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The seven most effective techniques for creativity (backed by real data)

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A little over a year ago I launched an app that gives users access to more than 150 creative techniques and thinking methods. The app is called “oflow.”

Within the app you touch a button and a random creative technique or prompt flips into view. It’s super neat. The techniques that display are little (sometimes big) exercises or systems you can use to provoke creative insight into your work, relationships, or life in general.

In the app I included a feature that flatly asked users: “Can I track what you’re anonymously doing with oflow?” Which meant that every time a user who opted-in would open the app, create a note in it, or otherwise interact within the app, that information would be sent to a database with a bunch of other user’s anonymous data.

Last night I took a sample of the data from just September 2013 and realized how insightful it would be to share.

I pulled a little over 6,000 rows of data from 1,600 active users and compiled it into an ordered list of which creative techniques people were finding to be the most helpful.

While other creative method lists are put together at random, this list has been compiled based on real world data! Here are the most beneficial creative techniques. Prepare to get inspired (hopefully).

1. Focus on the process

“Rather than focusing on getting the results you are looking for, shift your focus onto the process you’re using. Ask yourself: ‘How can I change my process to be more creative?’ Or: ‘Am I stuck because of the process I am using?’”

I’m a little surprised this technique is #1 in oflow, but apparently people do find it helpful – 15% of those surveyed, to be exact.

The reason I’m surprised that this technique would be so popular is because it’s a classic prompt to try approaching a problem in a different way. But it does work!

If you were writing a novel, for example, you could look at the process you’re trying to work with and shake it up. If your process is to sit down to create an outline, then trying to write a paragraph, followed by an attempt to expand that paragraph, you could instead think about ways of adjusting that process for improvement.

Rather than writing an outline you would try writing the last paragraph of each potential chapter, from the last chapter to the supposed first, and see how that affects what you’re writing.

That’s just one example of how you would focus and adjust the process.

2. List 100 scenarios

“Linus Pauling, an American chemist, author, and educator, once said that ‘the best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.’ So set a timer for 15 minutes and list 100 unique ideas out right now. Give it a try. Ready? Go.”

This is one of my favorite methods. The technique works by using two powerful tricks to strengthen your creative output.

The first is to stop critiquing ideas. A primary killer of creativity is when we evaluate and judge our ideas before they’ve had time to fully evolve. If you have to write 100 ideas down on a sheet of paper in 15 minutes, you’re not going to have much time to critique each one individually. This exercise encourages a type of mental “chain reaction” where the ideas just have to keep evolving.

Secondly, 100 ideas for any project is a lot. Depending on the work you’re doing, you’ll find yourself really stretching for original ideas anywhere between the 30 to 75 mark. Fortunately that’s where the real unique stuff lies – by forcing yourself to get to that point, you’re diving head-first into a world of originality.

3. Free write

“Write as fast, honest, and detailed as you possibly can for 15 minutes. Forget about spelling and grammar, just focus on writing. This process allows you to ignore your inner critic and instead focus on the creative process itself.”

We tend to get in our own way when it comes to creativity.

Our inner critic likes to evaluate thoughts based on their realism and utility, rather than originality. This can lead our thinking to a dead-end.

Free writing allows us to not only get out of our own way, but to capture thoughts that are otherwise intangible and difficult to wrangle.

When you free write, you’re capturing all of the invisible, impossible-to-sense connections of the neural networks between your subconscious and conscious. Without worrying about critique, you’re free to fully explore those thoughts. Then, after the writing time is up, you can look back at them (something you can’t do with plain old intangible thoughts).

4. Use a new tool

“Using a notepad to jot down your ideas? Put it away and try using a whiteboard. Solving a puzzle with your hands? Put your hands into your pockets and use only your mouth. Simply try using a different tool.”

I often see people struggle to do any type of creative problem solving or work because they’re so hung up on the tools they’re using.

For instance, writers who won’t write unless they have the right-sized pen with the perfect grip, or designers who simply can’t use anything but Adobe Photoshop.

What we miss out on when we focus too much on the tools we’re used to using is the ability to see how various, new tools could impact our ideas and work.

Attempting to draw a portrait with one of those really, really, ridiculously big markers may not be ideal, but when the artist sees what the result looks like, it’s as though a light has been turned on and suddenly things they couldn’t imagine begin to take shape.

Of course, this isn’t always the case, but more often than not simply using a new tool to do an old job can influence your perception of how that job gets done and the results it produces.

5. Create crap

“Perfectionism can hinder getting started or moving forward, so focus on creating crap just for now. Write something horrible, take some bad photos, make a bad painting, just start now.”

In all honesty I put this prompt into oflow as somewhat of a joke. But it works!

How many times have you sat down to brainstorm ideas only to stop yourself before you even put the pen on the paper, fingers over the keys, or speak your mind?

In a time where incredible work is just a finger-touch or mouse-click away, the desire to create something perfect is almost overwhelming. That daunting feeling of failure stops us from even trying, and prevents us from pursuing creative results.

One solution is to ignore the desire to make something perfect and just start making something. Once that wheel gets going, it can lead to the realization that perfection isn’t that far off, so it keeps going.

6. Fake it

“Dive right into working on your project or problem, pretending (even to yourself) that you know what you’re doing. Spend at least 15 minutes faking your progress to see what comes of it. Remember: fake it ‘til you make it.”

Somewhat surprisingly, this technique is fairly related to the previous one on creating crap. Not surprisingly, both techniques work the same way. By temporary elevating our fear of creating something that’s subpar, we’re able to get into the work and make something creative which then may end up being what we were hoping for (or more).

7. Add constraints

“Even if you already have constraints set in place, constrain yourself even more. Only think in verbs, only draw with basic shapes, restrict yourself to painting only in a tiny space, set eccentric constraints.”

Similar to the technique of using a new tool, when you set additional constraints on a project, you force yourself to explore otherwise avoidable areas of thought.

Consider if what you were working on was shrunk down 1,000%. What would you do then? What if you had to work with your eyes closed for five-minute intervals? Try to imagine what it would be like to have some other constraint put in place to force you to think creatively or out of your norm.

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If that wasn’t enough for you, here are few of the other more popular techniques from the app worth trying:

  • Set smaller goals or tasks
  • Do the opposite of what you’re trying to do
  • Copy someone else’s idea
  • Do something daring then relate it to your project
  • Take a long shower to relax your mind
  • Outline the wrong things to do
  • Tune into a beginning (of a movie, book, podcast, whatever)

Of course, if you want 142 more techniques to try out, download oflow from the iTunes App Store.

Tanner Christensen

This article was written by Creative Something founder Tanner Christensen. For more creative inspiration follow me on Twitter, like Creative Something on Facebook, or subscribe by email.