I trained myself to be creative by doing these 9 things

JotForm’s CEO Aytekin Tank shares his tips for developing creativity, as a software engineer by trade.

I trained myself to be creative by doing these 9 things
[Photo: Na Inho/Unsplash]

The word “creativity” often evokes visions of the artist at work—a painter splashing color on a canvas or a writer drafting the next great novel. These images do represent a certain kind of creativity, but they can also be limiting.


The truth is, creativity is a lot more than that. As author James Clear writes in his blog, “The creative process is the act of making new connections between old ideas or recognizing relationships between concepts.” Clear’s definition opens the process to everyone. Research shows there’s a gap between the value we place on creativity and how we’re flexing our creative muscles.

When Adobe interviewed 5,000 adults in five different countries, eight in 10 people said that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth. Nearly two-thirds think creativity is valuable to society, but only one in four believe they’re fulfilling their own creative potential.

It’s time to close that gap. “We all have the capacity to be creative, and we can all improve those skills,” Rahaf Harfoush, author of Hustle and Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed with Work previously told Fast Company. “Like any aptitude, some are better than others, and some have a stronger skill set. We’re not all LeBron James, but anybody can learn basketball.”

When I started my company, JotForm, in 2006, I didn’t think much about creativity. I was a software developer, not a poet. But eventually, I realized that bootstrapping a startup requires real imagination, so I got serious about cultivating creative habits. Here are the 9 steps that have helped me do that:

1. I started small

You can’t write a book in one sitting, but you can write a page at a time. When you try to tackle a gigantic task at once, you’re more likely to procrastinate because you’re scared to fail. When you narrow in on a single, palatable task, it becomes easier to push past the mental and emotional discomfort. Over time, small steps add up to produce dramatic results.


2. I applied constraints

When Random House founder Bennett Cerf bet one of his authors, Theo Geisel, that he couldn’t write a children’s book with just 50 different words, the man (better known as Dr. Seuss) won that wager with Green Eggs and Ham.

Putting limits to encourage creativity might sound counterintuitive. But the thing is, constraints encourage more divergent thinking–and you can leverage built-in limits or apply them to the project at hand. For example, sometimes we’ll tell our designers that they can only have 10 elements on a product screen. These limits stretch their problem-solving abilities and typically produce surprising results.

3. I let myself daydream

Almost everyone has had a flash of insight while showering, walking the dog, or washing the dishes. The mind wanders while you soak or scrub and, as studies show, your brain is more likely to generate creative solutions when it’s free.

In today’s productivity-obsessed culture, daydreaming sounds like blasphemy. But spending 10 minutes walking or gazing out the window is more likely to inspire innovation than scrolling through social media.

4. I implemented systems and automation

Systemizing repetitive processes, steps, or tasks frees your time to tackle juicier problems. For example, you can automate everything from email responses to social media posts to grocery deliveries. Innovation needs time and space to grow. If you’re struggling to find room for creativity, find ways to cut the busywork.


5. I wasn’t afraid to look elsewhere for inspiration

Analogies–including metaphors, similes, and even fairy tales–help our brains navigate new territory. For example, Steve Jobs was a master of metaphors who introduced now-basic analogies, including the computer “desktop,” “folders,” and “documents.”

Comparing seemingly disconnected ideas can deepen understanding and spark creativity. Whenever you’re stuck, try to find a useful parallel in a different industry, activity, or even in nature.

6. I aimed high

Google has nine core principles of innovation. Number three declares that employees should “aim to be 10 times better.” Aiming high is the opposite of applying constraints—and it works different mental muscles. Think big, broad, and outlandish. What would it take to achieve a tenfold improvement?

7. I was deliberate about changing my routine

Change begets creativity. Even small shifts, like switching up your meals and daily travel routes can change how you think. Novelty prompts the mind to find new solutions. Changing our assumptions is another way to encourage creativity. When you’re struggling, ask yourself what you’re assuming, and why. You might be surprised to find the answers.

8. I looked beyond my inner circle

Our product teams usually have strong ideas about how certain features should operate. But once they explore user interviews and surveys, they often find that customers have vastly different opinions. It’s easy to get stuck in a bubble, but new perspectives are invaluable. Talk to your team. Contact customers, clients, or users and listen carefully. Connect with employees in another department and look outside your typical social and professional circles for inspiration.


9. I cultivated trust in my ability (as well as my team’s)

More than any other factor, I believe trust expands creativity. You have to trust that you can innovate; that you’ll find a solution and have the tools you need. Leaders also need to trust their teams. The more you believe in their creative potential, the more likely they are to dig deep and deliver something that will probably surprise you.

Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.