- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

20 Tips for Accelerating a Creative Flow

Creativity is more than just genes and genius. A big factor in how many great ideas you can make is your state of mind. Getting into the right state of mind doesn’t have to be a happy accident that hits you every once in awhile. You can engineer that state of mind to accelerate your creative flow.

Accelerating in Both Directions

With my two-flow theory of creativity [1], I suggested that coming up with innovative solutions is actually two separate processes: creation and destruction. You need creation to form new ideas and you need destruction to weed out bad ideas and simplify complex ones. The creation flow finds rough diamonds and the destructive flow cuts and polishes them.

In this article I’d like to have two separate lists of tips for how to get both into a creation-oriented flow and a destruction-based flow. If you’re not sure which you need and why, check out these other articles I already wrote on the subject:

How to Fuel a Creative Flow [1]
How to Find Creative Solutions to Non-Creative Problems [2]
How to Set Goals Creatively [3]

Boosting Creation

Creation is necessary to get ideas in the first place. If you aren’t sure where to start on a problem, this is the stage you need to enter. Writers block, lacking motivation and feeling unsure where to start can all be fixed by speeding up your flow towards creation. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Mindstorm. Get a piece of paper and write down the numbers 1 to 20. Fill the entire list up with ideas before you move forward again. This could be for essay topics, ways to motivate yourself or how to go about a complex problem. For a more intense exercise, go from 1 to 100.
  2. Brainstorm. Meet up with 2-6 people and discuss the problem you’re facing. Too many people can cause too much slow down, so go with small groups. The Delphi method is another alternative where one person issues written questionnaires to each group member in private so nobody has to wait for their turn to speak.
  3. Build enthusiasm. Change your posture and word usage to start triggering a feeling of enthusiasm. Research has shown that smiling actually causes people to become happier than frowning. You can’t fake enthusiasm indefinitely, but sometimes it is enough to boost yourself up until creative momentum carries you away.
  4. Sketch. Draw and write out ideas. Having a medium can make it easier to think through ideas than just living inside of your head.
  5. Talk to yourself. Along with writing out ideas, talking them through can be helpful in controlling where your thoughts go. Many creative geniuses also talked to themselves, so go nuts!
  6. Be patient. Nothing stalls your creative engine faster than frustration. Give yourself a large amount of time to come up with ideas. Try to rush yourself in the early stages can kill your motor before you start to speed up.
  7. Create crap. Lower your standards of what is acceptable for you to produce. Try writing the worst essay possible, or go to the gym and have the laziest workout you can manage. Perfectionism may be useful later, but initially it is a handicap.
  8. Cut expectations. In the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance [4], Pirsig tells the story of a girl in his class who had difficulty coming up with an essay to write. He told her to focus on writing it about one street. She still couldn’t come up with any ideas, so he told her to focus on one building. She was still stuck, so he told her to focus on one brick of this one building. After that she wrote several pages. By forcing her to write about one brick, she had to abandon all her expectations about how the essay was supposed to be and just write.
  9. It’s good enough. More than just creating garbage, you need to recognize when an idea is good enough before moving onto the next. Creation requires volume, not quality, so spending hours refining your first idea might not be useful if you need many.
  10. Boost confidence. I’m not a fan of Stuart Smalley [5]-esque affirmations. But if you’re trying to create ideas, confidence is a must. Look beyond immediate frustrations and try to visualize incidents where you’ve performed well or been praised. This isn’t a permanent solution for your self-image but it can temporarily boost your confidence enough to churn ideas, because, doggone-it people like you! [5]

Fast-Tracking it to Destruction

Just creating ideas isn’t enough. Otherwise you end up with essays that say everything and nothing at the same time; projects that feature-creep themselves from 2 months to 2 years; and a list of fifteen goals, without accomplishing any. Here’s how to dabble with destruction without crushing your spirit:

  1. Set constraints. Creativity thrives within constraints because it allows you to focus and improve ideas. Rough stones become polished diamonds if you place the right cuts.
  2. Be skeptical. Skeptical doesn’t need to mean giving up all hope, just playing your own devil’s advocate. Ask yourself for potential ways the ideas could fail or potential sources of improvement.
  3. Get critiqued. Nothing snaps you out of a self-deluded grandeur than a piece of well-aimed advice. Look for feedback to keep yourself centered and your ideas focused.
  4. SWOT. A technique used in many businesses is a SWOT analysis. This stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Go through all four categories when evaluating your ideas and it will help you refine and polish them further.
  5. Use a time budget. Deadlines are budgets for your time. Setting a deadline is a quick way to start eliminating the unnecessary from your projects and goals. You can dream up the best book, essay, computer program or website in the world, but if you want it finished by April, you’re forced to reduce.
  6. Cut complexity. Look for ways to simplify complex ideas. Ask yourself if all the steps you are taking are really necessary. Look for shortcuts and work from the mantra that less is more.
  7. Is this important? Go over your to-do lists and idea bank. For each item, ask yourself whether it contributes to something that will matter in 6 months, 1 year or 5 years? Ideas and tasks that have no long-term significance need to be scrapped for those that do.
  8. Get detached. Don’t hold onto ideas as if they were your children. If you know how to switch between a creative and destructive flow, coming up with great ideas shouldn’t be your biggest problem. Separate yourself from the idea by looking for alternatives. If an idea can’t survive close inspection, it probably won’t work.
  9. Plan for the worst. Go through potential worst-case scenarios. What ideas are resilient and which solutions fail miserably. If your idea can be implemented quickly, there isn’t need for this stage, but ideas that take years to be put into practice need to stand up over time.
  10. You are not your ideas. Has someone ever criticized your work and you felt it was a personal insult? If so, you probably don’t have enough separation between your ideas and your identity. Differentiate between a bad idea and a bad self-image.

More Readings on Creative Destruction

How to Fuel a Creative Flow [1] – The two-flow model of creativity.
How to Find Creative Solutions to Non-Creative Problems [2] – Every thinking problem can use a creative solution.
How to Set Goals Creatively [3] – Applying cycles of creation and destruction to your goals and life.