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Hacking Creativity: Simple Steps to Become More Creative

For the longest time, we’ve assumed creativity is some kind of character trait bestowed at birth. In fact, it can actually be learned. Here’s how.

One of my most vivid memories from high school involves a pottery class I took during my senior year. While I was sitting there mashing clay around the table trying my best to sculpt something that resembled a bowl, some of my classmates were practically recreating Michelangelo’s “David.”

There seemed to be a chasm in the quality of art being created. Some projects would be showcased proudly on a shelf at home while others would be hidden behind picture frames and encyclopedia volumes. I was in the latter group. Whatever gene was responsible for creativity, I didn’t have it.

Fast forward several years, I decided to give blogging a try. To my amazement, I was decent at stringing words together. After many early mornings of practice, I was even able to sell a few pieces of writing. Despite my lack of ingenuity in art class, I was able to grow some semblance of a creative muscle.

While we traditionally think of creativity as an innate trait, research is now showing that it’s mostly a learned skill. It just takes a bit of work. Here are four tips from writers and artists to help you get the creative juices flowing.

Curate your surroundings.

In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon, a self-described “writer who draws,” emphasizes the importance of your surroundings in regards to creativity:

There’s an economic theory out there that if you take the incomes of your five closest friends and average them, the resulting number will be pretty close to your own income.

I think the same thing is true of idea incomes. You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.

This applies outside of just the individuals you spend time with. The events you attend, hobbies you enjoy, and places you work have an impact on your ability to create. If you’re constantly surrounding yourself with others that are innovating, you’re going to be more inclined to adopt the same kind of mindset. Here are some ideas for using your surroundings to your creative advantage:

  • Attend a WordPress meetup. Network with other bloggers and writers that are experiencing similar frustrations and successes.
  • Join an online Blogging University course. If there aren’t any scheduled meetups in your area or you’re craving an online community, consider joining one of our courses. They’re perfect for improving and getting feedback on your writing as well as building relationships with other bloggers.
  • Keep inspiration nearby. It’s exceptionally hard to have an explosion of creative genius when you’re staring at a bare wall in a sparsely decorated room. Try to keep a few books, quotes, or images nearby that connote creativity. I keep the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by my computer for this exact purpose.
  • Experiment with your environment. I’ve found I’m most creative when I’m sitting at a particular coffee shop with a latte in front of me and music flowing through my headphones. Perhaps you work best inside the house by yourself in a certain room. Practice working from different locations to see what works best.

Expand your bubble.

Remember back in school when teachers would repeat the phrase “think outside the box” ad nauseam? Everyone knew what the phrase meant but hardly anyone knew how to put the words into practice.

The infamous “box” can be thought of as your normal routines. The breakfast you eat every day, the route you take to work, the types of books you read and music you listen to – they’re all part of your normal day-to-day.

To “think outside the box,” we need to live outside the box, at least every once in a while. For example, some interesting research shows that traveling abroad can increase creativity. The jetsetters have been immersed in a different culture (different way of thinking) and have a greater wealth of experiences to draw from when drumming up new ideas.

The good news is you don’t have to pack your bags to reap the benefits. You can apply the same philosophy right from your home.

  • Read books and blogs on different topics. We’re drawn to individuals that share our same point of view. Break outside of the rut and read something completely different. If you’re always reading non-fiction, try fiction for a change of pace. You’ll be exposed to different writing structures and characters.
  • Practice free writing. Normally, when we sit down to write, we have an established idea of what we normally write about and how we want the finished piece to look. Those creation ruts can obstruct our ability to create something new and unique. Practice free writing on a variety of topics that have nothing to do with your normal subject matter and see what comes out.
  • Take a writing vacation. Grab your laptop or notebook and pen and hit the road. Where you go isn’t all that important; just go somewhere new. Spend an hour or even a weekend in a new place and soak in the inspiration from being somewhere unique.

Force it.

Creative professionals don’t sit around waiting for lightening to strike. They actively work to make sure it strikes regularly.

I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.

– W. Somerset Maugham

Take entrepreneur and author James Altucher for example. Every day, James writes down 10 ideas in a notepad. Some ideas are terrible. Others turn into blog posts and even book ideas. The goal isn’t to produce 10 great ideas each day. It’s just to produce 10 ideas in general. In fact, as James explains, putting pressure on yourself to come up with 10 blockbusters can actually do more harm than good:

Don’t put pressure on yourself to come up with good ideas. The key right now is just to have good ideas. When Tiger Woods is practicing he doesn’t get disappointed…if he doesn’t hit a hole in one every shot. You’re just practicing here.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. But practice makes permanent. So that later on when you do need good ideas to save your life, you know you will be a fountain of them.

Routine is one of the most effective yet underutilized hacks for creativity. Set aside 30 minutes a day when you’re not allowed to do anything else except write (If you’re stumped on ideas, Daily Prompts come in really handy).  You’ll find the new routine is exceptionally challenging at first. Over time, however, the 30 minutes will fly by, and you’ll find words flowing onto the page.

Back yourself into a corner.

In 1960, Bennet Carf made a bet with a man by the name of Theo Geisel. The bet was that Theo couldn’t write a children’s book using only 50 different words. Theo, better known as Dr. Seuss, ended up winning that bet. The result – Green Eggs and Ham – has sold more than 200 million copies.

Personally, I’ve found that deadlines have a strange way of forcing words out onto a page. I could be at a loss for words until the morning an assignment is due. Then, the floodgates open up and words pour onto the page.

Take a lesson from Dr. Seuss’ book and use constraints to your advantage. Set a hard deadline with yourself to publish a new post to your blog every Tuesday. Better yet, partner up with another writer and promise to hold them accountable if they’ll do the same for you. You’ll find you have a lot more to say on Tuesday morning than you do on Wednesday night.

This obviously isn’t an exhaustive list of creativity hacks. Every blogger has their own routines and habits that spark new ideas. What works for you?

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  1. Awesome advice! I also find that if I do something creative that’s not my normal creative (such as trying to draw instead of write) I become much more motivated to write. This goes along with the whole “outside the box” thing.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Really good stuff, Jeremy. And you cite two of my absolute favorites–James Altucher and Austin Kleon. I don’t think there could be two better people to point writers and artists to.

    Thank you for these valuable resources and reminders.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Very interesting. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that creativity is an innate skill – we’re either creative people or not – when in-fact it’s as you describe it; we can work at being creative and learn how to feel inspired, and turn inspiration into a piece of writing, a work of art…whatever.

    Inspiration doesn’t strike us like a bolt from the blue, you have to be on the lookout for it.

    Co-incidentally (and please forgive the self-promotion) I wrote about my own creative process this week. Is 11am on a Wednesday really the best time of the week?

    http://ragtimecyclist.com/2014/12/10/11am-wednesday-morning-or-the-creative-cycle/

    Liked by 3 people

  4. This is so true with all creativity. I run an online group to encourage just doing something on a daily basis. Picasso said ‘Inspiration comes…. but it has to find you working’ (paraphrased). If it’s blogging – just write, as you say. Once the words begin – inspiration will follow.

    Excellent post.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I like to scribble ideas down when they come to me; it helps to have paper and pencil handy. Similarly, I don’t always wait to compose posts until the day I want to publish them. I have a series of Christmas posts starting tomorrow that were composed in June (I think) because that’s when the idea came.

    Writing early also improves the revision process, but that’s another topic.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. So true! While consistently exercising your creative muscles is important, it’s equally important to be prepared for lightning-strikes of inspiration! I like that you always keep paper and pen nearby; I think it’s a habit every artist of any type should develop. Definitely need to work on that.
      Also I second the idea of not waiting till a certain day or time to write what’s burning a hole in your brain; get to it before it cools down and winks out!

      Liked by 3 people

  6. I really like this post! My whole life, I’ve been extremely passive in my creative process. If the mood strikes I’ll sit down and indulge it, but the rest of the time I’m often not even thinking about producing something creative. But inconsistency is the enemy of success. Those few times I’ve forced myself to write in response to a prompt or a deadline (NaNoWriMo was a great learning experience for me), I discovered a door opening on a greater cache of desire and inspiration. Now that I’m getting serious about turning my writing into a career, I’m realizing I have to be a lot more proactive about it.

    Thank you for this advice! I fully intend to utilize it from here on out.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Great advice, thanks! 🙂 I definitely need to start surrounding myself with more creative stimuli…I do find that writing comes more easily to me when I’ve been reading a novel that week, for example.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I especially like the point you make about practice. That writing is the point, and the only way to improve is to write. It releases a bit of self-imposed pressure. That’s something I understand intellectually, but fail to, um, “practice” day-to-day. I’m gonna work on that.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Nice one! This has come just as I’m experiencing a creative ‘end-of-year-slump.’

    It’s actually the second boost I’ve had today – the last one inspiring a post I wrote this afternoon.

    Now looking forward to writing something this weekend as the snow begins to fall outside…

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I’ve found two (seemingly paradoxical) things that really help me. One, doing something out of my comfort zone. The terror is really energizing on a certain level. Two, setting the stage for success. For example, with choreography if I’m dressed in dance clothes and in a dance studio, the ideas flow. At home in my jeans, not so much.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. A brilliant post. Very helpful. I can particularly relate to your last point – since I started my blog at the end of September I have posted a piece every Tuesday (apart from one week where I was actually ahead of myself and posted on the Monday before!) and I have found that having a self-imposed deadline is not only good discipline but also stops me from sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike! It doesn’t work for everyone, but it certainly works for me!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I find this very interesting. As a newbie in this blogging stuffs I do force myself to create ideas what to blog. I totally agree that writing is a learned skill and experience is always the best teacher.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. These are terrific ideas, Jeremy. I agree that creativity is in us all, but nurturing, encouraging and learning techniques are what bring it to the surface. Some of us take a lifetime to find the release button after which we can begin to learn. It’s never too late as evidenced by many like me who are in our 60s and just beginning writing and artistic pursuits.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Great post, Jeremey. Two of the suggestions you mentioned are things that I strongly encourage all my creative writing students to do on a regular basis: free write and read genres and styles that they would not normally read for their own personal pleasure.

    The free writing releases a level of creativity that normally remains dormant when we are writing only from a plan and trying to judge and edit what we’re saying as we go. It’s only when we grab a word, a phrase, or a photo and just start throwing out words non-stop for a period of time (with no planning and no editing) that we let that subconscious part of ourselves release ideas and images that our conscious mind might tend to hold back because they don’t fit our normal “plan.”

    The practice of reading genres and styles that we would not normally be drawn to gives us the opportunity to experience alternate ways of putting words together and creating images. Sometimes we think that we can write well only if we follow the patterns we’ve used for years. But just one or two books written from a section of the literary world that we don’t normally visit can trigger new creative flow in us. Sometimes just experiencing a little bit of another genre writer’s style gives us ideas and incentive for experimentation, and those experiments can add extra spice and even brand new life in our own genre and style of work when we go back to it.

    And it’s a powerful truth that creativity begets creativity. The more we interact with creative people, the more creative we will be. And those other people don’t have to be creative in our own field. Artists and musicians spark the creative essence of writers, and writers do the same for artists and musicians. There have been many times in my teaching career that my writing and theater students have been so free in their creativity that I came away from my experience with them feeling almost reborn in my own creative life. They taught me as much as I taught them.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Great advice! I find my most popular posts have been the ones that were inspired from within, that moment when I felt compelled to put pen to paper because there was so much going on in my mind. Those authentic, heart centred and real posts, the ones that came straight from my heart were the best ones creativity wise.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. This was informative and a fun read! I will definitely try to employ a few of these like the writing vacation and the prompts I know for sure work. I have a book of fiction writing exercises I use when I come up against writer’s block on a novel. One prompts got me well over the wall.
    I find I write best by starting out on paper with a pen. I cannot start on a computer. Edit, yes. Create, no.

    Liked by 1 person