How to boost your creativity

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

A friend of mine shared with me two talks on different processes leading to creativity. A 2016 TEDx talk by futurist Stephan Schwartz and a 2019 TED talk by author Tim Harford. While Stephan Schwartz presents a process divided into six steps to induce creativity, Tim Harford shows a different method, much more diverse in approach. Comparing both processes, they seem conflicting; however, when analysing more closely, they complement each other.

Schwartz argues that by looking at the diaries of other creative genii from the past, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso, Einstein, Pauli, Planck, etc., to understand how they managed to produce so much stuff, we can distil it to a six-step process:

  1. Master your craft. After you master your art, you can honestly evaluate what you’re doing and correct the course.
  2. Have a deep conviction that there’s a solution to what you’re working on.
  3. Surrender your preconceptions and biases. Even scientists value peer status more than facts, don’t do this.
  4. Look inside yourself, or inward-looking-ness, as Stephan Schwartz puts it.
  5. Non-local consciousness. Intention, focus and awareness lead to the eureka moment.
  6. Have the ability to translate insights and replicate them to share with others.

The fifth item mentions focus; what does it mean? Does it mean sitting down and working on only one task at a time? Or does it mean focusing in a more general way, attacking one problem at a time until you solve it, which can take years? When we look at the second step, we’re induced to solve one problem: the focus mentioned in the fifth step. Nonetheless, let’s take a look at a different approach on how to work with multiple projects.

Tim Harford argues that top scientists work on many problems simultaneously, in what he calls slow-motion multitasking, “the act of starting multiple projects and switching between them as needed.” Looking at top scientists and their first 100 published papers, they switched topics 43 times on average.

Why does context switching help? Tim mentions three reasons:

  1. Creativity happens when you take an idea and move it to a different context. As he puts it, when you’re constantly switching boxes, it’s easier to think outside the box.
  2. Learning to do something well can often help you do something else.
  3. When you get stuck on one problem, you can use it as an opportunity to work on something else.

It doesn’t sound easy to manage many projects simultaneously, but with the proper process, it’s possible. Niklas Luhmann did exactly that with his zettelkasten. Although Luhmann had one big project, that project could be split into many small projects (e.g., his myriad of books and articles). In his own words, “I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it; if I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.” If it’s not straightforward, he finds something else to do until the first task becomes easy. American choreographer Twyla Tharp gives each of her projects a big cardboard box. She tosses into each box anything that can be a source of inspiration for that project. According to her:

“The box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn’t write it down and put it in a safe place. I don’t worry about that. Because I know where to find it. It’s all in the box.”

Back to the focus step mentioned in the first video. What do I understand by that? When you sit down to work, focus on work. Do not get distracted by random browsing, social media, memes or cat videos. But do not be tied to only one problem if that means halting progress when stuck. Think about other issues, jump between boxes, you may find unexpected connections.

Creativity is more about the journey than inspiration. By finding the process that works for you, you can foster your inventiveness and bring your ideas to life. And by looking at proven methods of great minds, you have a starting point for your own.

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