[018] Your creative kickstart for 2019: Wednesday – Creative juices!

Wednesday

CREATIVE JUICES

OBJECTIVE FOR TODAY

The objective for this session is to think about what ideas actually are, and how they are made, so that you can use this understanding to have even more, even better ones and
skyrocket your performance by thinking more creatively.

OVERVIEW

First, you will spend about 5-10 minutes reading today’s Crucial Core (below) which focuses on what ideas are, why they are important, and how they are created. You will then go on to learn some top tips, all supported by scientific research and evidence, that you can action straightaway to improve your own creativity.

If you’d like to do any further reading, I have provided you with the Bumper Bonus Bits at the end of this section. Reading these is optional, but if you’d like to have a look at your leisure you’re free to do so, either before you begin today’s Idea Time activity, or at a later stage.

This week’s Idea Time activity is a reflective exercise to get you started and should take between 10-15 minutes.

Think about when you have had some of your best ideas. The chances are that they came to you while you were doing something unrelated, and especially when you were more relaxed.

TOP TAKEAWAYS

1. Creativity is a skill that can be learned and developed.

2. By proactively focusing on the quality and diversity of the stimuli you experience, you will significantly improve your creative output.

3. Creativity tools and techniques will help you to have ideas, although it’s important to appreciate that the tools themselves don’t give you the creative ideas, their role is to switch on the behaviours that do.

CRUCIAL CORE

What is an idea, and what happens when we have one?

An idea is when different thoughts connect for the very first time. As Steve Jobs famously
said, creativity is just about connecting things.

Good ideas are literally the results of everything in your head.

What actually happens in that ‘lightbulb’ moment when you have an idea? Scientists have
studied this process using neuroimaging and electrophysiological techniques.

The creative spot for our flashes of insight happen in a brain lobe called the superior
temporal gyrus. Our left brain has short dendroids that are great at pulling in easily
accessible information from nearby, but the dendroids in the right brain reach out much
more widely and can connect more disparate and more creative thoughts and concepts
to combine them in a new way, giving birth to ideas that are pulled back into the superior
temporal gyrus.

The frontal lobes of the brain come into play as well. Think about when you have had
some of your best ideas. The chances are that they came to you while you were doing
something unrelated, and especially when you were more relaxed, doing a repetitive task,
or when your mind was wandering. This is because, when we are focused, or actively
engaged in working in more deliberate mode, the frontal lobes act as a sort of gatekeeper
to prevent apparently non-related information or thoughts interrupting our process. But
when our minds wander, or we relax, our frontal lobes take the opportunity to go on
standby, which means that ideas can flow more freely and new thought connections, or
ideas, can happen.

HAVE YOU HEARD OF BRAIN BLINK?

Researchers such as Kounios, a professor of Psychology, have discovered that literally milliseconds before these moments, just before you have your idea, your brain momentarily shuts down its visual area, in a sort of ‘brain blink’. In fact, all of us reduce visual stimulus when we need to have ideas, such as having to think on our feet to respond to a difficult question, which we do by looking down before we respond.

Shutting off visual stimulus allows us to focus on looking inwards just before the idea is created. But increasing visual stimulus at other times, for example by mindfully observing more of what is going on around us, increases creativity measured by the number, originality and usefulness of the ideas we have.

HAVING MORE GREAT IDEAS DOESN’T HAVE TO BE HARD WORK

As well as consciously observing your surroundings more, other simple things that you can do help yourself to generate more ideas are to use your emotional intelligence to keep your mood positive, and to get more sleep.

The reasons are that when we worry, we trigger more analytical and rational thinking, which gets in the way of us having fresh ideas. And when we sleep, our memories are processed and our brains subconsciously make connections between our thoughts and experiences from the day. Getting a healthy amount of restful sleep, especially REM, promotes creativity.

Those moments when we are just about to drift off to sleep, and when we are waking up in the morning, are golden opportunities for ideas and solutions to problems because our brains are in the zone of making connections between any unresolved or disjointed thoughts and information from our day.

AVOID THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE

Our challenge is that, like other aspects of how we are made, our brains are inclined to take the path of least resistance, and do what comes easiest and most naturally to us. So we literally can get into a rut with regard to how we think.

To be purposefully creative, it helps us to go out of our way sometimes to deliberately disrupt how we normally approach things, to challenge our brains to take on new information and work from different perspectives. This can feel uncomfortable and clunky at times when we start to do this, but that’s good news because it means that we are waking up different parts of our minds! And as with any exercise, the more we disrupt our thinking, the better and more fluid our thought processes will become, and ideas will begin to flow more naturally, in the same way that when you start to lift weights in the gym at first it feels challenging and heavy, and your muscles become sore soon after your sessions. But by lifting the weights regularly, your muscles strengthen and the same weight feels less challenging over time, at which point you can increase the weight so that you continually feel challenged and grow in strength.

CREATIVITY HACKS

Some really easy and surprisingly highly effective creativity hacks include:

  1. Focus on getting the right amount – i.e. 7-8 hours – of good quality, restful sleep.
  2. Disrupting or challenging your routines from time to time. For example, taking a different route to work, working from a different location, reading and watching fresh content that we might not usually consider.
  3. Relaxing your frontal lobes for a while 🙂 and making sure you build in some quality downtime every single week, regardless of how busy you are. In fact, studies show that leisure time spent on active hobbies, or those involving some skill or ‘mastery’, improves in work creative performance as measured by the quality, volume and originality of the work-related solutions that people contribute.
  4. Incorporating short breaks throughout the working day to allow your frontal lobes to go on stand-by for a short while. This only needs to be for a few minutes 5-6 times throughout the day, ideally every 50-60 minutes.
  5. Actively seeking out new and challenging experiences, from attending a key conference inside or outside your line of work, studying something new, such as music, a craft, a new language, dance classes, to traveling for new experiences.
  6. Mindfulness meditation slows down our brain activity, helps us to balance our cognitive functions and notice more of the details around us. It can help in different ways at different stages of the creative process:
  • By meditating before you go into idea generation, you can promote divergent thinking, a mode of thinking that opens up your mind to new possibilities and ideas.
  • When you want to reflect on, or further develop, your ideas, walking meditation can be a great way of working them through without any conscious effort or attention to your problem or opportunity.
  • More generally, practising regular meditation can help us to become more likely to notice those moments of creative inspiration when we have them. It quietens the mind, which means that that we have clearer visibility of our insights as they come up.

IDEA TIME

You can also use creative thinking techniques to get your brain working more creatively. Writing instead of typing is great because it stimulates our mind in a different way. Adding in shapes, colour, doodles and images, drawing and creating connections also help. You can think more creatively without not much effort simply by going old school with a pad and pens for a while!

Your Idea Time session today is get everything in your head in relation to your aspirations (from your SOAR activity yesterday) out onto paper, with pens and paper, and possibly sticky notes, depending on which activity you choose.

Using your head as an office isn’t helpful because it clogs up your thinking capacity. Getting things down on paper lets your brain know that your thoughts are in a safe place, so that further thoughts, ideas and solutions – i.e. creativity! – can follow, instead of having the same thoughts going round and round in your mind, and getting in the way.

To help you do this, I’ve given you two creative options to choose from:

  1. Mind mapping
  2. Sticky note brain dump

Pick the method that appeals to you the most. They each achieve the same goal, but in different ways. Here’s how to do each one. If you’re familiar with each technique, you can skip this explanation and just crack on.

Using your head as an office isn’t helpful because it clogs up your thinking capacity.

OPTION 1 – MIND MAPPING

The term mind mapping was devised by Tony Buzan for the representation of ideas,
notes, information and so on in radial tree diagrams, sometimes also called spider
diagrams.

Either watch the short video that shows you the process, or you can follow these steps.

  • Write the title for your mind map in the middle of the page – “my aspirations for 2019”.
  • Then write down immediately everything that comes to mind as you think of it around your title, connecting it to the centre with a branch, and linking similar or connected items together with sub-branches.
  • Continue in this way for ever finer sub-branches, going into as much detail as you can to really empty your head and get into the nitty gritty.
  • If you find that you want to put an item in more than one place, you could just copy it into each place or simply draw a line to show the connections.
  • Use colour, doodles and to have fun with your mind map. This stimulates more right brain, creative thinking.
  • When you have completed your mind map, write a sentence or two that summarizes what you notice about the items that you have come up with.

You can use mind mapping for groups as well as individually.

OPTION 2 – STICKY NOTE BRAIN DUMP

This activity is super simple and effective. You will need plenty of sticky notes and pens.
Either watch the video that shows you the process, or you can follow these steps. The
activity has a few key stages. I will explain each as we go along.

  • Focus on the challenge of achieving your aspirations for 2019.
  • Take a pile of post-it notes and a pen, and get as many items down on the post-it notes as you can, writing only one item on each post-it note so that you have a pile of written notes in front of you (as many as you can!).
  • If at this stage you think you have finished, it probably is just a mental pause. The best thing for you to do is to look out of the window or move around briefly (but not look at your phone, laptop or disturb other people!) because you are likely to have a second burst of thinking. This is really important because it means you will get more thoughts down than just the obvious front-of-mind ones that come out early on.
  • Allow 5-10 minutes for this step.
  • When you have got a pile of sticky notes and genuinely have run out of steam, “cluster” your notes into similar themes on a large sheet of paper, a bit like playing the card game “Snap”. Things that don’t go with anything else can be included as a cluster of one item.
  • Put a ring around each cluster and give it a name that summarizes the content.
  • Write a sentence or two that summarizes what you notice about the items that you have come up with.

You can use this technique as a group as well as individually, getting everyone to work alone and then combining them into similar themes at the end. This is a really good technique for…

  • …getting input from everyone. The noisy ones have much less opportunity to
  • dominate!
  • …getting all the thoughts that people have out of their heads and onto paper.
  • …getting you started. It’s a very accessible technique that is easy to run.
  • …getting people talking and engaged.

BUMPER BONUS BITS

SLEEP IN ACTION

It is reported that Larry Page had the idea for Google aged 22, in the middle of the night, when he had the vision of being able to download the whole web and just keep the links. A great example of how sleep and relaxing the frontal lobe helps us to come up with ideas!

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LOSING YOUR INHIBITIONS

Did you know that losing your inhibitions really can help you to think more creatively? Specifically, I mean losing some of your cognitive inhibitions, rather than behavioral ones.

Inhibitions are those conscious or unconscious restraints, or filters, in our thinking that prevent is from taking action.

Behavioral inhibitions are useful because they prevent us doing socially inappropriate things.

Cognitive inhibitions are useful because they stop us from overprotecting all the masses of information that our senses are continually absorbing: light levels;. This includes many kinds of noise; full details of what we see; our background thoughts and so on. We are literally absorbing hundreds and hundreds of items of external and internal data at any moment. Cognitive inhibition means that that we are able to filter all of the background stuff out so that we can instead focus on what matters to us to survive or to perform.

To be creative, we need both freedom and constraint in our thinking.

Whilst cognitive inhibition is really helpful for us most of the time, some of the information that we are naturally filtering out can be quite useful from a creativity perspective. We can learn to consciously turn our cognitive filters down to access more information for greater insight. How we do this is by changing the electrical frequency of our brain activity. Normally at work, when we are ‘switched on’ and engaged in active thinking, our brains are
using high frequency, low amplitude beta waves. To access a more relaxed and open mental state, we need to slow down the frequency and increase the amplitude of the electrical activity in our brains. These slower frequencies and wide amplitudes are alpha waves (when we are engaged in relaxed, reflective thinking) and theta waves (a more drowsy state than alpha waves).

Research by the late Colin Martindale and his team shows that highly creative people access low frequency states more readily. The good news is that this is something that we can all practise and get better at. Here are a couple of evidence-based, research-supported ways of losing some of your cognitive inhibitions and engaging in lower frequency brain states.

MEDITATION AND WALKING MEDITATION

If you’d like to learn more about meditation and walking meditation, here are some really great resources:
Turning the Mind into an Ally, by Sakyong Mipham.
The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh.
How to Meditate, by Pema Chodron.
Meditation for Beginners, by Jack Kornfield.
How to Walk, by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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