How to Find Creative Solutions to Non-Creative Problems

Is motivating yourself to go to the gym a creative problem? What about deciding how to study for an upcoming test or organizing your calendar? Most people would probably agree that these aren’t creative problems. But, I’d like to discuss in this article how, using my two-flow model of creativity, you can take on these problems and find creative solutions.

Thinking is Creativity

If creativity can be described as making ideas and refining them into good ideas, then just about any process that requires thinking also requires creativity. Take motivating yourself to go to the gym, for example. Is this a problem that requires a great deal of thought?

If you answered no, then try looking again. If you’ve had a hard time going to the gym regularly, why is that? Is it because there is a physical force preventing you from exercising? Is it because you are chained to the couch and television remote? Unless you’ve recently suffered an injury or are under house-arrest, that probably isn’t the case.

No, motivating yourself to exercise is a thinking problem, not just a willpower problem. If you gave the problem considerable thought, you could probably come up with many ideas for how to hit the gym:

  • Go regularly for a month to make it a habit.
  • Find a friend to go with to make the gym more fun.
  • Buy exercise equipment to work out at home.
  • Wake up earlier in the morning when there are fewer distractions.
  • etc.

The reason you don’t normally find these ideas is because you aren’t treating it as a creative problem. Going to the gym is only one example of this type of creative problems in disguise.

The Two-Flow Model for Using Creativity in Disguise

The two-flow model of creativity, which I wrote about recently, splits the process of finding good ideas into two parts: creation and destruction. These processes, which can’t operate at the same time, are both essential for thinking through difficult problems.

To make use of this look at creativity you need to decide which direction of flow you need. Too many ideas cluttering your approach requires destruction. Too few ideas to get started with requires creation. Most difficult problems will requires going through both phases, but you have to start at one side–ideas can’t flow upstream and downstream at the same time.

Deciding When to Create

When are you in a position to create? There is no clear-cut rule for when you need to shift into a creation stage, but here are a few signs:

  • Ask yourself what to do or how to do it. If you start drawing a blank, you need to tilt towards a creation flow.
  • You lack enthusiasm. If you’re feeling a bit negative, apathetic or lacking confidence in your ideas, chances are you’ve tilted too far towards a destructive flow too early.
  • You feel lazy. If you feel like you haven’t been doing much, you probably are shifted too far into destruction. The opposite of this, of course, would be feeling too busy where you are doing too much.

With our gym motivation example, you might be sitting on your couch, wondering what to do. You aren’t getting to the gym and you have few ideas how to drag yourself there. You might show up to the gym, do a few exercises and then start skimming the fitness magazines to avoid working out.

If this is the state, you need to start by tilting your creative flow towards creation of ideas. Here’s how:

  1. Cultivate enthusiasm. Build yourself up emotionally so that the ideas can start flowing.
  2. Focus on confidence. Positive affirmations might not be your style, but you can invest some energy looking at ways you can boost your self-image.
  3. Write a list of strategies. Get out a pad of paper and write twenty ways you could boost your motivation to go to the gym. Don’t stop writing until you finish at least twenty.
  4. Talk to a positive friend. Find a friend who currently goes to the gym and have a conversation about ideas for how you can get going again.

Flow is both mental and emotional. Coming up with ideas is a mental activity, but being in the right mood can speed up or slow down the process. I prefer to tackle the mental side first (brainstorming ideas, forming a plan, writing goals) and the emotional can often take care of itself.

Deciding When to Destroy

Creativity has two-flows: creation and destruction. It’s nice to believe that the only thing you need is creation. This is the kind of super-charged positive thinking that sounds good in theory but tends to burn itself out in practice. The destruction angle is useful for focusing, limiting and polishing ideas. Destruction is the ability to simplify, minimize and tweak.

Here are a few signs you may need to engage in a destructive flow:

  • You’re overwhelmed. You aren’t sure where to start or what to do first.
  • You’re all talk and no action. You’ve spent all your time planning, but when the time comes to do something about it, you freeze.
  • You’re focusing on the unimportant. You’re wasting time on activities that aren’t contributing much.
  • You’re too busy. There is too much going on in your life and you are feeling burnt out.

With our gym example, you might need to engage in a destructive phase if you’ve been planning to exercise for months but haven’t started. If you’ve purchased dozens of pieced of exercise equipment, clothes and books but haven’t ran around the block. If you’re jumping around constantly between different programs, but not sticking to anything.

Getting into a destructive flow isn’t the exact opposite of forming a creation-based flow. I believe there is a third, ineffective direction that doesn’t create or destroy, but simply stagnates. So believing that confidence, enthusiasm and low standards are necessary for creation, doesn’t mean that being depressed and apathetic are necessary for destruction.

Here are some ways you could tilt towards a destructive flow:

  1. Simplify. Remove complexity, cross out ideas and limit yourself to a small amount.
  2. Get skeptical. Ask yourself what really matters. Eliminate the non-essential.
  3. Calm yourself. Instead of getting yourself psyched up, try slowing yourself down.
  4. Reviewing your ideas. Find a written copy of your past ideas, or quickly write out a review of your plan and spend some time looking for weaknesses.
  5. Find the devil’s advocate. Get a friend to play the role of countering your arguments so you can eliminate incorrect ideas.

I’ve used the example of going to the gym to describe this process of picking a direction and manipulating creative flow. However, this process can be applied to just about any problem. You might need to tilt towards creation when trying to build the motivation to work. You might need to tilt towards destruction to ensure your projects don’t become multi-year odysseys.

In the next article, I’ll discuss how this two-flow theory of creativity can be applied from a whole life perspective and forming cycles of creation and destruction more broadly in personal development.