You’re working on a creative problem, and then all of a sudden that feeling of progress disappears … What you should do then — when you hit the wall — is get away from your desk. Step away from the office. Take a long walk. Daydream. Find some way to relax. … [W]hat scientists have found is that when people are relaxed, they’re much more likely to have those big ‘A ha!’ moments, those moments of insight where these seemingly impossible problems get solved. So when you hit the wall, the best thing you can do is probably take a very long, warm shower. The answer will only arrive once you stop looking for it.
Jonah Lehrer, author of “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” in an interview with NPR
For a long time, I considered myself specifically not creative. Entirely lacking creativity. Sure, I’m a bit of a writer, and I was often pretty funny or clever, but it wasn’t like I was hammering out the next “Lord of the Rings” or anything.
Looking back, I had equated creativity with artistry and exceptionalism. If it wasn’t a painting or a film or a story, if it wasn’t “Stairway to Heaven” or “A Farewell to Arms” or YouTube, it wasn’t creative. That’s not wrong — all of those things are wonderful examples of creativity — but it’s wildly short-sighted.
More than just art and excellence, creativity is problem-solving. Creativity is discovering something new. Creativity is finding ways to communicate with and connect with others. We all have moments of great creativity, particularly when our work or our life calls for it, and we all have moments of great frustration, particularly when creativity is as elusive as electoral votes for Ralph Nader.
When those moments of brain-block strike, when a problem must be solved, I’ve discovered a few tricks that help a practical left-brainer like me be a bit more right-brainy. They help me when I’m presented with a challenge to cook up ideas large or small, for a tactical online marketing plan or a big-picture strategic branding assignment or anything in between. These creativity-encouraging tricks aren’t necessarily steps in a sequential process — any one or two might get the creative juices flowing — but in the event I do need them all, they unfold in roughly this order.
- Start alone: From time to time, I come across researchers who offer evidence that the typical group brainstorm isn’t as effective as many people think. While those group brainstorms offer value, I almost always get more mileage out of starting things off on my own. Get some ideas to bring to the brainstorming table. Find the trouble spots and the problems you need to solve for. Give your brainstorming efforts some more specific direction for a better chance of success.
- Take a walk: When I’m trying to cook up ideas, it helps to walk. Walking tends to eliminate typical desktop and handheld distractions (I’m looking at you, laptop and smartphone) and helps me relax. My “walk” could be a good stroll around the block (always bring the moleskin notebook!) or just pacing to and fro across the office.
- Get the gang together: Once you’ve kicked around some ideas on your own — and perhaps dispatched others to do the same — that’s when you’re better armed for a successful group brainstorm. The solitary work is like stretching and warm-ups, and the group brainstorm is the big show.
- Bust out the ax: Just because you were effectively creative doesn’t mean all of your ideas are gold. Show no mercy. If an idea isn’t rock-solid, kill it. If it has potential, use the ax to give it a shave and add some polish. Don’t stand for mediocrity. If there’s any question, don’t settle for the notorious “focus group of one”; get a second (and third and fourth) opinion.