Are you in a creativity slump? What can you do? Part 9 of the blog series: Influencing yourself and others

Imaging you have a task ahead of you or your team, right now, right here that requires quite some creativity. But as it happens, in particular today, everyone - including you – is feeling like the least inspired creature on earth. A world full of ideas? Not in your heads today. What is the solution? Give up? Postpone? Or is it a solution to deliberately CHOOSE to be creative.

Question: Can you consciously turn on creativity? In your own brain? In others?

Let us have a short quiz first: What are the best conditions for creativity?

  1. Make the task at hand even more difficult by adding restrictions.
  2. Tell yourself and others that the task does not really require any special creativity at all.
  3. Imagine yourself as an eccentric poet.

Well, what did you guess? Answers 1 and 3 indeed lead to measurably enhanced creativity. The opposite is true for point 2. Why? Take a look at the following research results:

To 1: By adding complications such as "The creative new slogan should only consist of 5 words", you get richer and better results than in groups that face no limitations.i This is the so-called frugal innovation - the more we have to exert our brain, the more creative we become. In other words, if we make things more difficult, they actually become easier. A wonderful paradox!

To 2: Forcing yourself to realize that the task actually does require creativity leads to more plentiful and more creative ideas. The label: "I need to be creative here", causes a bundle of flashes of inspiration. Making the task small and labelling it as uncreative simply results in smaller and more uncreative results.

Re 3: Taking on the role of a creative character, such as a poet, increases the originality of the ideas generated. So go wild: Imagine yourself as Nikola Tesla, or Steve Jobs, or your head of innovation, or ...  and the ideas will sparkle.

Lure the brain out of its reserve

One of the big issues of restrained creativity is that we are inclined to think about what is PROBABLE in a particular situation based on our experiences with ourselves and others and not about what is POSSIBLE. This sets enormous limits: For in almost all cases the "probable" is less than the "possible". This self-limitation then in turn limits your output. Any form of "prime or nudge" that shifts thinking from what is probable to what is possible is helpful in improving performance. Take a look at some rather extreme examples.

First example: People who were informed that pilots have excellent eyesight, and then acted as pilots in a simulator during an experiment, had a measurable improvement in their vision compared to a control group that had not been talking about pilots’ eyes.iii

Second example: Older people who for a week pretended that they were 20 years younger afterwards were fitter and cognitively better.iv So remind yourself of when you were 21 and your brain will be fitter, and your steps firmer…

You get the principle: The more the brain is enticed by thinking outside its typical framework, the more creative, the better, it becomes.

Thus, participants who are prepared to think in an environment of scarcity will come up with more original ideas than those who are in a situation of control or abundance. The old saying applies: necessity is the mother of invention.

The key take-away? Prepare yourself for the need to be creative in order to accomplish a difficult task – and you will be more creative. The same is true if you overcome your inner limits by “dipping” your neurons into the role of a great innovative character.

Possible or impossible?

What can you do now in concrete terms? First, remind yourself and your employees of the American children's book author Dr. Seuss, who accepted a bet that he would never be able to write a successful children's book with only 50 words. And then count the words in the book "Green Eggs and Ham" and be astounded!

Then introduce additional hurdles to the tasks at hand and pick some creative avatars to assist you.

What else can you do? Pick up the book "Thinkertoys" for some hints on other methods for creativity or watch the film "Monsieur Hulot's Holiday"  (1953) – where a free and fearless thinker will inspire you.

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i Haught-Tromp, C. (2017). The Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis: How constraints facilitate creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11(1), 10.
ii Dumas, D., & Dunbar, K. N. (2016). The creative stereotype effect. PloS one, 11(2), e0142567.
iv Langer, E. J. (2009). Counterclockwise: Mindful health and the power of possibility. Ballantine Books.