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An introduction to creative habits

What do people do to unleash their creativity? If some people seem more able to tap into their creative thoughts than others, how are they doing so?

There is a romantic view that some people are ‘natural’ creatives (and, thus, that others are not). What is far more likely and empowering is the idea that some people are simply using more effective strategies, or have more effective habits. If we can change those habits maybe we can unlock and unleash greater creativity.

Here, we explore some habits that can help all of us unlock our creativity. As you read, perhaps think about which you already do, which you think would be easiest or most difficult for you to adopt or try out, and why you think that is.

Later on in this course we’ll talk about ‘ecosystems’ for innovation and how you create an environment for ‘luck’. At this stage, we’ll simply say that the company you keep and the spaces that you work in also impact on your creativity. We can all recognise that some friends encourage us to be silly and support our crazy ideas whilst others seem to close us down for fear of being judged. Likewise, in some environments we feel inspired to have ideas whilst in others we wouldn’t dare to

Diverge, then converge

The first thing to understand about creativity is the role of ‘divergent’ and ‘convergent’ thinking. Divergent thinking is the process of starting from a given point and generating as many ideas as you can that derive from it. The end point doesn’t matter, as long as you’re diverging away from a starting point. This is classic brainstorming territory in which you pursue a quantity of ideas and explore as many links to new ideas or aspects as you can. Convergent thinking, in contrast, is about collecting up ideas, filtering them, evaluating them, and ultimately deciding which ones to act on. Convergent thinking is how we make decisions. Both are necessary and useful.

If we forget this, and favour convergent thinking over divergent, we tend to rush towards a decision, often pre-judging the outcome before we’ve even generated any options. This means we’re not only likely to rush the decision but we’re also unlikely to have selected anything original or novel. However, if we favour the divergent thinking process over the convergent, we’re likely to generate a surplus of ideas and struggle to then distil and act on anything, forever generating ideas and never implementing them.

In the next step, we will give you a profiling exercise, to help you get some further insight into your own approach to both convergent and divergent thinking. But the first step in any development of habits is recognising how your current habits of thought might be helping or hindering you; are you rushing to find solutions or dithering over a hundred possibilities?

Creative habits

There are some common habits of creatives that we can all use:

Indulge curiosity

Follow your passions, explore, investigate, ask questions, make stuff. No one ever created or discovered anything by playing it safe and not asking questions of themselves and others. Our history of innovation highlights just how many inventions hang on the propensity of individuals to say ‘what if…?’ or ‘how about…?’ or ‘why did that happen?’

Even if all you do is follow a few more links on Wikipedia to explore a subject, that’s great. Find interesting articles, books, places, music, people and see where it leads you. Experiment, try things out, test your insights.

Tip: Find out one new thing about something every day.

Embrace failure

By following your interests and asking questions you might make some mistakes. You might follow the wrong link, misunderstand something, build something that doesn’t work, or simply feel like you’ve wasted time and resources. However, the history of invention also teaches us that mistakes are required to make breakthroughs. As we will find out later, various inventions were all really just ‘accidents’, as perceived at the time. When an artist paints pictures they make sketches, when a musician composes they draft and re-draft, a comedian will test a variety of versions of a single joke to find the one that works. The dead-ends and efforts are all part of the process and should be embraced.

Tip: Create a ‘Failure Log’ and write down things that you fail at – but also what you’ve learnt from those failures.

Take notes

If you’re not recording your researches, insights, experiments, successes and failures, how will you know what you’ve learned? You might remember some of it, but sometimes it feels like we have too much data to process in one brain alone.

Get a second brain!

  • Start a notebook (on paper or electronic) and start making notes, draw diagrams and sketches, write down names and interesting things to look up, and write ‘ACTION’ in big letters against things you need to do.
  • Start a personal to-do-list (here we recommend an electronic to-do tool so it reminds you) and be a bit more efficient about your process. You’ve probably forgotten more good ideas than you’ll ever need; maybe if you write some down you’ll spot patterns and trends, make connections, and discover something new.

Tip: Start a notebook, and keep going until you find a way to use it habitually.

Network for effect

Don’t stop once you’ve better connected up your own ideas, get sharing. When you dig inside any case study of innovation you’ll find a curious collection of connections (people, places, common knowledge) that helped the new insights emerge. Very rarely can a single individual create and bring forward an idea by themselves, they’re usually building on the insights of others and harnessing diverse resources to speed their ideas up. We’ll pick up the importance of networking again later in the course.

Tip: Once a week make a point of sharing something you learned that week with someone else.

Persist

Keep going: if it was easy you, or someone else, would have done it already. In some ways, the barrier to innovative breakthroughs is not the clever insights but the sheer level of work required. This is why following your passion and enlisting the support of others is so important – it keeps you going when times are tough.

Tip: Before you give up on something, talk it through with someone else to prove to yourself you’re willing to let it go.

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This article is from the free online course:

Unleash Your Potential: Innovation and Enterprise

University of Bristol