I make a living by being creative.
Every single day, I have to come up with something new–as a writer, that means looking for new angles to the same general themes and stories, and as an entrepreneur that means finding creative solutions to difficult problems.
I don’t have the luxury of sitting around “waiting for inspiration.”
Either I find it, or I don’t eat.
Over the years, I have come up with a number of ways to keep my creative muscle active, flexible, and strong. And I’ve learned that whenever I stop doing any of these things, my creativity suffers.
Every creative individual struggles with the same. So, here are 7 ways to keep that muscle working–and keep yourself from getting lazy.
1. Build your schedule around “input” activities.
The vast majority of people (especially those with audacious goals) build their entire lives around “output.”
They wake up ready to tackle their To Do list. At 10 a.m., they have a call (output). At noon, a lunch meeting (output). At 3 p.m., a blocked-off work session (output). The entire day is built to do, with “input” activities becoming something of an afterthought.
Flip it. And instead, build your day around the pockets of time when you read, listen, and reflect. By the time you get to the “doing,” you’ll be overflowing with ideas.
2. Take a different route to work as often as possible.
Routine is efficient. But routine also turns an activity from a conscious act to an unconscious one.
Habits are good, but one habit that gets wasted is travel. Why is traveling to another country so amazing? Because it’s new. It forces you to take in your surroundings. And this act of paying attention sparks your creativity.
You can easily replicate this process by breaking small everyday habits (that can be broken without a large consequence). Change up the routes you take to work, or the coffee shop down the street. As you navigate your way, this will force you to look around–and looking is good for the soul.
3. Anywhere you are, look at an object and see what it reminds you of.
Let’s say you’re sitting at a coffee shop.
Look around–see that parking meter outside? What does it remind you of? What’s the story behind that parking meter? How many quarters has it swallowed? Who was the last person to park there?
Every object has a story, and every story forces you to think in detail. The more detail you can imagine, the more you will find your creative juices starting to flow faster and faster.
Unfortunately, most people fear exercises like this as they get older. “What a childish thing, to make up a story about a parking meter.”
4. Write down 20 ideas you would want to create in your lifetime.
Amazing things happen when you let the mind roam.
If you had all the time, all the money, and all the resources in the world, what would you create? In your journal, start listing anything that comes to mind: television shows, apps, companies, books, paintings, clothing, shoes, furniture–the sky is the limit.
Most people don’t let themselves think this way, because they believe they’ll never have the resources so, “Why bother?”
In that case, I agree. You certainly won’t with that attitude.
5. Read what is most relevant to what you’re working on right now.
When I was studying creative writing in college, one teacher in particular had a unique response to my Writer’s Block aches and pains.
I told her I was struggling with the writing, and instead of asking me more about the “doing,” she said, “Who are you reading?”
Reading, in itself, is a valuable exercise. But reading turns immensely valuable when it’s relevant to your pursuits. Reading is what shows you what has already been done–and what is still left to do. It gives you ideas to chew on. But most importantly, it serves as a reminder that you’re not alone in the creative process.
Whoever you’re reading had to go through it too.
6. Sit in silence and watch people go by.
I can’t stress this enough: the best thing you can do for your creativity is to “not do.”
In our busy society it has become extremely difficult for people to sit still. If we’re waiting, we’re on our phones (output). Even if we’re talking to someone, we’re often craving the next action, notification, or compulsive reminder.
But sitting still is what allows you to notice the world–and noticing is where all creativity comes from.
If you can sit and just observe the world for 15 minutes without checking your phone once, you will notice a massive shift in the way you feel. And more importantly, what you feel compelled to create.
7. Play “the whiteboard game.”
This is a creative exercise I made up with close friend and Inc columnist, Matthew Jones.
A whiteboard is unique because you can’t keep what you draw or write. The intention is to create, and then erase–which is very opposite than our “save everything in the Cloud” society we live in today.
The whiteboard game is simple. Approach it first by making some sort of squiggle, line, or shape, anywhere on the board. If playing with another person, let them draw the next object, alternating back and forth.
Eventually, your objects will begin to create a larger shape or picture–which inherently comes with a story. And if you keep at it long enough, you’ll start to realize that all creative ideas start with a squiggle, an accidental mark, and are only created through exploration and refinement.
Nobody knows the end before beginning.