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by Mike Essex on 8th May 2013
Finding ways to become more creative is one of the biggest advantages you can give yourself at work. But you can’t just be creative like that, and coming up with creative ideas on the spot is really hard to do. And actually, if you want to become more creative, there’s processes and ideas that you have to start thinking about weeks in advance. You have to change the way that you approach work to give your mind the freedom it needs to come up with these creative solutions.
So what I’m going to do today is go through all these different ways that you can become more creative. You don’t have to do all of them, but even a few of them will really help you focus on what needs to be done.
So first of all, we’ve got the concept of coning. This came about from the McLellan Marketing Group, and what they do is they put a plastic cone outside their office door when they want 90 minutes of undisturbed time. What this allows them to do is to focus on a single task or high priority item without knowing that they’re going to get phone calls or emails or meeting requests or people dashing in. Essentially, unless the building is on fire, they don’t want to know, because that employee wants to focus on what needs to get done.
What that means is they can focus on the task at hand. They don’t have to worry about all these distractions. They know that for those 90 minutes or whatever, they can 100% dedicate themselves to being creative and coming up with new ideas to help that project move along.
I’ve also got a similar concept of time blocking, which Gary Keller invented, and he came up with the idea of giving himself four hours every day to do one major task. So the rest of the day can be devoted to all these other distractions that he has, all this time that he isn’t really being creative on phone calls, emails, and smaller priority projects. So he knows that he’s got this big block of time to be creative and think about the important tasks. It also means that every day, he knows that he’s achieved something big. He’s moved a big project along, or he’s completed something really important. This gives him a good sense of job satisfaction, and can do for you as well.
You should also shrink your goals down, as well. Now, quite often, in our niche, in marketing, we’re told to make great content, and that isn’t really a goal that’s achievable. Even if you say, “I want to make content that people want to read and share” likewise that isn’t really an achievable goal, because it doesn’t illustrate how you can do those things.
Whereas if you say, “I want to write something that resonates with people, that captures their interest,” then effectively, you’re saying that if it captures their interest, they’re going to want to read it, and if it resonates with people, they’re going to want to share it. Just by changing the understanding of the goal like that, you’ve re-framed the problem, and you’ve allowed your brain to approach the problem in a more logical way.
You can take that a step further by taking the actual goal and breaking it up into the parts that are required to complete it. So rather than thinking, “I’ve got to make this really huge piece of content that everybody’s going to love,” you can break that down into the steps that are needed in order to make it an achievable project. That way, if you only do some of the tasks that day, you’ll know that you’ve ticked off this part, this part, and this part, rather than feeling demotivated that you’ve not completed the whole thing. And by re-framing it into smaller tasks, you can be creative on each of those items as you need to be.
A good way of doing this is to use Pomodoro, which is where you work for 25 minutes on a single task and then you take a 3 to 5 minute break to focus on something else, which could be your Twitter, or your email, or just to go and have a glass of water to get away. Then you come back and you do another 25 minutes on the task, and you repeat that 4 times, and then you take a longer break of around about half an hour before you come back to it again.
What that allows you to do is to have these intense bursts of energy and creative thinking on a single part of the task. All these other distractions that we have, you can do them in 25 minutes. You don’t have to worry that something really important is going to happen whilst you’re doing Pomodoro, because you know that in 25 minutes, you can check. With all these distractions vying for our time, that’s really liberating, to give your mind the freedom of knowing, “I’ll check it in a minute. This is what we need to focus on now.”
Another good thing is to actually use less resources. So we’ve got all of these things that we need to focus on, and sometimes — especially with tools — we can look at all these tools and try to apply like 10 tools to a problem, when really we could get similar results with just a smaller subset of tools that are better quality. So have a look at the tools that you use and try and think about ones that you don’t necessarily need, or what other tools do for you, and have a look at the parts of the process that are maybe redundant, that you don’t need to do. Just try to strip things down to the simplest possible form so you can be creative with them.
For example, Dr. Seuss wrote the book “Green Eggs and Ham” after his editor challenged him to write a book using less than 50 unique words all the way through. He did, and it’s one of his most successful books he’s ever written.
Likewise, Vine allows you to store six-second videos, and as a concept, it shouldn’t really work, because why would you make a six-second long video when you could do it on YouTube and have unlimited time capacity? But this six-second aspect of it — the shrinking down of the problem — is what makes it accessible for people and what makes people want to try it, because it’s only six seconds. It’s much easier to try that and test making a video in that way than a YouTube video, where the possibilities are infinite.
Also look at Inbox Zero. No talk on how to be creative and work smarter would be complete without looking at Inbox Zero. The goal of Inbox Zero is to split your emails into achievable buckets. So when I get an email in, I either delete it, [or] I delegate it to somebody else, and then I move it to a folder so I know it’s been delegated. I’ll put it in a folder called “To Do Now,” which means that it’s a high priority task that I can’t delay. I have a folder called “To Do Later,” which is a folder that is still important stuff, but stuff that I don’t need to get to right now. If the email can be dealt with in two minutes, then I don’t put it in one of those places at all. I simply do it.
And on top of that, I would only check my email around about every hour or every two hours. Again, this can be done in Pomodoro in those gaps of time that you’ve got. But I’m not just constantly checking my email every minute of every day, because that’s a real time drain on your creativity and your process.
You also need to be bored. So now we’re coming into the aspects of how to let that creativity flow. We’ve pushed a lot of the distractions to one side, we’ve come up with a way of working smarter, and now we need to allow our brain the energy it needs to create this creativity. Because the problem is that, as humans, we really don’t like to be bored. We constantly try and find ways to distract ourselves. Even if you just stood in a spot waiting for somebody in town, chances are you’d probably get your phone out and start to have a look through it, because being bored is a weird concept for an adult.
But remember, when you were a kid, you were bored all the time, and it was by being bored that you came up with creative things to do and used your imagination. So actually, you want to become more like that child-like stage. You want to not use your computer all the time. I mean, I get my best thinking done whilst I’m walking the dog, because there is no distraction. Walking the dog does not require much of my energy, and I can think whilst I’m doing it.
So sometimes just stepping away from the computer, just going into a room or a sanctuary to think about these things. If you have to; use coning to have that space to think about what you need to do and limit the distractions. I also wrote a book on my train journey to work, because I was really bored. So I wrote for half an hour every day, and in 3 months, I’d written a 350 page book. If I hadn’t been bored or if I’d tried to fill that boredom with mundane, non-important tasks, I never would have achieved a dream that I had, which was to write a novel. And I think that shows the power that boredom can have in inspiring you to be creative in what you do.
If you are bored and you want to come up with something else to do in the time, then I recommend you absorb material that’s different to what you would normally encounter. Linda Antcliff says that poetry is a great way to write headlines for your articles. And it’s very true, because poetry is designed to distil information into the simplest possible form and to get across that critical information in just a line or a very short space. That’s what headlines try to do as well. They try to come up with a concept that will get you to read the entire thing that’s really short. So if you read poetry, you’ll become a better writer in any respect. And, of course, if you are making great content and your title does not entice people to read it, then you’ve wasted your time. So poetry can be a great advantage.
Likewise, I find just listening to Spotify on radio mode can help me understand the types of issues that are current right now, the type of things people are talking about and that they want to hear. Also, by doing that, I find having music on in the background helps me to focus and get ideas flowing in my mind. So try different types of music and find out what works for you.
When I did this as a presentation at ionSearch, I said you maybe shouldn’t use dubstep. But people tweeted me to say dubstep helps them get in the zone for when they need to be creative. So yeah, it could be absolutely any type of music. The team at Kotaku found that the best music for them was a CD called “Music for Airports,” which was just kind of lounge music that was really chilled out, and that helped them with deep studying and focus. But really, whatever works for you, it could be different. So yeah, just try ambient or any type of music in the background to help get those creative juices flowing.
You should also look at Life Hacks. If you’ve ever tried to make content or do something creative in a boring niche, that’s a really hard thing to do. But type “Life Hacks” into Google and you’ll find examples of hundreds of people who found interesting uses for everyday products. Boring products in boring niches, yet somehow they found ways to make them interesting. So I guarantee, if you put “Life Hacks” into Google, you will find some really surprising results and a new appreciation for boring products around your home.
You can apply that to what you do for clients. You can apply that by saying, “Well, our client’s product may not be the most interesting thing in the world, but if we flip it on its head, what are some other ways people could use it that would resonate with people and make this content reach a wider audience?” And that’s the key to creativity.
You should also think like a child. Obviously, children like being bored. Well, they don’t like it. They hate it. But they find ways to fill the boredom. And also, if you think like a child, you should think about the simplest way to present information. If you’re writing content, really, a lot of the time, you want it to appeal to the broadest spectrum of people you can. Now, if your product is very technical, you do still need to have the technical aspects in there, but you can still make it approachable for anyone who can understand.
There’s a video series made by Reddit called “Explain Like I’m Five,” which takes complex concepts like existentialism and breaks them down into explanations that even a five-year-old could understand. I think if you watch those videos, you’ll appreciate that even really complicated things can always be explained in simpler terms, and that if you’ve got an insurmountable problem at work, there’s always a simpler way to break that problem down, a simpler, step-by-step approach so you can appreciate how to solve the problem and become creative.
And last but not least — well, sorry, we’ve got one more — you need to get a mentor as well. So creativity is always more powerful if you have someone who’s a mentor, if you have someone who you can bounce ideas off, who will give you feedback on what’s good and what’s bad. That can be your boss, it can be a friend, it can be your significant other, it can be a colleague. It can be anybody that is able to give you honest feedback, and that’s really important. You don’t want somebody who loves everything you do, because sometimes it is important to get critical thinking on your work, because that’s the only way you can grow as an individual. All I would say in that regard is make sure it’s not somebody who is very critical. If they hate everything you do, that’s equally as bad as someone who likes everything you do. So try to find someone who’s in between and who can give you realistic criticism of your work that you can take forward to help you in the future.
And last of all, you should act like the President of the United States of America. If you’ve looked at all this and you’re thinking that you still don’t have the time to be creative and it’s not something you can fit in, then you should know that the President of the United States has three times every day that are his, and without exception, he will always have those times for himself to allow his brain to process what’s happened during the day, which then helps him become more creative later. So his time with his daughters for dinner, when his family goes to bed, and his morning workout are 100% his time or time with his family when he isn’t working. If he can do it, if the man who probably has the most demands on his time out of everybody in the world can find time to be creative, time to improve himself, time to process what he’s done throughout the day so he can be fresh-faced for the problems tomorrow, then I believe you can do it too.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed this video. I’d love to hear what ways you use to become more creative in the comments below. And for more information on what we do, visit Koozai.com or any of the social profiles after this video. Thank you.