesting article with good tips, thanks!

  • Anni

    Really interesting post, thank you. I think when you’ve got a creative idea to get out of your daily run, it is always helpful to talk to a person that is critical with everything you do (maybe the parents). When you find many different arguments to fight for your idea, than you can be sure that you really want to do this, and that it will widen your horizon.

    • Art Markman

      I agree. This is related to the echo-chamber effect we see with lots of people’s activity on the internet. We tend to go to websites and to interact with people who agree with us. Maybe I’ll write about that next…

  • Aaron Morton

    In some ways the more more experienced and expert you are, the more they are affected by some of the trap you mention. Partly because of complacency, but also because of loss aversion.

    To get out of my creative rut, I grudgingly stop what I am doing and end up walking a path I have walked before. I tend to get at least one different perspective by doing this method.

    Aaron Morton
    The Confidence Lounge

  • Julia Jacobs

    I definitely get a second opinion / a fresh set of eyes. Sometimes people that know the least about the subject / project I’m working with have the most simple, elegant solutions.

    • Art Markman

      And even if they don’t have a good solution, they often say things that come from a different perspective and lead you to think about the situation in a new way.

  • Chatman Richmond Jr.

    It definitely helps to get a second opinion. A fresh perspective that isn’t compromised by your habits can check your blind spots. And it’s pretty damn hard to recognize your own blind spots when you’re personally invested in the work. When you have to explain what you’re doing to someone who hasn’t already bought-in to the idea, it’s basically an acid test of how well you thought it through.

  • Christina Cropper

    Thanks for the piece of mind! :)

  • s

    this article is mumbo jumbo same old same old stuff to fill a web page. so the so call professor goes into the problem in detail and no REAL answer. really? listen to music other then the one you listen to as supposed to your spineless boss that much rather piss on everyone’s idea then to do something bold? top down lazy six figure looser with no vision vs clients that think a good idea is doing what everyone else is doing right. at the end of the day it your hard work goes into the garbage can and you are happy because your work have not die being water down to nothing in a a committee of suits and ass wipes.

  • Touch

    Reading blogs like this helps me get out of creative ruts. I seek out articles of a positive nature to start my mornings. Taking in the knowledge/opinions of others and being encouraged by it.. rather than discouraged.

    I’ve always believed that the more you seek out to understand with an open mind, the more knowledgeable you will become. We learn everything we do.. so the more you subject yourself to new things and experiences the more you have to draw from creatively.

    Thanks.. good article.

  • sharkAttack777

    For new and fresh creative experience, seek God!

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