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Automatic Creativity: How to Make Creative Thinking Into a Habit

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Read Time: 9 min

In the 21st century, ideas are valuable. That's because we live in an information economy.

creative thinkingcreative thinkingcreative thinking
Want to generate better ideas? Read on. Image source: Envato Elements

A century ago, value was created through manufacturing. You took raw materials and used them to create a product. You then sold the product for more than you paid for the raw materials. By turning raw materials into a product, you created value and thus you made money.

In the information economy, value isn't created by shaping raw materials into products. It's created through ideas. As such, the better you are at coming up with effective ideas, the more value you create.

In an information economy, it makes sense that many of us work in roles that require us to be creative every day. It's our job to come up with new ideas.

The problem? Creativity is a fickle beast. That's why the imagination is often called the muse. The muse is coy and catlike. She comes and leaves as she will. It can feel like there's no way of calling on the muse on demand.

Or is there?

Throughout history, the most prolific creators haven't sat around waiting for the muse to grace their presence. Instead, they've established a habit of creative thinking. Through this habit, they cultivate an environment where the muse feels comfortable. Thus, they have access to creativity on demand.

Creating a System

Back in the early 20th century, Henry Ford discovered that he could manufacture cars more quickly, and at lower cost, by establishing a production line. The production line was his system for car manufacture.

Systems may seem like the opposite of creativity, and that seems like a fair charge. After all, a system:

  • Is a set of things working together as part of a mechanism.
  • Has clear procedures by which things are done.
  • Follows a routine.
  • Has inputs and outputs.
  • Is repeatable.

Even thinking in these dry terms is enough to turn off anyone's creativity!

That said, you can set up a system to turn creativity into a habit. Using this system, you'll integrate creative thinking into your daily life.

In this tutorial, we'll show you the steps you can follow to make that happen.

Before we dig in, note a couple of things:

  • This tutorial is a jumping off point, not a definitive guide to creativity. Everyone's situation and personality is unique, so what works for one person will be different to what works for another. Don't be afraid to get creative as you set up your own system that makes creativity into a habit.
  • Throughout the tutorial, notice that although systems can appear dry and boring, they actually create an environment that's conducive to creativity.

Let's find out how to put your creativity into auto-magic mode!

Step 1: Work to a Routine or Ritual

The novelist Somerset Maugham famously quipped:

I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp.

In other words, just by working to a set schedule, and getting on with his work at that time, Maugham found that creative inspiration came his way every day.

The psychologist William James claimed that following a strict routine makes what we do each day into a habit. Once we've established this habit, many of our actions are automatic, so we "free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action".

Many of history's famous writers and philosophers have followed a set routine:

  • The novelist Anthony Trollope woke up in darkness every day, and wrote from 5.30am until 8.30am. If he finished one novel during this time, he took a fresh piece of paper, and started the next.
  • Simone de Beauvoir started her day with a cup of tea. She began writing at 10am, and stopped at 1pm for lunch. She then worked from 5pm until 9pm in the evening.
  • Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, took a walk every afternoon at 3.30pm. He was so punctual in his walking habit that his neighbors could set their clocks by checking when he passed their window.

If your life circumstances leave you unable to work to a routine, then consider using a ritual instead.

Rituals are a set of actions you follow before you sit down to be creative. Following the same ritual everyday sends a signal to your brain that it's time to get creative.

For example, bestselling author Stephen King always has a glass of water or a cup of tea before he sits down to write. He then takes a vitamin pill, puts on some music, and sits in his writing chair. Finally, he arranges his writing papers.

Why does he do all this? In King's own words:

The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.

Blogger and copywriter James Chartrand follows a similar ritual, which she calls her "click-whirr" approach. She explains:

Our brains have built-in, automatic responses to fixed-action patterns activated by trigger features. That means if something triggers our pattern, we run through a sequence of behaviors as predictable as snow in the Arctic.

Here’s an example: Every day, I follow the same, fixed routine. I wake up. I grab a cup of coffee. I sit at the kitchen island and read my email. I wake up my daughter and get her ready for school – iCarly, cereal, clothes, prepare her lunch, brush her hair, walk her to the bus stop. I walk back, breathing deep, feeling grateful and thinking only about the writing task I’ve chosen to work on when I arrive home.

I refill my coffee, sit down and – “click!-whirr” – hit the keyboard.

As you can see from these examples, rituals don't have to be complicated. Rituals work best when they incorporate behaviors you'd probably be doing anyway. The point is to make sure you follow the same ritual each time you need to activate your creativity. The more reliably you follow the ritual, the better the results you'll get.

Step 2: Adopt the Mantra "Little and Often"

Creativity is like muscle. Use it regularly, and you'll make it stronger. That's according to Josh Linkner, author of Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity. Linkner explains his theory as follows:

We all have the capacity to build muscle mass if we exercise. If we fail to do so, our muscles atrophy. The same is true with creativity. By embracing and exercising our creativity muscles, we unleash a wellspring of insight.

What's the best way to grow muscle? A small amount of exercise once or twice a day is far better than a one-off intense exercise session once per week. The same is true of creativity. It's far better to do a little bit every day to grow your creative muscles than to push extra hard once a week, or less frequently.

Expressing your creativity daily—even in small ways—not only helps to grow your creative muscles. It has the added bonus of helping you to develop a habit of creative output.

Small actions every day are the best way of building a habit. Dr. B. J. Fogg, director of Stanford University's Behavior Design Lab, explains how this works:

If you pick something that's so small and so simple, like flossing one tooth, then it's really easy to do. And things that are easy to do don't require lots of motivation.

It's also worth pointing out that the second part of Fogg's method for creating new habits is ritual. In his own words:

Sequence the [new] habit after something that you already do habitually... so you're triggering the new behavior with a behavior that you already have"

See how this ties in with Step 1?

Step 3: Carry a Notepad Everywhere

No matter how much you try to tame your muse, you'll find that creative inspiration strikes when you least expect it. In fact, the more you invest in your creativity, through routine and ritual, the more ideas will strike you in usual times and places. So it's best to be prepared, whether you're out walking your dog, taking a shower, or commuting home from work.

How can you prepare yourself? Adopt the habit of carrying a notepad everywhere. With smartphones, this is super easy—just install a note-taking app such as Evernote. Alternatively, go old school and use pen and paper. You'll never be let down by a dead battery.

Having a notebook to hand means you can jot down your idea as soon as it arises. There are few things more frustrating than remembering you had a great idea, but not remembering what the idea was.

Carrying a notebook everywhere, you'll be in good company. Entrepreneurs and business leaders who are known to carry a notebook include Karl Heiselman, CEO of Wolff Olins.

Step 4: Don't be Afraid of Bad Ideas

Ideas beget ideas. The more ideas you write down, the more ideas you'll have.

Unfortunately, that means taking note of even your bad ideas, so they stop blocking up your brain. When you let go of bad ideas, you free your creative energy to focus on creating good ideas.

That's why you should embrace rather than ignore your bad ideas.

And there's a second reason to pay attention to bad ideas. Bad ideas can become good ideas, through a process of iteration.

Step 5: Have Nothing Space, Every Day

If I asked you what Warren Buffett spends his life doing, what would you guess:

  • Back to back meetings...
  • Traveling...
  • Playing golf...
  • Not a whole lot?

The truth is, Warren Buffett has an almost empty calendar. He's a man of many good ideas, because he allows the time and space for them to grow.

Creative ideas need space to emerge. If your work life is constant hustle and bustle, and you want to be more creative, then you need to take your foot off the gas pedal. By giving yourself space to relax, you'll allow creative ideas to bubble up inside you.

Yes, spending time doing nothing is scary. That's why we often fill our lives with tasks or noise, even when there's not a lot to do. But if you can sit with the discomfort for a short while, every day, you'll soon discover that your effort reaps dividends.

So, schedule yourself a date with nothing, and see what grows.

What Are Your Creative Habits?

You may use other systems for turning creativity into a habit. Let us know your creative tricks and tips on the Envato forum.


Graphic Credit: Thinking designed by Jens Tärning from the Noun Project.

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2014. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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