How to Be Creative

In the first of a two-part series, clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 6 tips to set the stage for creativity, with habits and mindsets that fertilize the ground from which creative ideas sprout.  Next week, we’ll talk about what to do when a creative block strikes.   

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
February 14, 2014
Episode #006

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Tip #3: Then, step away.  Incubate. 

In 1926, social psychologist Graham Wallas proposed 4 stages of creativity: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.  The second stage, incubation, is where new, unconscious associations among thoughts arise as a result of information gathering and initial work.  Incubation sets the stage for your own eureka moment.  During incubation, nothing appears to be happening; it could look like daydreaming, doing something unrelated to your task, or even sleeping.

A way to supercharge your incubation is not only to sleep on your idea, but dream on it.  A 2009 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that incubation—the simple passage of time—indeed increased creativity on a word association task, but taking a nap that included REM sleep—the stage of sleep in which dreams occur—improved participants’ results even more.  REM, compared to quiet rest and non-REM sleep, allowed participants to piece together previously unassociated information in a novel way.  So do your research, tackle the problem, and then put it aside.  You can count taking a nap as an essential step to your creative process.

Tip #4: Set the conditions for flow. 

A very different strategy from stepping away and letting your unconscious chew on your project is to immerse yourself and get into “flow”—complete absorption in an activity for its own sake.  Psychologist Dr. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has been studying flow since he introduced the concept in 1975, before creativity was even trendy.

There’s no magic formula for getting into flow, but you can maximize your chances if you choose a project with a clear goal.  Clarity of purpose gives you direction and structure.  The activity should be meaningful to you and a little challenging, and you should be confident you can stretch to achieve it.  Then, minimize potential interruptions—turn off your email, close your door, and turn off your phone.  In a multitasking world, flow is the ultimate in single tasking and it won’t stand a chance against instant messages. 

Tip #5: Bisociate.

Creativity often involves the unusual combination of ideas.  In 1964, author and journalist Arthur Koestler developed the term “bisociation” to describe the novel combination of two previously incompatible ideas.  One of Koestler’s examples is Thomas Edison’s bisociation of light and electricity—two previously unrelated things.   Another example is Gutenberg’s bisociation of wine presses and coin stamping to create moveable type.  Or think of a pun—a phonetic bisociation of words with unrelated meanings.  Association—the combination of two already related things—fusion cuisine, a mashup of songs—isn’t necessarily inferior, it’s just that those two components were already on the same plane.  To be truly creative, aim to connect the previously unconnected.

Tip #6: Remember that quite often, you’re going to suck. 

Everyone starts from zero.  For a long, long time, none of us will be very good.  A partial solution to this is time: simply getting older and engaging in tips #1 and #2—gathering information and getting to work.  But even after you get very good, you’ll still have some stinkers.  Take it in stride and keep working.

Remember that quite often, you’re going to suck. 

So there we have the big picture framework on which to hang your creativity hopes—ongoing digestion of the medium to which you aspire, a consistent work ethic, willingness to step away, the experience of getting lost in your work, the aspiration to connect the seemingly unconnectable, and the willingness to throw back an idea if it doesn’t work, like that plan for bacon-flavored soda.

But what about when you’re sitting at your laptop, staring at a blinking cursor in an otherwise blank screen? What if you’re blocked on writing the great American novel, choreographing the dance of your life, or designing the next Fallingwater?  Next week we’ll cover “here and now” techniques for what to do in those moments when you’re blocked and cursing the cursor.

Thanks for listening!  If you have a request for a podcast, send it along on the Savvy Psychologist Facebook page or on Google+.


Batey, M., & Furnham, A. (2006). Creativity, Intelligence, and Personality: A Critical Review of the Scattered Literature. Genetic, Social & General Psychology Monographs, 132(4), 355-429.

Cai, D.J., Sarnoff, A.M., Harrison, E.M., Kanady, J.C., & Mednick, S.C. (2009).  REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks.  PNAS, 106, 10130-10134.

Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1975).  Beyond boredom and anxiety.  Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco.

Koestler, A.  (1964). The Act of Creation.  Penguin Books: New York.

Wallas, G.  (1926).  The Art of Thought. Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock


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