If you’ve ever seen the “geek secret agent” TV show “Chuck,” you’re probably familiar with those sequences of images that flash through Chuck’s head whenever his internal “Intersect” database gets triggered. The thing is, our brains can produce similar streams of images and ideas, if we provide the right conditions for creativity.
This of course comes in handy if you’re involved in any sort of creativity work or activity. Greater flow of creativity and productivity translates either directly or indirectly into greater income, especially if you’re a freelancer or work for yourself.
It’s also possible to lose the flow, if you don’t sustain the necessary creative environment. What’s necessary for achieving this state of mind? Mental stimuli and breaks from whatever you’re doing “right now”. At least, that’s been my long-standing experience, both as a programmer and as a writer.
The crucial ingredient is a constant stream of input. Back before the Internet, that might have been newspapers, books (fiction and non-fiction) and magazines. Nowadays, you also have your pick of countless websites.
My own experience is that when you “feed your brain,” with stimuli (text, images, video, audio) from several niches, you cause the opportunity for ideas to intersect. (A fascinating book called “The Medici Effect,” by Frans Johansson, discusses the intersection of ideas in great detail. You can get a free PDF copy at the main website.)
Some Tips for Revitalizing Your Creative Flow
Those of you who’ve suffered creative blocks for long periods of time get into a cycle of doubt. But the solution might be a lot simpler than you think. Here are some suggestions for stimulating your creativity, regardless of what kind of creative work you do.
- Consume voraciously. Whether it’s newspapers, magazines, books, websites, movies, whatever. The more mixed, the better.
- Surf the web. Browse at least 50-100 web pages/ articles in a short period of time, say 1-2 hours. You do not have to do this every day – just when you’re feeling your creativity and productivity turn to a trickle.
- Take notes. Glance at article and section titles. Save links or snippets of text and notes to a mind map.
- Feed your eyes. Take in as much visual stimuli as possible: images, diagrams, video. I like to mix in browsing of design sites with whatever other topic I’m trying to write about. Flickr is a great place to start.
- Feed your mind. Don’t just browse; try to do some reading as well.
- Feed your passion. Make sure that your consumption of information includes topics that you are passionate about. If you’re lacking this, no amount of input is going to help your creativity.
- Take a break. Go for a walk and think of something unrelated to the type of creativity you’re trying to stimulate. If you can’t take a walk, take some other form of relaxing break: watch comedy, listen to music, take a shower. Physical activity is often best.
My preference is to build up a mind map while consuming information. Not everything you see/ browse/ read needs to be saved – only that which catches your attention or begs for further exploration. Keep building the map as you go. You don’t need a new mind map for each day, though you can break the map down by date if you prefer. When you’re finished with some bit of information, you can remove it from the map to reduce clutter. (Or you can move older information off to a separate mind map.) Keep your “research” mind map organic.
This process will help you to store trigger points for later creative thinking. The break from your research environment is critical to generating ideas. It doesn’t mean you have to go for a walk every time you want to generate ideas, but it doesn’t hurt. As odd as it might sound, walks and showers seem to a great trigger for coming up with fresh ideas.
The drawback is that regularly absorbing all the stimuli that you need to keep your “creative flow” does take time. If you’re a freelancer or contractor, you probably know this more than others that “time is money.” However, the alternative to not taking the time is to suffer a creative block – sometimes for long, fruitless periods. Find the time, make the time. Make it part of your work.
If you use an RSS feed reader such as Google Reader to track articles on websites in one or more niches, just keep in mind that it’s possible to get carried away. As a word of caution, I’ll point out that RSS overload last year led me to abandon subscribing to 1000+ feeds and I went the opposite way: not following any. So even though I kept visiting sites on occasion, my source of creative stimuli dried up, causing a several months long creative block. Now, even though I’m still staying away from feed readers, I’m making sure I have a flow of stimuli to keep my creativity and productivity going.