5 Surefire Ways to Boost Your Creativity

A creative person’s guide to genius-level success

Picture a spoon.

Now set a timer for two minutes and try to come up with as many different uses for it as you can. We’ll wait.

Have a lot—say, 10 or more? That’s good. Are your ideas original and conceptually distinct from one another? Even better. Did you respond, “There is no spoon”? You probably just watched The Matrix.

Point is, you’re a pro at “divergent thinking,” or opening your mind to new possibilities. Anyone can look at a spoon and see a vehicle for soup or ice cream. But the divergent thinker doesn’t stop there, seeking less obvious options, like an eye patch or a tool for digging out of prison. The sheer number of solutions increases the possibility that one of them will actually be good.

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If you do well on this test, you likely have high levels of creativity.

You’re smart, industrious and independent. You seek out new experiences and perspectives, and you don’t mind standing out in a crowd. You’re a nonlinear thinker who can free-associate with ease and aren't afraid to push boundaries.

Most of all, you’re multidimensional—much more so than this article has the capacity to describe. (But we’re going to try.)

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YOUR POWER: You come up with new ideas and solutions that others can’t see.

An entrepreneur, an engineer, a scientist and a poet walk into a bar. All are creative, but what else do they share?  

“Creative people come in many varieties,” says Oshin Vartanian, Ph.D., an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who studies behavior and brain function in creative people. But they do tend to have three things in common.

1. They’re at least kinda smart. Highly creative people typically meet a “minimum level of intelligence,” which according to the threshold hypothesis is an IQ of around 120. If you’re smarter than that, good for you, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more creative.

2. They’re motivated. “The amount of time they spend working on problems of interest is very, very high,” Vartanian says. More than that, they’re intrinsically driven—they pursue interests for personal satisfaction, not so much for money, power or recognition.

3. They’re flexible thinkers. When problem solving, they allow themselves to imagine different possibilities on parallel tracks, considering and contemplating many ideas as they gradually hone in on a solution.

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There is no single creativity center in the brain, says Vartanian, who uses fMRI to explore brain activity during creative thought. But two brain systems are predominantly involved—the default mode network (active when you’re internally focused), and the executive control network (related to planning and selection).

Early in problem-solving, the default mode network is more active—you’re allowing your mind to wander, searching your consciousness for relevant concepts. Later, the executive control system kicks in to cut back those ideas, narrowing down the field to pick the best solution.

So what’s better for creativity: focus or mind wandering? There is no “better.” The answer is both. The big theory in creativity right now is that there are two stages. “The first involves generation of ideas and the second involves selection of ideas,” says Vartanian. “So in the first stage you generate novelty and in the second you go about pruning down to the solution you think is most fruitful and then you work on that to completion.”

Problems that require a creative solution tend to be fuzzy at first. When the problem seems ambiguous or unclear, creative people are good at switching off the more structured-thinking parts of their brains so they can entertain new ideas and think fluidly.

In fact, in one of Vartanian’s studies, he discovered that areas in the frontal lobe linked to inhibition were involved during creative thought. These areas may regulate the extent to which we can think flexibly. Paradoxically, creativity might be the product of reduced brain control—which explains why (above a certain IQ) it operates independent of a person’s intelligence.

Creative types are comfortable in this uncertain space because they have a high “tolerance for ambiguity,” Vartanian says. They accept the problem as it is and don’t rush to solve it too early. They don’t get too attached to ideas either. If that final solution doesn’t pan out, they repeat the generation-selection cycle as many times as it takes. That’s why motivation is important. Forget quality over quantity—in this case, the two are linked. The more ideas you produce, the more likely you are to hit on a good one.

“People who are productive creatively tend to generate a lot of ideas over the course of their lives,” Vartanian says. “Not all of them are good, but a few of them end up being great.” It’s been said that Thomas Edison endured thousands of failed attempts before discovering the light bulb. Some estimates number Picasso’s works in the tens of thousands. Bach composed one work a week.

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Becoming a creative genius may be a matter of good old-fashioned hard work. Lynne Vincent, Ph.D., assistant professor of management at Syracuse University, believes that anyone can be creative. She compares creativity to basketball: Sure, you may be born with certain traits that give you an advantage, but it’s also a skill you can practice and improve at over time.

Sandra Russ, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, examines how “pretend play” in childhood affects the development of creativity. She has found that children who express imagination and emotion during pretend play also tend to be more creative in solving problems. Many of the brain functions involved with pretend play translate to creative thinking, she notes.

During play, a child sees one object as another (a pillow pile becomes a fort) and engages in divergent thinking (generating a variety of ideas). Play is also a safe space for expressing, processing and thinking about emotion (both positive and negative). All this fosters creativity.

It can work for adults, too. “You can seek out ways to be creative,” Vincent says. “Even something small, like trying something new on a menu, or reaching out to someone from a different department to meet up for lunch.” This exposes you to new information, which you can later apply to problem solving in unanticipated ways.

Novelty seeking is something creative types tend to do naturally—that may be one reason it has been linked to ADHD. When they’re not hyper-focused, people with ADHD are hard-wired to seek out new stimuli, allowing more information in and setting the stage for unexpected associations.

Psychiatrist Dale Archer, M.D., author of the ADHD Advantage, calls it “bingo brain,” a reference to balls in a bingo cage, deflecting off the sides and off each other.

“Multiple thoughts bounce around the individual’s brain,” Dr. Archer explains. “On the surface, they appear to have nothing to do with the problem at hand. But in reality, they’re all kind of linked. Then one of these ideas pops up, and it’s like an aha moment—like, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea in terms of solving a problem.’”

It’s not the first time creativity has been linked to mental conditions. Research has connected it to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and addiction.

Shelley Carson, Ph.D., a Harvard-trained expert in psychopathology, has a theory that while creative people may share vulnerable traits (like distractibility) with the mentally ill, they also have something else: Protective factors like intelligence, enhanced working memory and cognitive flexibility that help regulate those vulnerabilities, essentially turning them into strengths.

So if you let a lot of stimuli enter your consciousness, you’re more likely to be able to hold on to and process that information (and discover useful links) if you have a good working memory. Or if you have psychotic episodes, an ability to think flexibly may allow you to interpret those experiences in a healthier way.

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YOUR WEAKNESS: You can get hung up on distractions and may feel entitled (and act like a jerk).

The tradeoff for novelty seekers is that they may have a hard time disengaging from irrelevant information. “If you present them with information that’s irrelevant to the problem,” Vartanian says, “they are more likely to pay attention to it than a person who’s less creative.”

That can slow your progress—which is fine as long as you have all the time in the world. However: “Most of us who are creative professionals, who have to be creative for a living, work under some kind of constraints,” says Todd Henry, a creative leader and founder of the podcast Accidental Creative. “We need some boundaries to help us channel our creative energy.”

But wait—boundaries? Creative people hate those! Yes and no, Henry says. “While it’s true that creative people tend to push back against boundaries, they actually crave them,” he says. In fact, Henry has found that the most successful creative people—the ones who are not only brilliant and prolific but who pull it off in a healthy, sustainable way—all rely on structure.

“People will say, ‘I just want complete freedom,’” he says, “but that doesn’t work in the real world.”

Edward Hallowell, M.D., founder of The Hallowell Centers and New York Times best-selling author and authority on ADHD, agrees. “Structure is the friend of the creative person, not the enemy,” Dr. Hallowell says. “Just look at Shakespeare and Mozart. They wrote with great structure.”

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For Dr. Hallowell, the flip side of creativity is impulsivity. “What is creativity but impulsivity gone right?” he says. “You don’t plan to have a creative idea. You don’t say ‘It’s 10 in the morning. Time to have a great idea.’”

Creative ideas happen spontaneously, impulsively. “The price you pay is you’re somewhat of a loose cannon,” Dr. Hallowell says. By setting boundaries, you can rein yourself in.

So to review: The key to creative success is to break boundaries and impose them. Weird? Maybe. But for creative types, seeming contradictions are kind of the norm.

In fact, creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has argued that what sets creative people apart is their complexity—they are multidimensional, exhibiting tendencies that typically don’t coexist. They’re both playful and disciplined, introverted and extroverted, rebellious and conservative.

“Creativity does not have one single portrait,” Vincent says. “People get this idea of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk—those are the creative people, and they’re a little different, a little awkward. But creativity comes in all sorts, not just those creative giants.”

In U.S. culture, we tend to see creativity as special and unique—almost mythical.

And indeed, because creativity requires the courage to be different, you do need a fair amount of independence, not to mention grit. In fact, Vincent, who studies the moral and social implications of creativity, has found that social rejection can actually fuel creative thought.

“People tend to be social creatures,” Vincent says. “However, when you have this independent mindset—this idea that you are different—being rejected affirms that. ‘I’m different, so of course they’re not going to get me. But I can do things they can’t do.’ That leads to creativity.”

“Creativity is not an easy road,” Vincent adds. “That road is littered with potholes of rejection and failure. And it takes a lot of resilience and independence to pick yourself back up and keep working.”

But while that can yield some incredible advances, Vincent has found that it can also lead some people to believe they’re above the rules.

When Vincent tested this in the lab, she found that people who were told creativity is rare were more likely to steal money in a subsequent task than those who believed that creativity is common.

“When people view creativity as rare and special, it creates a sense of entitlement,” Vincent says. “They believe they are more deserving than other people because they’re creative. And they're going to bend the rules.”

Company managers can avoid this by emphasizing teams over individuals and by welcoming pushback from the staff.

To check yourself, it can help to recall everything that contributed to your idea, Vincent suggests.

“You were not creative in isolation,” she says. “There was a confluence of situations that led you to be creative, and it’s important to remember that. Yes, you had this idea, and that shows your ability and skills. But in some ways, you were lucky.”

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THE PIVOT: Embrace structure and find ways to keep yourself grounded.

Bringing a little structure to your workday can help you leverage your strengths for success. Try Henry’s tips:

List problems, not projects.

Before you tackle a project, take a moment to write down all the problems it’s trying to solve, Henry says. You do that by asking, “Why?” over and over until the problem is revealed.

Let’s say you’re reconfiguring your marketing plan. Why? Because it’s not effective. Why? It’s not resonating with our audience. Why? We have no clue who our audience is.

Well, that’s a problem. Start there. “Your mind is wired to solve problems, not do projects,” Henry says. “The better and more precisely you can define the problem, the more effectively you can solve it.”

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Make time to unplug every day.

Some tech (like reminders and calendar alerts) can be helpful, but when it starts interfering with your priorities, that’s bad. “Technology is a wonderful servant and a terrible master,” Henry says. You may start your day with certain goals, only to have social media or email derail them by pulling your attention away.

Try to be totally unreachable—as in, power down your phone. Sure, it can be scary at first, Henry says, but remember that you, not Twitter or Gmail, are in charge of your agenda. It may help to do this early in the morning, when it’s quiet and you’re less likely to get pinged.

Cancel one thing.

Creative types, especially entrepreneurs, tend to want to do everything, Henry says. “If we physically have the time available, we will say yes. ‘Oh, it’s an opportunity? Yes!’”

But if you’re overextended, you’re not bringing your best energy every time and you’re not leaving space for brilliant ideas to emerge. Look at all your meetings and tasks for next week and challenge yourself to remove one.

Schedule time for “unnecessary creating.”

When’s the last time you did something creative that you weren’t getting paid for? When Henry poses this question to creative teams, the answer he usually hears is “I can’t remember.” How sad!

“We are abandoning our first love,” Henry says. “We are abandoning the very thing that got us into this work to begin with.” It’s understandable. After all, in a world obsessed with efficiency, it’s not at all efficient to do something that’s just for you. But successful creative people know the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, Henry says.

When you take time for “unnecessary creating,” you open up emotional bandwidth and allow yourself to take risks in a low-risk environment. That opens up space for new ideas. That makes it maybe not efficient, but definitely effective.

Spend an hour every week creating something just because you want to: Write in a journal, paint a room, do some landscaping.

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Remember who you are.

In one study, people asked to recall the 10 Commandments did not lie when tempted to do so. Simply being reminded of morality may deter dishonest behavior. Moses not your thing? Try Muhammad Ali: “My principles are more important than the money or my title.” Or do as Vincent does and keep a family photo on your desk. “That reminds me what I’m working for,” Vincent says.

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