Tap into your creativity

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life


Tap into your creativity

The project

These days, it’s not just ‘creative’ jobs where creativity is essential. Being the office ‘ideas person’ could bring financial reward and satisfaction, or a separate creative outlet may make the day job bearable. Either way, telling yourself to ‘have a good idea!’ just won’t work. We need to sneak up on creativity instead.

The aim

We think of creativity as magical – only a few are born with it. But that’s a myth. In truth, creativity is a set of learnable skills, but perhaps not the ones you’d expect. Good ideas don’t come from focusing relentlessly on a problem or from trying to be original. Instead, they come from knowing when not to focus – and being an ideas magpie, plundering others’ insights.

The theory

Every ‘new’ idea, says creativity expert Scott Berkun, is really a combination of older ones. The telephone is sound plus electricity; a car is an engine plus wheels. That’s not a licence to steal directly, but it is a huge relief – no need to worry about being utterly original. Instead of waiting for inspiration, try to expose yourself to good ideas, through reading, travel or coffee with interesting colleagues. Avoid group brainstorming sessions if you can: research shows they inhibit creative thinking, especially among introverts. You’re better off generating ideas in solitude, then sharing them. It’s when you avoid high-pressure situations to come up with great ideas that great ideas arise.

Try it out

  • Take a shower, nap, or walk the dog. Getting distance on a problem triggers insight and relaxing your focus removes mental blinders. In one study, people even solved creative-thinking problems more quickly when lying down.
  • Carry a notebook everywhere. You don’t want to lose a great idea because it arrives as you’re taking the kids to school. Jot down a word or two in a notebook or on cards as a prompt for later.
  • Make it a numbers game. Instead of hoping to dream up one brilliant idea, challenge yourself to come up with 10 ideas a day, no matter how absurd, to strengthen the ‘creativity muscle’ and silence any negative inner voices.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)