Creative thinking is immensely valuable, whether you’re using it to solve problems, create new ideas, or to navigate different aspects of your life. The problem is that the best creative thinking is often limited by our performance anxieties.
These kinds of questions are often what hold us back from unleashing our full creative potential. The good news is, we can not only answer them, we can also free ourselves from even asking these questions in the first place.
So how do we increase our creativity?
The limiting questions you may ask above are caused by your inner critic.
Step 1 is to develop an inner coach rather than an inner critic.
Step 2 is to learn and apply creative thinking strategies, such as:
Step 3 is to develop an environment and awareness for when and where you do your best creative thinking.
If you’re ready to unleash your best ideas and become a better creative thinker, let’s dive into the three steps above!
Step 1: Creating an Inner Coach
Let’s be honest. None of the creative thinking strategies we’ll outline in this article will matter if you’re continually focused on tearing yourself down. Preparing your mind for productive criticism is key to thinking creatively. Creating anything requires a lot of courage, and we’re often our own greatest enemies. So how do we become kinder to ourselves?
Counter to what you may think, it’s not just about stopping your criticism. Criticism can make us stronger, especially when it helps us become more aware and identify better ideas.
Building your inner coach starts with asking ourselves “Why?” instead of immediately looking for all the ways we didn’t measure up.
Asking “Why?” is a practice we all used to be pretty good at. Children ask questions constantly because they have no “true” conception of how the world works. That means that they see things how they are and understand why they are, instead of considering things as failures or successes. Our adult brains, however, grow out of that thanks to a culture that prioritizes doing everything perfectly 100% of the time.
Here’s a reimagining of an old internet comic that helps put this into perspective:
By encouraging our inner child to understand why we make decisions (often based on time, cost, our current skill level, and other limitations) and combining that with our inner critic’s tendency to observe “flaws”, we create an inner coach. The coach validates the work we already put in while also pushing us to be better. And once we’ve created a coach, we’re ready to dive into the hard work of actually creating.
Step 2: Inspiring Creativity by Identifying Creative Thinking Strategies
There’s this idea that some people are just good at coming up with ideas and some people aren’t. This is also bolstered by the idea that creativity and logical thinking are neatly separated into two hemispheres of our brain. Hence, people who are sensible and analytical are left-brained. People who are intuitive and imaginative are right-brained. Many people falsely believe that you can be one or the other, but not both.
And sadly, this false belief limits creativity the most.
Everyone is capable of creative thinking. It’s a skill that requires practice just like everything else. Some people are just given more opportunities to use creativity, and therefore seem innately better at it due to their ability to practice and apply it more. But you can be good at creative thinking too, if you commit to allowing yourself the time to explore it.
Let’s dive into how you can make creativity a regular practice.
You learn things every day, and not just through books or articles or media. Your life experiences create mental models, and it’s important to become aware of what they are. Most of us have developed Mental Models, or ways of thinking, automatically and without intention. This can harm our creative thinking if we have mental models that dismiss creativity and default to one way of thinking only.
By journaling or through active self-reflection, you force yourself to become more aware of what’s happening and better analyze things after they happen. This helps you recall events, consider them with a different perspective, and be able to refer to them again in the future when you’re confronted with different situations.
Memory Reinforcement allows you to pay more attention to how you act, how you make decisions, and how you use (or do not use) creativity in your daily life.
How to use this creative thinking strategy: Make a habit of reflecting every evening on the events of your day. Journal and ask yourself:
This simple activity will increase your awareness of your creative thinking levels and fuel you the next day. At the end of each week, read through your journal entries and identify any trends, improvements, or patterns. Before the start of the new week, identify one simple thing you might change. For example, keeping post-its or markers near you at all times may facilitate more creative thinking than just a computer.
The inverse of reinforcing your own memories is trying to understand other people’s perspectives. No two people think exactly alike, and understanding where other people are coming from is one of the hardest things we do as social creatures. When you read a biography or have a discussion with someone unlike you, for instance, you’re trying to see through their eyes. Sometimes you gain little, but other times their mindset can revolutionize how you see the world.
How to use this creative thinking strategy: Next time you’re discussing a topic or idea with someone and you find yourself disagreeing, seek understanding and lean into encountering a different mindset. While most people default to expressing their own thinking first, change your habit by understanding their mindset first.
Ask them questions like:
Just as practicing diverse thinking helps us, doing things that other people do helps us too. This is the root idea behind learning about mental models from different disciplines. By understanding how someone else might approach a task, we open our mind to new solutions and ways of thinking. When we see the various ways to achieve a task, we can often bring those methods into our daily lives in different ways. We expose ourselves to different journeys, ways of getting from A to B, which inform our creativity.
How to use this creative thinking strategy: Next time you’re doing a task, think about other potential ways you could complete the same task. You might surprise yourself by how many alternatives you may think of that previously were unobvious to you.
Visualization helps with a number of things. Just by imagining outcomes, you’re practicing creative thinking. It also creates mental models for situations that are yet to come and allows you to prepare for them. If this visualization is for situations you’d like to occur, you may even be attracting opportunities to you; when you imagine what you want, it makes it easier for you to act in ways that match up to your mental picture. A byproduct of visualization is also that it builds your internal motivation. It’s easy to get excited about something when you know what it can look like! That helps put your creative thinking into motion.
How to use this creative thinking strategy: Sit somewhere comfortable and close your eyes. Think about a situation that you want to apply creative thought to. Imagine yourself within that situation. Visualize the environment.
Allow yourself to look around and ask yourself, what might I need to address this situation? What might help me? You might think of something that you wouldn’t have come up with if you had just been trying to apply your default mental models to address the situation.
Also, by simply making the time to think through a situation using the visualization technique, you’ll open your mind to a different way of thinking. One that involves imagination, where you’re literally creating an environment for yourself.
Many of us are so busy, we don’t even have time to let our minds wander anymore. Time that we used to spend imagining things in the shower is instead focused on our task lists and project lists for the day. Our commute is occupied by music, the news, or podcasts. When we go to sleep, we’re too tired to drift off and imagine scenarios. And then we start all over again the next day. This is why it’s critical to set aside a time of your day to just let yourself think.
And letting yourself think doesn’t necessarily mean putting your feet up on your desk and sitting still! For most people, this is actually super distracting. Oftentimes what helps us think is doing something low effort, like going for a walk or free-writing.
How to use this creative thinking strategy: Commit to at least 30 minutes of intentional thinking time every day. Maybe it’s when you’re walking your dog or taking a break in the middle of your day. Leave your technology if you can, and simply allow yourself to choose a topic you want to think about.
Once you have your topic, start with a question. Ask yourself another question that might help answer the first one. Let your mind question the topic, surface connections you might already have, etc. Simply allowing your brain to take time to think and wander, without staring at a screen or focused on tactical tasks, will help you create space for your creative thinking.
One of the best ways to keep a habit (creative thinking, in our case) is to reward it. And the most powerful reward for creativity is seeing your ideas come to fruition. Begin experimenting with your ideas, just to get your creativity moving. The end result isn’t as critical as the process of putting your thinking into action.
How to use this creative thinking strategy: Think of one idea that you’ve come up with recently. Ask yourself, how might I experience this idea? How might I put it into practice? It might be as simple as tweeting about it, or discussing it with a friend. Either way, you’re putting your idea out into the world and regardless of the outcome, reinforcing the value of creative thought by bringing it to life in an actionable way.
We’re deeply social creatures, so one of the most meaningful things we can do is to create a circle of people that we care about and vice versa. Surround yourself with people who are passionate about the things you create. When it goes differently from how you expected, they’ll be there to uplift you and offer suggestions. When it goes right, they can celebrate your victories. And make sure it’s a two way street! Being passionate about the things they create will inspire you, and just generally make both of you happier people.
In addition to surrounding yourself with creative people, you can also identify environments or create environments for yourself that feel creative for you. Funny enough, when you *create* your own creative environment, you are practicing creative thinking! Something as simple as creating a fun nook or corner within a room can help you put your creating thinking into practice.
How to use this creative thinking strategy: Identify communities online or in-person that you associate with creativity. Whether it be a group of writers, or founders, or musicians, everyone is creating something or another. Find a group that feels fueling for you, and start interacting with people within it. Not only is creativity contagious, but it can be supportive too. People love giving each other feedback, and talking about their own creations too. Commit to spending some part of your day within creative environments, whether they be influenced by people or other aspects such as art, furniture, nature, etc.
And when might we do our best creative thinking?
If you’re the kind of person who’s up-and-at-’em early in the morning, your best ideas will come to you later in the evening. And if you’re a night owl, try setting aside time in the morning to let your mind wander. This works because our tired mind is not that great at focusing, i.e., it’s a perfect time for your mind to make connections you don’t usually see. While this is a terrible time to get actual work done, it’s a perfect time to incubate ideas that you’ll act on when you’re ready.
You may think that silence would help you think creatively, but it’s actually mid-level noise that helps us wander the best. Similar to our point about time, ambient noise is just a little bit distracting, which is perfect for allowing ideas to bleed into one another. It’s why writers love cafes- there’s just enough noise to have your best thoughts.
Remember the last time you had a great idea under bright fluorescents? No? Us neither. Lighting actually also ties into the best creative time, because most of us are either tired around dawn or dusk.
You might think that creativity requires a boundless imagination and the ability to do anything, but the truth is that we actually create much better when we have guidelines. It’s classic decision paralysis. We do better when faced with limitations than we do with a supermarket aisle of endless choices or a blank sheet of paper.
You’ve learned a lot about creativity and different strategies that you can apply to evolve your creative thinking! You now know how important it is to cultivate an inner coach, courtesy of your inner child and inner critic. You have a number of strategies to help make creative thinking a matter of habit instead of an occasional tool. And you know when and where you might do your best creative thinking. These are the tools you’ll need to unlock your creativity. If you’re ready to come up with many ideas and upgrade how you think, go forth and try some of these strategies and find ones that work best for you!