We all want to be creative thinkers.
Not only can it help us with personal passion projects, but professionally too.
If you want to develop your leadership capability, for example, creative thinking is an underappreciated skill.
So what are the tools and techniques that help us think outside the box?
Let’s take a look.
When I worked as a physiotherapist, creative thinking wasn’t particularly necessary for the role.
Upon reaching a diagnosis, a treatment plan was followed until rehabilitation goals were achieved.
Lateral thinking was intermittently necessary in cases of misdiagnosis or stalled progress, but it wasn’t a skill I sought to actively develop.
Upon changing careers, however, first to freelance marketing and now marketing, it’s become a far more important consideration.
The ability to creatively combine words into a compelling freelance article directly impacted my bottom line.
And so too, my capacity to craft engaging marketing campaigns is the difference between client success and failure.
Whatever your role, developing flexible thinking skills and new mental models will help you thrive.
The following creativity tools and techniques should do just that.
11 creativity tools and techniques
Some of the following suggestions may seem slightly esoteric, but remember, you’re trying to encourage creative insight, and if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get the same results.
These might not be groundbreaking methods, but they’ve worked well for me.
It might sound obvious, but creative capacity is always enhanced by genuine curiosity.
When you feel forced into something, dragged kicking and screaming, it becomes extremely difficult to generate new insights.
The internal resistance you feel manifests in a distinct lack of ideas.
This shouldn’t be the case for personal projects, it’s imperative to find a genuinely interesting angle when approaching professional problems.
2. Ten new ideas a day
Creative thinking is simply a muscle which must be trained, and this technique employed by James Altucher could be part of a Rocky Balboa montage for mental workouts,
“Many people need idea therapy. Not so that they can come up with great ideas right this second (although maybe you will) but so that people can come up with ideas when they need them.”
Every day Altucher writes down 10 new ideas to exercise his creative chops.
Doing this every day just like stretching and stretching your physical body.
The first few ideas might be easy but the final few reps, or in this case, ideas, will become increasingly difficult.
Possibly the single most useful tool for increasing creativity is journaling.
I approached this as a sceptic, and it was only after reading Julia Cameron’s cult classic The Artist’s Way and experiencing the benefits first hand, that I finally admitted its value.
All day we exist in a state of perpetual thought, which often becomes repetitive and stuck in unhelpful loops.
Morning Pages help release this blockage, providing the extra capacity to forge new mental connections.
I was fascinated to read that one of my favourite authors used this technique as a writing prompt to kickstart his creative process. In Zen in the Art of Writing (a must-read), Bradbury explains,
Reading the book Daily Rituals by Mason Curry, I was unsurprised to learn that many of the most distinguished thinkers in history were keen walkers.
Take this snippet from a review of the book in The Guardian newspaper,
Currey was surprised, in researching his book, by the sheer ubiquity of walking, especially in the daily routines of composers, including Beethoven, Mahler, Erik Satie and Tchaikovksy, “who believed he had to take a walk of exactly two hours a day and that if he returned even a few minutes early, great misfortunes would befall him”
I’ve certainly found this true for myself – while I try to go for an early morning run approximately 5 days a week, this is also supplemented by a late afternoon walk to get the creative juices flowing.
It works a treat.
6. Make something
Austin Kleon, a self-styled “writer who draws”, often talks about the creative process on his popular blog.
While he encourages persistence, he also expounds the benefits of engaging in a completely different creative activity upon experiencing those inevitable roadblocks.
He gets physical, either creating his wonderful newspaper blackout wisdom snippets, or equally engaging zines.
7. Start a new hobby or combine skills
Just as Austin Kleon activates a different part of his brain by using his hands for craft activities, so too it can be useful to learn a new hobby to engage other senses.
Richard Feynman, for example, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, dabbled in safecracking, art and playing the bongos.
Undoubtedly these varied interests allow us to identify unusual combinations.
Indeed, often polymaths work at the intersection between different fields, uniting unique pieces of knowledge in new and novel ways to make unprecedented breakthroughs.
8. Mind maps and drawing
How you process information might play a big part in the ideas you generate.
I think through words, which is why writing works so well for me.
It’s self-discovery through thought clarification.
Other people, however, such as artists, might respond more readily to visual cues.
Creating mind maps or drawing your way to creative solutions might well spark inspiration.
9. Mood boards and storyboards
Sticking with visual aids, why not create a board at home with your problem front and centre?
Much like a detective creating connections between criminals with pieces of red string, you can solve your main challenge or tackle your next goal.
Every time you unearth relevant material, pin it to the board.
Even walking by it every day will act as a cue for your brain to solve the problem subconsciously until one day, inspiration strikes.
10. Online tools for networked thought
The creative process largely seems to be a process of compiling disparate pieces of information into a coherent whole.
With our quantity of information exposure increasing daily, sifting through the mountain of inputs and separating signal from noise can be a real challenge.
Luckily, emerging technology is here to help.
A new generation of networked thought tools, such as Roam, Obsidian and Notion now allow us to build a second brain, where we can store our notes on information consumption for future reference and retrieval.
These applications are based on Wikipedia-style hyperlinking between different notes, allowing us to mimic an artificial neuronal network.
With frequent use, not only can we become more productive, but these tools can grow into a comprehensive idea-generating resource.
This might sound obvious, but sleep is essential for problem-solving,
“The majority of studies on sleep creativity have shown that sleep can facilitate insightful behavior and flexible reasoning, and there are several hypotheses about the creative function of dreams.”
It certainly sounds reasonable to assume that good sleep contributes to learning, memory retrieval and creative thinking.
We’ve all experienced wrestling with a problem late at night, weary with mental fatigue, before calling it quits and going to bed.
Then we wake up refreshed and KAPOW, the solution pops right into our noggin.
How they work
Many of the creative tools and techniques recommended here share one attribute – they shift the mind from doing mode to being mode.
In other words, to relaxation.
The mind at rest appears to create new connections more readily, at least in my own case.
We’ve all heard of famous thinkers experiencing lightning strikes of inspiration in the shower.
Often we spend so long focusing intently on a problem that we became stuck, and it’s only when we give our brains an alternative outlet that a solution magically appears.
Summary for success
Good ideas multiply with execution.
Stretch your creative faculties by continually practising with a variety of tools and techniques.
Soon you’ll be approaching old problems from new angles and experiencing increasing success.
And when you’re stuck, just remember…
Rather than sitting still banging your head against a brick wall, do something.
Ideally a completely different task, like moving your body or engaging another part of your brain.
I’m confident you’ll be pleased with the results.