How to Develop and Sustain Creative Thinking / by Jennifer Chan

“But unless we are creators we are not fully alive. What do I mean by creators? Not only artists, whose acts of creation are the obvious ones of working with paint of clay or words. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts, or having some kind of important career.” 
— Madeleine L’Engle

Just as Madeleine described, creativity can be injected in all facets of life. Most of us don’t work, at least on an obvious level, in creative jobs. We’re sitting in cubicles. We’re working from home. We’re out in the field. But no matter how we earn our keep, I’m a firm believer that incorporating creativity into your work will not only generate better results, but also help you become more innovative, resourceful, and intentional as a creator. Here are 6 ways that have helped me stay creative in my daily life.

Pick up a book every single day.

It has never been easier to consume information. We listen to podcasts, read social media, and now have established media publications developing their own apps for readers on-the-go, but none of these are adequate substitutes for books. You’d think this would be obvious, but when it comes to the consumption of books in America, you’d be surprised: 24% of adults claim that they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year.

That statistic should trouble you. While consuming information through faster and quicker channels is easier, it’s important that we don’t side-step our commitment to deep learning. In order for us to use creative thinking as a way to tackle complex problems, we must have sufficient knowledge on the rules before we are able to break them. Although alternative forms of information sources have their place (and rightfully so), books are still the best tool to learn intimately about a narrow subject.

Read broadly across genres.

Although I’m not a fiction writer, reading fiction is an absolute must. Good literature teaches us how to become descriptive storytellers, how to work through nuances in multifaceted topics, and how to use the universality of human emotion as a way to connect readers with all different backgrounds. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.”

Spend time in nature.

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. I can attest to that. Every night, when I take my dog for a long walk, a sense of calm washes over me. As soon as I select my playlist and put on my headphones, life just slows down. I’m able to breathe. I’m able to reflect. I’m able to think. Seneca also agreed: “We should take wandering outdoor walks, so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by open air and deep breathing.”

Engage in meaningful discussions with people who are much smarter than you.

Ideas are like babies. You need to help them grow. It’s not easy — you need to feed them, help them sleep, and, in general, advocate for their well-being. It’s naive to think that you always know best and can’t invite input from others. I‘m incredibly fortunate that I have a core group of friends — about two or three — who are much smarter than me that I can bounce around ideas with. The deeper the discussion, the more that I leave the conversation with a wealth of ideas that replenish my creative spirit.

Establish artificial constraints.

For any creative, just starting is the hardest part of the entire process. One well-known example is a writer staring into the void of a blank page. Tormented by the endless possibilities, she encounters immense difficulty when committing pen to paper. After all, the first word sets the stage for the sentence, the sentence sets the stage for the paragraph, and the paragraph sets the stage for the entire piece.This can, however, be circumvented, or at least minimized, by using constraints. Constraints give us a starting point. However, when the writer is assigned a topic, or perhaps a limited word count, the task becomes easier: You’re given rules. And these rules can be used as building blocks. This is no different than being assigned a project with a tight budget, a work task with an urgent deadline, or a group assignment that involves mediating conflicting opinions of multiple colleagues. Constraints not only demand creative thinking, but it helps foster critical thinking, self-motivation, and resourcefulness.

Set aside sufficient time for rest.

In Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book, he talks in great length about how respite is a crucial element of creativity. He mentions how Stephen King, Angela Davis, and other seminal figures, don’t actually work as many hours as we think. Why? Because they believe in deep work for a set amount of hours, followed by a period of deliberate rest. Pang, however, stresses that rest does not equate to sitting in front of the TV for 5 hours every night, but rather participating in restorative activities. This includes going for challenging hikes, walking for a few hours, or napping between periods of intensive work. As Pang describes: “Rest is not this optional leftover activity. Work and rest are actually partners. They are like different parts of a wave. You can’t have the high without the low. The better you are at resting, the better you will be at working.”

“The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic ‘right-brain’ thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.” — Daniel Pink

Adam Grant has talked about this extensively in Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Creative innovators aren’t necessarily crazy, risk-takers. In fact, most of them, such as the founders of Warby Parker, approach their creative endeavours in a calculated and strategic way. A useful example is Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream,” speech: This was a culmination of previous variations of speeches that bore a similar theme. He also was editing his speech as he walked up to the podium. Creativity isn’t something that you either have or you don’t. Creative thinking is like a muscle — and it grows stronger the more often you use it.

I think George Nelson said it best when he wrote: “You don’t think your way to creative work. You work your way to creative thinking.” While we may not all aspire to become the next generation of sculptors or painters, it is undeniable that our existing work can truly benefit from creative thinking. The world is full of problems for us to solve. And only through constantly challenging conventional wisdom can we hope to slowly solve them one by one.