Think outside the box, shake things up, and think different: The metaphors we use for creativity suggest that it’s different from many other pursuits.
As a result, it might seem that being creative requires a different approach than most other skills. If you want to be a great tennis player, you need to practice your swing. If you want to nail a presentation, you need to practice it several times. But, it turns out that creativity also requires practice.
In order to practice properly, there are two things you need to do:
- Know enough about creativity to practice the right things.
- Set aside the time to create rituals that lead to habits that support your creative practice.
The most creative people know a lot in their domain of expertise. In order for jazz musicians to improvise, they need to know a lot of music theory related to the song structures they play. The best scientists are deeply immersed in their fields. Inventors spend years understanding the way the world works.
In order to stoke your creativity, you need to continually develop your expertise. That means that you need to read, listen to lectures, and engage in conversations with others. These activities are often pushed into the background in our busy lives. So, you need to make time to learn.
When are the times that you engage in “fake work” where you sit at your desk and stare at the internet or shuffle papers? Instead of fake work, keep a book or stack of articles by your desk. When you feel a bout of fake work coming on, grab your book, find a quiet spot and read for 15 or 20 minutes. That time adds up and increases the knowledge you can use to generate new ideas.
Creative people also draw their inspiration from areas outside their domain of expertise. That means that you need to expose yourself to information that doesn’t seem relevant right now, but may end up being important later.
It is particularly difficult to find the time to do things that don’t have a clear benefit to you right now. After all, we are taught to be highly goal-directed. And that means clearing away distractions.
Set aside at least an hour a week to learn about something really new. The best way to do that is to pick a consistent time of the week and block an hour out of your calendar. Do it way in advance before that calendar fills up with things to do. And set that time aside to try something new.
Then, email friends and colleagues whose work you respect. Look for people who do things in a different domain than yours. Ask them for recommendations of things to read, see, or listen to. No matter how wacky their suggestions may seem, you will be surprised at how new things can shift your perspective.
Finally, lots of research suggests that people who have lots of good ideas also have lots of ideas. That means that if you want to succeed at doing things that are creative, you need to put in time in the act of trying to create.
To really develop a habit for creative practice, you need a regular ritual. For example, Stephen King (a prolific and creative writer) sits down each morning to write for a few hours. He compares the process of getting ready to write to the ritual of getting ready to go to sleep.
In order to create rituals for creativity, you need to think about what makes you feel creative. I find that having discussions with students and colleagues leads to great ideas for new experiments and projects, and so I schedule regular meetings of my lab and meetings with students with the express purpose of generating ideas. If you work best alone, then you need to put time into each day to engage in your creative pursuits. Whether you do it alone or in a group, you need to find ways to generate ideas, knowing that some of those ideas will be great ones.
Obviously, the key limitation for these creative pursuits is time. That is why rituals are so important. By making the pursuit of creative ideas a part of your daily life, you make the time you need to be creative. Though you never know which day will be the one where the light bulb goes off, a consistent practice will put you on the road to a breakthrough.