A Complete Guide to Developing your Creativity and Creative Thinking

Creativity is cultivatable. Let’s say it together.

If you are still eating up the myth that creativity is a zero-sum game, then you have to stop it now.

True, some personality types – maybe the Myers Briggs Ns, and the Enneagram types 4 and 7 – are more predisposed towards thinking creatively. But even ‘naturally creative’ people need to cultivate their creativity to reach its full potential.

The true tell on your creativity is the quality of your thinking and ideas. And the most fundamental thing we can do to develop creativity is to maintain a mind state of receptivity.

Creativity is completely cultivatable Click To Tweet

An open, receptive mind is easily able to generate inspired solutions to challenges. It is also able to empathize easily with other people, to be accepting of things, and is mindful and present. These are the proper hallmarks of a highly creative mind.

Even if you currently suck at all of those things, it doesn’t matter. Because once again: creativity is cultivatable.

This post is about how to do less of the things that undermine creative thinking and creativity, and more of the practices and rituals that support a peak creative state. The information is relevant for anyone alive, not simply those involved in traditionally creative professions and roles.

The second half of the post is dedicated advice for those involved in highly creative work.

What kills creativity and creative thinking?

Here are what I see as the eight major enemies of creativity and creative thought:

Certain mindsets

Fixed mindset, scarcity mindset and entitlement mindset all undermine creativity and creative thinking. Fixed mindset says ‘I can’t get better’, scarcity mindset says ‘creativity is in limited supply’ and entitlement mindset says ‘I do not have to try for good things to come to me.’ All of them repress creativity as they keep you passive and negative. Creativity is obviously a dynamic thought state.

Limiting beliefs

In addition to mindsets, we have limiting beliefs preventing us from expressing ourselves creatively. One example of a belief that inhibits creativity is the belief that you aren’t creative!

Such beliefs need to be recognized and then overcome (read this guide to how to do that).

Stress and anxiety (i.e non acceptance)

When you are stressed or anxious, you are not creative.

It’s a little subtle, but stress and anxiety are both forms of non-acceptance, which are overcome with practicing acceptance.

Spending the whole time on auto-pilot

Not being mindful inhibits creativity and creative thought because you constantly either in the past or future and never present. Creative thinking and creative thought happens when attention is freed up from those concerns.

Develop a mental state of receptivity Click To Tweet

So practicing mindfulness is essential to develop a creative mind. More on this below.

Doing a lot of negative thinking

Focusing on the negative is draining and does not orient you towards creative thinking or solutions.

Critical self-talk

Negative self-talk contributes to low self-esteem and confidence, which blocks us from expressing creativity.

Over-achieving/ being too controlling

Being overly focused on goals stunts creativity. When we are like this, we’re attached to set outcomes and we aren’t open to different possibilities for getting what we desire.

Approval-seeking

Being externally validating takes the focus away from what you care about and what you want to do (i.e your values). It makes you passive and at the mercy of stronger creative influences (other people’s).

What cultivates creativity and creative thinking

Here are eight of the most important things, in my opinion.

Clear your mind

I said it already but if you want to develop creativity, you have to practice being mindful. When you spend most of the time lost in thought, you are not alive to potentials, patterns and opportunities.

Judging, labeling, analyzing, thinking, critiquing, evaluating, weighing up. These things are great for passing exams and calculating worst case scenarios, but totally useless for being open and creative. Joseph Campbell said: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” That’s the essence of this argument.

Arjuna Ardagh, author of The Translucent Revolution, interviewed hundreds of the most successful people from all life arenas. The one thing they all had in common was their ability to tap into the depth of silence or source. Basically, they meditate.

Learn to quieten the mind. Relaxing the mind (or personality) means you embody your true or essential nature for while. And everyone is born a creator!

Filling it up again

Reading widely is essential for challenging your ideas and inspiring new ways of thinking. You can find a list of books I’d recommend here.

Nurture your natural curiosities

Your natural curiosities are a huge clue into how you might be the most creative. Albert Einstein, Liz Gilbert and Steve Jobs are all huge advocates of following curiosity as a pathway to creativity. 

Gilbert, who authored Eat Pray Love, says curiosity is playful, undemanding, fun-loving, interesting. She advocates that we take our curiosity seriously. Those internet searches; those weird hankerings that come at you from nowhere. Notice them and follow them.

Albert Einstein said: “Don’t think about why you question, simply don’t stop questioning. Don’t worry about what you can’t answer, and don’t try to explain what you can’t know. Curiosity is it’s own reason. Try to comprehend a little more each day. Have holy curiosity.”

Steve Jobs said: “Don’t worry about connecting the dots.”

For an inspiring account of those that followed their curiosities with dedication, try reading Robert Greene’s book Mastery.

Have an empowering narrative on creativity

Writer and shame researcher, Brene Brown, identifies our personal narratives about creativity as one of the three most important narratives to become aware of (the others are our lovability and divinity). By bringing your awareness to your personal narrative about creativity, you’ll be free to upgrade it.

I haven’t read a better and more empowering personal narrative on creativity than in Liz Gilbert’s book, Big Magic.

Prime yourself physiologically

If you want to think clearly, get adequate sleep, eat well and move. Moving in particular is important, as when you move you literally move energy around your body. This is important for stimulating new perspectives and lines of thinking.

Using cognitive/psychological boosters

These things are lower impact than the things above on this list, but they do help.

Try getting a psychological distance from the problems you face, relax more, play more and stop being so attached to outcomes. There are clear associations between creative thinking and being in a relaxed, playful state.

Calm down on social media

Using social media is an affront to creativity because it reduces the possibilities for your mind to wonder, and it tends to clutter the mind with the mundane. The amount of time we spend on social media now also affects our capacity for ‘deep work’, which affects creative output.

Travel

Travel broadens your horizons and freshens stale thinking. I’ve used travel a lot to develop in new directions creatively in my life.


(The part for traditionally creative pursuits)

The rest of this post is concerned with developing a creative edge in traditionally creative pursuits. Firstly, lets chat about dealing with resistance.

When you make things, at some point you need to deal with resistance and procrastination. What successful creatives all appear to have in common is the ability to tame the noisy critic or – as Arianna Huffington puts it, ‘the obnoxious roommate’.

For help in overcoming resistance and procrastination, I’d really recommend anything by Steven Pressfield and Austin Kleon, whose books feature on this list.

The following tips were collected from interviews during the brilliant 30 Days of Genius series, by Chase Jarvis. What was striking if you watched a number of these interviews was the similar themes (and none identified with being exceptional ‘special’ or ‘talented’).

All had indicated significant determination to see their creative visions through. They were assisted by having structures, positive constraints and healthy habits. Each individual acknowledged the immense personal struggle involved in a life devoted to creativity and the importance of plans for removing the main stumbling blocks.

So you could say the common threads were:

  • Determination to execute creative projects;
  • An ability to navigate the harsh inner critic; and
  • A developed set of habits/routine.

Creativity advice from writers and entrepreneurs

Writer and journalist, Neil Strauss:

  • Being attached to the outcome of your art is the number one enemy to creativity.
  • Much of creativity is in the listening – listening with your own unique perspective, putting it into the cauldron and sharing it.
  • (Neil’s writing process involves handing his phone over to his wife and limiting his internet use to drastically reduce distractions.)

Life coach and public speaker, Gabby Bernstein:

  • We connect with intuition through a daily meditation practice.
  • Doing a simple prayer, ‘I am seeking creative solutions’, can help you to find answers in situations you are stuck.
  • The benefits of a spiritual practice to creativity are that you clear the space to ‘receive’ inspiration.

Writer and entrepreneur, Tim Ferriss:

  • Before you start a project, ask yourself, ‘what would this look like if it were easy?’.
  • Feeling like you’re winning is a pre-cursor to actually winning. In other words, rig things in such a way that you don’t put it off.
Tim Ferriss says the crazier and more neurotic you are, the more you need a routine Click To Tweet
  • Celebrate the small wins. (Tim has a ‘jar of awesome’, which he returns to whenever he is going through a funk. He calls them his ‘self-made fortune cookies’.)
  • Seriousness waterboards creativity. (Tim’s latest project is ‘seeking out and creating the absurd’.)
  • Getting thoughts on paper first thing helps you to tame monkey mind.
  • Wake up an hour earlier. You aren’t going to find the time, you have to make it.
  • Routine will save you. The crazier and more neurotic you are, the more important routine is.
  • When you become ‘blocked’ – beginning a new creative endeavor can sometimes breathe life into others.
  • Having the freedom to play is important, but having positive constraints allows you to self actualize to highest degree.

Writer, Gretchen Rubin:

  • There is no ‘one size fits all’ for creativity. Therefore it is key to know yourself.
  • Some good questions to ask yourself are: what attracts me?; when have I done my best work?; do I like to discuss ‘long’ or ‘short’; who do I envy?; what do I try to hide?; and are you a marathoner or a sprinter?
  • Habits are the invisible architecture of creativity. They free up energy.

Entrepreneur, Kevin Rose:

  • Don’t burden your creativity with your survival needs. (Kevin worked a 9-5 job and attended to his personal projects in his free time.)
  • Before bed, imagine how it would look if it works (i.e. you successfully pull off your creative endeavor).
  • Say ‘no’ a lot.
  • If you can create in tandem with like minded people, the output will be better.
  • If you feel creatively stuck, do something unrelated for a bit. Create space and allow for creativity to reboot.

Summary

Hopefully we are now in agreement that creativity is cultivatable. If you are feeling like your creative thought isn’t what it could be, then try the things mentioned in this article:

If you are doing all those things, you should find yourself having some very good ideas!