Some people think creativity is a gift—something only bestowed upon the Vincent Van Goghs, Toni Morrisons and Annie Leibovitzes of the world.
But the truth is, creativity isn’t a gift—it’s a skill. And it’s a skill that anyone—painter, writer, accountant, stay-at-home dad, CEO, designer or anyone else—can get better at over time with the right kind of practice.
But what does that practice look like? How, exactly, can you be more creative?
Turns out, there are three networks in your brain that are responsible for creativity: the executive attention network (which is responsible for focus and attention), the imagination network (which is responsible for—you guessed it—imagination and daydreaming), and the salience network (which is responsible for making connections between the knowledge stored in your brain and your environment). And if you want to become more creative, you need to find ways to engage all three.
Luckily, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to practice creativity. Think about it like running: the ultimate goal is to be a better runner, but there are plenty of ways to get there. You can practice training for a race if you want to be a more competitive runner; practice tempo runs to be a faster runner; or just lace up your shoes and go when you need a post-run endorphin boost (which will certainly make you a happier runner). Different practices, but in each case you wind up a better runner.
1. Change your daily routine and look at the world through fresh eyes
In order to think up new and exciting projects, Burrill lets his mind and his body wander in the world. A walk in a new neighbourhood or a weekend trip can give you a different outlook on your surroundings. “I’m constantly looking out for examples of interesting typefaces and graphic images”, says Burrill, “seeing new things helps to spark off new ideas.”
2. Document everything, take photographs, collect things and keep mementos
When Burrill was young, he used to collect keepsakes from his family travels in scrapbooks – leaflets from museums; tickets for plays, art galleries, and historic sites; receipts from restaurants; photos of everyday landscapes and road signs. Over time he built up a collection of ephemera that continue to inspire his work. Burrill believes that “soaking up new influences is an important part of forming your creative DNA”.
3. Be resourceful
When Burrill began his career as an artist, he couldn’t afford a computer, so he had to find new and inventive ways to make things. “It’s much better to use what you have around you then to spend lots of money producing something” says Burrill, “it’s about being clever with what you have and seeing the benefits in the restrictions you have.” It may seem counterintuitive, but limiting yourself may give your creativity more room to flourish.
4. Keep your phone at arm’s length
While social media is a great way to show off your work, it’s not the best way to stay focused and avoid distraction. Burrill checks his email just three times a day during planned, short answering sessions. This way, he stops his online activity from ruling his day, avoids procrastination and keeps his concentration. Shutting your phone off for the majority of the working day can prevent you from wasting time and help you be more creative.
5. Give yourself deadlines
Deadlines may sound scary, but they can actually be a valuable incentive to get to work and activate your creative impulses. Plan to have something to show for your long day of thinking and daydreaming. This will force you to find inspiration in your immediate surroundings and allow you to feel accomplished. Burrill uses this technique to motivate himself: “when a deadline is approaching it concentrates my mind and I become very focused on getting everything finished in time.”
6. Forget what you’ve done in the past
You may have already created some great work in the past, and you should be proud of that, but it is important to face forward and keep innovating. Getting stuck in older ideas can trap you in a repetitive loop. Burrill believes that “you really need to have a process of creative renewal so that you’re not endlessly remaking the same picture… that’s a trap that illustrators can drop in to.” Try not to limit yourself to your most common theme, or even your chosen medium – venture out and be more versatile.
7. Say ‘yes’ more than ‘no’
After leaving art school, this became Burrill’s mantra – and still is. “Sometimes opportunities come along disguised as something else, you need to learn to look beyond the obvious”, he says. A positive attitude and openness to new projects could lead you to your next creative project.
8. Build your creative network
Working in isolation can be both difficult and dull. Burrill values his creative network immensely as a source of inspiration. His fellow artists teach him new styles and push him to take risks. “Building your creative network starts with your contemporaries, your fellow practitioners of the future. These people will form the core of your creative community, from which a rich ecosystem of creativity will develop.”
9. Remember that conformity is the enemy of creativity
As important as it is to be familiar with what’s going on around you, it is also essential to maintain your individuality as a creator. Burrill works hard at this delicate balance, always keeping in mind that “as soon as you start doing as you are told and following the rules you stop being truly creative.” He knows that “unconventional people are ingenious and inventive”, and always strives to be the “oddball” amongst the crowd.
10. Optimism, energy and enthusiasm make everything happen
One of Burrill’s best-selling posters reads: “Optimism is not always dumb”. The impact of a positive approach to a project is severely underrated. If there is passion and optimism at the core of a project, it is bound to succeed. If you have the energy to make it now, and make it new, you are already on the road to being more creative.
11. Draw, paint, doodle, watercolor
Growing up, my favorite thing to do when I was bored was to grab my notebook and some markers, and just draw with no end goal in sight. I’d create rainbows, mermaids, solar systems — and I don’t remember feeling any pressure to make them worthy of hanging on the fridge, I just did it for the sheer joy of creating. Later on, I took up collaging with a stack of magazines each evening, and in high school, I fought the boredom of band class by secretly sketching dresses in my quest to become a fashion designer.
The sheer act of engaging in making art of any kind fires up all kinds of connections in the brain, so don’t fight the urge to doodle while you’re on your next conference call. I’ve been taking time each weekend to dust off my sketchbook and spend some time watercoloring with Phoebe, and it’s been so refreshing for my mind and my soul to make art just for the fun of it.
12. Do something physical
Research has shown that physical exercise helps to force you out of left brain dominant thinking and instead adopt a more creative mindset. Exercise also increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which sharpen mental clarity. Here’s a fascinating article that claims aerobic workouts may help stimulate imagination and new ideas.
13. Embrace boredom
I recently did a 48-hour detox from all my devices, and one of my biggest goals for the experiment was to learn how to embrace boredom. Why, you may ask? Because research shows that being bored actually propels us towards deeper thinking and creativity. The theory goes that a bored mind searches for stimulation, which moves it into the daydreaming state, which leads to new ideas. Read more about the studies here.
Instead of filling every extra minute with productivity or scrolling through your phone, give your mind some breathing room. Let your mind wander, and who knows? You just might have the “aha moment” you were working so hard to achieve.
14. Go for a walk
Sometimes, a change of scenery is all you need to think differently about a problem—and the best change of scenery to foster creative thinking? Getting outside.
Going for a walk (especially outdoors) is one of the best things you can do to boost your creativity and encourage new ways of thinking. It’s been shown to increase creative output by up to 60%—likely because spending time outside can activate all three of the brain’s creativity networks (you’ll engage the executive attention network because you’ll have to focus on where you’re going; you’ll be free to daydream, which activates the imagination network; and all the new stimuli in your environment will activate the salience network).
15. Try something outside of your creativity comfort zone
If you’re already involved in creative pursuits but want to build your creativity muscle, step outside of your creativity comfort zone and try something completely new.
If you’re a designer, try writing a poem. If you’re a writer, try practicing a new instrument. The point is, there are a lot of different ways to be creative—and when you try something new, it can help your brain create new connections (hello again, salience network!) and inspire a new kind of creativity. Then, that new kind of creativity can help you be more creative in other areas of your life (so writing a poem can help inspire new ideas in your designs, or playing an instrument can help you become a better writer). Switching tasks has been shown to increase creativity—and when you’re switching between inherently creative tasks, it’s an even greater benefit.
16. Become an idea machine
When it comes to creativity, there are few people more well-versed on the topic that James Altucher. Altucher is a best-selling author, investor, podcast host and creativity powerhouse. And according to Altucher, the reason he’s been able to find such a diverse set of creative successes? His dedication to being an “idea machine.”
Forcing yourself to write down new and interesting ideas on a daily basis engages all three of your creativity networks—the imagination network (since you’re thinking of completely new concepts), the executive attention network (since you need focus and attention to develop new ideas), and the salience network (since you’re looking for new connections between concepts you already know). This will help you develop new, creative ways of thinking—and see new connections you weren’t able to see before.
Carve out time every morning to work on your new ideas—and, most importantly, don’t worry about whether your ideas are good or not. The simple practice of sitting down and thinking creatively every day will flex that creativity muscle and help you become a creative idea machine.
17. Practice to be more creative
Creativity isn’t something that’s reserved for geniuses. It’s available to everyone, no matter who you are or where you’re at in your life—all you have to do is practice.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start developing your creative strengths—we can’t wait to see what new and amazing things you come up with!