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We all know that feeling when a creative idea or a spontaneous desire to finger paint with our kids overtakes us. There’s a rush of something akin to adrenaline but this is not the fight or flight response, and inspiration and creativity aren’t always birthed by stress, although sometimes great stress can lead to periods of greater creativity. The point is when we’re reading a good book, getting into the flow of writing or just enjoying the quiet beauty of a summer sunset, time disappears and our bodies feel lighter, more energized and there’s a whoosh of joy that washes over us. This is a wonderful state to find yourself in. Many people try to retain that feeling, to remain inspired and creative, but sadly for many of us this state is elusive.

There’s a reason for that. In a recent article in Psychology Today magazine, Art Markman went on the hunt to uncover what spurs on creativity. You’ve all heard the slightly annoying phrase ‘think outside the box’. Well, this advice actually doesn’t tell you anything of value. Markman writes that real creativity requires a leap into the unknown. We don’t know that we have to come up with an idea outside of the norm until we come up with the idea first.

Basically, memories are the culprit. When asked to think of a new animal to populate a strange planet, most people will unconsciously call upon all the animal forms they remember or are most familiar with. Then they will use that existing form and try to add on to it in order to make it different. But this isn’t real creativity.

Real creativity comes from changing what you are focusing on. For example, if your boss asks you to come up with a creative solution to a problem, you need to describe it differently or in a fresh way. So examining how we describe problems or creative challenges can end up unlocking new doors to more inspired solutions.

Another way to get in the flow of real creative thinking, change what you’re thinking about. Markman suggests thinking about different things not just thinking differently. What does that mean? Well, let’s take the animal example again. If you wanted to write a science fiction story and populate it with strange creatures that aren’t just weird adaptations of what is already familiar, you just think about all the different definitions of animal. Most people will think of familiar concepts of animal such as lions, bears and other creatures with arms and legs and snouts. But if you wanted to be really creative, you need to expand your thinking about animals. Go more abstract. Markman mentions single-celled organisms, then play with that form, innovating on it.

The Big Creativity Killer

Failure. “Fear of failure narrows vision.” So while fear of failure is a big challenge to overcome and many of us would rather stay safe in our comfort zones than risk humiliating or self-esteem crushing failure, the fear itself kills creativity.

Harvard Business School psychologist Teresa Amabile studied the conditions that nurtured creativity. In several experiments, she told some participants that their creative products would be evaluated by a panel of judges, another group that their products would be entered into a contest and a third group was told nothing.

Guess which group produced the most creative products? The group that was told nothing before they set out to create. They had no fear of judgement or failure, so they took more risks, innovated and yes, ‘thought out of the box’.

The Creative Space-Cadet

When trying to let the creative juices flow, concentration is your enemy. Yes concentration is good for many things like slicing an apple or building and engine but it does not help you be creative. Why? Because the mind needs to wander and be free to make odd associations in order to find creative solutions to problems.

So when you’re stuck on finding a solution to a nagging problem or can’t seem to overcome writer’s block, get out and walk, smell the flowers or put on some Madonna and dance around your living room in your underwear. Anything to break up the routine and get your mind to free associate.

—Erin Dougherty