Struggling to be creative? Here’s some tips to help unblock your thinking

Are you struggling to come up with ideas? Is your creativity stunted? Whether you are usually an “ideas person” but suffering unexpected creative drought – or you consider yourself to not be creative – these basic hints and tips will help you on your way.

TIP 1: Define what it is you are trying to achieve

Sometimes the creative brief we have is just too open-ended and vague: “I need to come up with a new business idea”, “I’m going to write a book” and so forth. When framed too loosely, the brief gives us too little context to effectively generate and evaluate ideas.

Conversely, if we are looking at something too narrowly, it can constrain our thinking too much, causing us to discard good ideas and prevent us from seeing valuable connections.

Take some time to really think about the objectives of your creative exercise. What is the end-purpose of the creative process? Is it a product (which can include things like songs, books, paintings), a service, a process? What will it do, for whom and why? What is the problem or issue you are trying to solve?

Set a specific focus for your creativity. See if that then helps the ideas to flow. Consider relaxing and varying the scope if is constraining thinking too much.

TIP 2: Ask yourself if you are trying to be too unique, clever or innovative?

Are you spending too much time agonising that your ideas aren’t clever or original enough? A great idea doesn’t have to be massively original. Occasionally, there are what appear to be massive leaps forward in technology, art etc. that reset our expectations and take our thinking to a whole new place. However, most ideas and innovations (including many very good ones) are incremental in nature. They take a small step forward – but it’s the right step at the right time and place. So, don’t discount ideas you are having on the grounds that they are not radical enough.

TIP 3: Look at and build-on (or take inspiration from) what someone else has done

Building on the last point, great ideas, whether in science, commerce or art, rarely (if ever) come from out of the blue. As Isaac Newton stated, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Don’t be frightened to look at the work of others to see if you can draw inspiration from it, improve upon it or use it as the basis for something new.

This is not an invitation for you to indulge in plagiarism. Be mindful of your actions here – both from an ethical and a legal standpoint. If you are going to directly borrow the work of others then give them the credit they are due, which could be financial but may just be appropriate recognition. Contact them and ask for their permission if you intend to use their ideas wholesale.

Extending your search for inspiration beyond the specific area you are working in and taking inspiration from a wider range of sources can be very powerful. Look outside of your industry or your professional/functional specialism. You can go wider still… for example ideas in the arts, sport or science could have applications in the business world and vice versa.

TIP 4: Engage others in the process

Two or more people can be massively more creative than one person working alone. If you are working in isolation and struggling to come up with ideas, find ways to link up with others. Teaming up can be hugely beneficial to idea generation. It also provides alternative perspectives for testing and evaluating ideas and for thinking about how to implement or pitch them.

You might consider getting others involved on a number of levels, as collaborators, evaluators, investors etc. It really depends what type of input you are looking for. Whatever your initial intentions, be open to what may actually occur. For example, someone you try out an idea on may come back with their own ideas and be interested in a fuller collaboration. Also get ready to deal with criticism. Some people are good at providing feedback in a constructive fashion – some aren’t! Listen to negative feedback. Don’t discount it just because you don’t like it. Adopt the mind-set that all feedback is valid – but it isn’t necessarily right.

If you are worried about loss of ownership – and thus, losing some of the benefits (financial or otherwise) that may accrue from your ideas – just consider this: would you rather have 50% of a good thing or 100% of nothing?

Customers (existing or prospective) can be a powerful source of collaborative input. Their input allows you to gain insights in order to closely meet their needs. It also involves them in your creative process – helping to build loyalty and attachment. You can extend this thinking to colleagues, friends, fans etc. who are going to be the users or consumers of the end-products of your creativity.

The Internet has now opened up opportunities to collaborate and share ideas with a wide, dispersed group. Consider the way open source software is now shared and collaboratively worked upon via an online “hub”. This approach is now being extended into other spheres, including the arts.

TIP 5: Have some fun.

If you are finding the whole process of coming up with ideas a bit dry and soul-destroying, inject some fun into the proceedings. This can eliminate drudgery, help energise you – and provide some valuable new perspectives into the bargain.

Try and inject some games out of your thinking time. For example, challenge yourself to come up with as many “dumb” or “outrageous” ideas as possible … or to produce the “dumbest” or most “outrageous” idea that you can. Once you’ve done that, take a closer look at the ideas you’ve produced. Are they really that stupid or that crazy? Is there the germ of a good idea in there somewhere?

You could also try throwing some random elements into the process. Pick up a magazine or newspaper, go to a random page and see what pictures or words first grab your attention. Then inject that as a random element into your thought process. Say you saw a picture of an elephant, you could then ask yourself questions like, “How could I do this using an elephant” or “How would I do this if I was an elephant? The point is about altering perspectives and making connections you wouldn’t normally make. Injecting the random and the absurd into your thought process can be a powerful way of doing this.

Another possibility is role-play. Think of someone you admire from history or fiction. How would they approach solving this problem?

Turn things on their head. What would you go about things if you really wanted to epically fail, or achieve the opposite of what you are setting out to do? Again, review the results and see if this helps provide some insights or help you generate some “sensible” ideas.

Another great way of adopting a different perspective is try representing your thoughts through a different medium than the one we would normally use. The default mode for most people, particularly when trying to represent business ideas is written text. There will likely be some bullet point lists and maybe a flow diagram or two. If that’s you, then why not try and draw a picture representing your ideas. I mean a “picture” – some form of artistic representation– not just a “diagram”. It could, for example, be a picture of how customers will look using your product or the expressions on their faces when they read your book or hear your song … or it could be a more abstract representation. It doesn’t have to be great art – it’s the process not the end product that matters here.   Now reflect – has this exercise helped generate fresh ideas?

You may feel that time spent generating ideas that are not directly “productive” is time wasted. However, you should dispel any such thoughts. Any time spent in activities that energise your thought processes and get you think you thinking “outside of the box” is time well spent.

TIP 6: Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect – at least not initially.

A lot of people over-censor their thinking – not committing ideas “to paper” until they are well-formed. This can result in major creative blockage. Just get the ideas out of your head and noted down, whether you initially feel they are good, bad or indifferent. These notes can be in whichever form is appropriate and works for you: textual, oral, pictorial, musical etc. If you are struggling to frame your ideas in a coherent way, don’t worry at this stage, just get some key points noted as best you can. You can always then come back, review, refine and build upon your ideas. Which brings us to the next tip…

TIP 7: Keep a scratch-pad of ideas

Become an assiduous recorder and hoarder of ideas and partial ideas. Make a point of getting ideas out of your head and recorded in some form. For “business” concepts I tend to favour mind mapping over list making. Mind maps tend to work better for association and grouping of ideas. For musical ideas – melodies, lyrics, chord sequences etc. – I try and get them recorded as soon as possible. Smart phones and tablets make it easy to get ideas readily recorded. I also tend to mind map and make other textual notes electronically – just because it makes subsequently manipulating them and documenting them that much easier.

Once you have ideas recorded you can then revisit them, review them, modify them, combine them and so forth. Keep old ideas that you may have previously rejected and revisit them from time to time to see if there is now potential in them – or to see if they spark new ideas.

TIP 8: Trust your gut – follow a hunch

Maybe over reliance on your rational, logical side is blocking your ideas. If you tend to favour rationalising your way through a situation, it can be frustrating if you cannot think your way to a solution. However, maybe your instincts are trying to tell you something? Put logic to one side for a while and see what solutions come to you as hunches or instincts.

TIP 9: Take a break

Step away from the computer screen, piano, easel or whatever and do something else for a while. It is too easy to get into the rut of staring at a blank “canvas” looking for inspiration … or you manage to get so far then hit a creative impasse. When that happens – when the ideas just aren’t flowing – just go and do something else for a while.

A total break from the “work” is the best – if you can manage that. Go for a walk, go to the gym, sit in the park, sleep – whatever works for you as a way of unwinding. You will probably find that your thoughts will drift way from and then back towards what you are working on. Go with the flow and let our mind wander.

If you can’t take a total break from “work” then focus your work on something else. Try and make it something unrelated to the creative work you are doing. Do some administration, write the weekly report, practice your instrument etc.

Two things result from taking this break. First, you should find that you return to the creative work with renewed mental energy. Second, you will likely find that you had ideas during your “downtime” which you can now bring back to the process. You may find that you have drawn inspiration from other activities you were engaged in – or simply that your mind has been creatively productive while in a relaxed state.

“Daydreaming”, letting the mind idly wander where it will, can be a powerful creative tool. If it is something you already habitually do, learn to value it as a process. If you don’t normally do it, and you need to be creative, you may want to get in the habit of switching off occasionally and letting your thoughts ramble.

TIP 10: Explore what’s blocking you

Finally, if you he tried all the above and are still really struggling for inspiration, then you need to ask yourself what’s stopping you creating. This requires some honest assessment of your thoughts and motivation.

Consider if there are any beliefs or assumptions you have about the situation that might be holding you back. For example, do you believe that things need to be done a particular way or that certain types of solution will be unacceptable? Is it a problem you are trying to solve that is so large it seems insurmountable? List any beliefs about the scope of the work and constraints around it that might be limiting your ability to be creative and come up with solutions. Include in those “beliefs” any facts or givens – constraints that have been placed on you by your employer, your customer etc.   Then, starting with the biggest blockers, the ones that seem to be preventing you from creating the most, simply ask yourself the question, “Really?…”

Consider what the impact would be if that belief or constraint did not exist. If things are much clearer as a result, then consider what it would take for that constraint to go away. If it is a constraint you are placing, then what’s to stop you just removing it? If it really is imposed, could it be changed or removed through negotiation? Could the scope of the work be framed in such a way that the constraint disappears?

How we frame and scope a piece of work can have a powerful effect on our ability to come up with creative solutions. Never be frightened to explore the scope and challenge your thinking about what can and can’t be done.

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I hope you find these tips useful and help you to overcome any creative blockages. Please do provide feedback and comments. Let me know how you get on with using these tips – or let me (and other readers) know about other approaches that you use.

The tips I have listed here are primarily aimed at helping you to generate ideas – by unblocking your thought processes, getting you to explore different angles and make connections.   I will write about how to decide which ideas are the “good” ones and how to take them forward and implement them in some future posts.

These tips are broad approaches – mind-sets and strategies to adopt to boost creativity. I touch on a few specific techniques. However, there is also a whole raft of techniques that can be used – for example, to help provide different perspectives on a problem.   I will write about some of my favourites in future posts.

Here’s wishing you success in your creative endeavours.

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