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.
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