To think creatively is to consistently shift focus

Odds are, if you’re creatively stuck, you need to adjust your focus.

Have you ever tried having a conversation with someone focused on their phone, the television, or a good book?

This happened to me last night when asking my wife a question. I started engaging her only to realize she wasn’t hearing a word I was saying. I was standing directly in front of her asking her a question and somehow she wouldn’t acknowledge anything I was saying.

We all do this, become too focused on one thing to acknowledge everything else going on around us.

Focus is an immensely powerful thing when you stop to think about it. Our brains are capable of tuning-out almost anything in order to focus on one specific thing. When we’re laser-focused on a task it’s hard to see anything outside our purview.

When we’re laser-focused it’s hard to see things any other way than what’s directly in front of us. A tight focus means we believe we’ve got everything we need to do the task at hand and nothing should cause us to deviate from that task, we don’t need to let anything else in.

Whereas a relaxed focus means we’re letting in a lot of information, looking widely to see what’s out there and how it might impact the task at hand, at the cost of actually getting anything done.

When we consider the process of creativity, it becomes clear that we must consistently shift focus across a task in order to think in new and valuable ways.

At the beginning of creative work we need a very wide and relaxed focus, in order to surround ourselves with as much stimulus and possibility as we can.

As we progress and gather ideas or insights or tools we must begin to tighten our focus: to start looking at how all of what we’ve collected directly in front of us might go together. What can we do with the possibilities in front of us now?

We then have to switch our focus to be relaxed again and see the possibilities as more than their sum. We have to look at what we’ve begun constructing and ask: “What might be missing? What might I have overlooked? How do these go together and how are they each different?”

After doing so we must, again, bring our focus tighter to fine-tune what’s in front of us. To not distract ourselves with new possibilities but instead answer some of the questions we’ve raised.

In this way creativity is a lot like a puzzle.

We first have to make sure we have all of the available pieces out on the table, we then have to start putting some of them together to build a bigger picture, occasionally zooming-out to see if any of the pieces on the table match the specific part of the puzzle we’re working on now.

If you’re feeling creatively stuck or stifled: consider what type of focus you have been using and whether you should be constraining your focus or relaxing it.

Your perception of time influences your creativity

In The River of Consciousness esteemed author and neurologist Oliver Sacks writes on the differences between "personal" time and "clock" time.

Undoubtedly you can recognize to the concept: personal time is the time we perceive as time passing—as entirely subjective observation—while clock time is what exists outside our own perception. One is a shared time while the other is generated almost entirely in our own, individual minds. As Sacks describes it:

"I have occasionally, it seems to me, lived a whole life between my first alarm, at 5:00 a.m., and my second alarm, five minutes later."

It's amazing how our minds perceive time in this way. Those who experience the pains of boredom know all-too-well how personal time can seem to slow to a crawl.

And anyone who has experienced what psychologist and creativity expert Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls "flow"—when we're so focused on a task time seems to flash by almost instantly, without our awareness of it having done so. While reading Sacks River of Consciousness I immediately thought of flow and how our perception of time equates to creativity.

We perceive time differently than what's on the clock for good reason: our minds are constantly processing millions of bits of information. Our consciousness is the mechanism which filters out irrelevant information or draws our attention to vital details. You may learn to tune-out the constant buzz of a busy room, but the moment someone mentions your name you can tune-into whoever might be calling out.

When we're bored our minds need stimulus so our consciousness loosens itself and stretches out time, where when we're focused our minds need to shut out stimulus, therefore decreasing our ability to perceive the passing of time.

This functioning—of loosening inhibitions when it comes to boredom and restricting them when it comes to states of flow—is also what occurs during creative thinking. We're more inclined to come up with many divergent ideas when we are open to stimulus and allowing our minds to run wild, as they do when we're bored.

When it comes to states of flow, we're less likely to be able to generate many ideas because we'll be much more oriented around convergent concepts: focusing in rather than opening up our minds. In either case the results are caused primarily by the control of endorphins in the mind. More endorphins leads to rapid time while fewer restricts time.

Each end of the spectrum leads to different results, the middle—or neutral—state is a balance, Sacks explains: 

"Physiologically, neural normality reflects a balance between excitatory and inhibitory systems in the brain, a balance which, in the absence of drugs or damage, has a remarkable latitude and resilience."

We can see the creative effects of a loosened, uninhibited, consciousness when we observe someone taking drugs or caffeine; clock time remains the same yet the mind races through possibilities.

The inverse is also true through similar means: those who take downers or consume alcohol experience a dulling of time.

Are there other means we can get the same results—of altering our perception of time to benefit our creativity—without having to digest drugs or alcohol?

The answer is undoubtedly yes: we can put ourselves into situations where we're bored by choice, removing easy no-brainer activities from our routines and even leaving our phones in another room for a while. There are other means too however, as Csíkszentmihályi explains in his book Finding Flow:

"What one needs to learn to control attention... In principle any skill or discipline one can master on one’s own will serve: meditation and prayer if one is so inclined; exercise, aerobics, martial arts for those who prefer concentrating on physical skills. Any specialization or expertise that one finds enjoyable and where one can improve one’s knowledge over time. The important thing, however, is the attitude toward these disciplines. If one prays in order to be holy, or exercises to develop strong pectoral muscles, or learns to be knowledgeable, then a great deal of the benefit is lost.
"The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention."

To think creatively you merely need to look closer at things

Creativity really stems from being able to understand the characteristics or behaviors of any thing, its circumstance, or the relationship between it and other things.

When you begin to explore and understand those things, you can change them, or imagine what the world would be like if any of those details were to change. And when you change one or more of those characteristics, you end up with something uniquely creative.

This is really all creativity is: the changing of one or more attributes of any thing. The removal of an element, the addition of something else, the relocation of the thing to a different circumstance or environment.

When changes occur simply for the sake of change what you’ll often—though not always—end up with is art.

Picasso experimented with changing the colors and placement of facial features in his paintings. What would the world look like from behind a more abstract lens? How would faces be interpreted and understood if they were represented as flat, static artworks rather than dimensional images?


In 1917 the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp wondered what would happen if he placed a urinal in a museum. How would the environment influence the porcelain fountain, and similarly how would the urinal change the environment?


In either case the result was artwork: change for entertainment or wonder. Neither exploration yielded much in the way of pushing humanity or invention forward, but each helped provoke the imagination of an audience.

Creativity differs from art in that the change must produce something both unique and useful. Utility is a primary factor of creativity, either for a large group or civilization itself, or even the individual.

Perhaps this is another reason why art and creativity are so commonly conflated: the process of creating one or the other is often the same, but the results vary.

When you change your routine just to see how it will influence your day, and you learn there’s a faster route you could be taking to work or school, that’s creativity.

When the team at Apple were experimenting with the iPhone and they decided to remove as many physical buttons as possible, that was creativity.

In your own life and work: by looking at the characteristics, traits, behaviors, and contexts of the things around you, then wondering what might happen if any of those things were to change, you begin to reveal creative thought.

What would happen if an element was removed?

What would happen if you replaced one element of the thing with that of another?

How does the context or environment influence or impact the thing?

Who would benefit from the changes? Who would suffer? What cost would any change occur? What’s the simplest thing to change now? What might be easier to change in the future? What’s the relationship between this thing and another, and what would strengthen or weaken that relationship?

It’s by exploring the attributes of any particular thing, then imagining how changing them might influence the larger whole, that we being to develop and uncover novel ideas. It’s identifying the ideas that are both novel and useful that we stumble into creativity.

The creative process is very much about understanding and exploring.

Change how you chunk information to spur ideas

How much of creative thinking do you think takes place in working memory? Working memory is, of course, the place in your mind where information – both new and recalled information – is temporarily placed for processing.

This working system where data (in the form of input from your senses or previous experiences) is brought into the brain, interpreted, and sorted accordingly, is immensely powerful for helping us to solve problems and give context to our circumstance.

Without a healthy system of working memory we would constantly experience that struggle of trying to remember why we walked into a room. With an overpowered working memory we might find ourselves overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of new stimulus in our every day lives.

Thankfully, according to psychological research, our working memory behaves in a way that causes it to only store a small number of information at a time.

In 1956, the psychologist George Miller concluded that the average working memory in a healthy human brain was capable of holding onto approximately “seven plus or minus two” bits of information.

This number seven is fairly ambiguous, because what can be determined as a “bit of information” varies. In his research paper titled The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, Miller explains that the information we process is typically presented in chunks. One of the most easy-to-identify chunking patterns, Miller writes, is language:

“Our language is tremendously useful for repackaging material into a few chunks rich in information,“Miller writes. Here’s how the Wikipedia entry for The Magical Number Seven explains this chunking:

“A chunk is the largest meaningful unit in the presented material that the person recognizes – thus, what counts as a chunk depends on the knowledge of the person being tested. For instance, a word is a single chunk for a speaker of the language but is many chunks for someone who is totally unfamiliar with the language and sees the word as a collection of phonetic segments.”

In other words: we can only understand the world around is in relation to what we already know. If you know a language, you can view words not as individual letters in seemingly random pattern, but as definitive words with meaning.

Take a look at a language you don’t understand and suddenly the words become something more vague and chaotic.

In his book, Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer writes: “When it comes to chunking–and our memory in general–what we already know determines what we’re able to learn.”

We can only understand the world around us in the context of what we already know. Creativity is a system built on existing knowledge and the ways in which we understand how to process that information. Yet how often do we lose sight of this vital perspective?

If our ability to work with stimulus and memory is limited, we can utilize the process of chunking information to adjust our understanding of a concept, or even the way we view and utilize it.

In Five habits of creative masters Andreas von der Heydt explains how chunking processes are used by some of the most brilliant minds throughout history:

“Chunk up (generalize the problem at hand by making it more abstract) and also chunk down (go deeper and deeper to the root of the issue by making it more specific).”

To chunk information up is to view it from a more holistic perspective: looking at letters not as individual characters, but as parts of a more complex system of words, sentences, paragraphs, or messages. As you move more broadly from a concept, you discover more of what can be done with it.

To chunk down is to look at the individual contributors of a particular thing: to see a series of words not as lines of meaning on a page, but to see purpose behind each individual word and letters, or even the ink or electronic pixels that make them up as well. The deeper you go, the more radical your insights can be.

What happens when we purposefully re-chunk (that is: try to view information or stimulus in a chunked-up format other than our natural one) is we are able to see the world around us in new ways.

This shift in perspective provides us with a means for connecting ideas, for finding new uses for pre-existing bits of information.

If our working memory only has the capability to process information in roughly seven (plus or minus two) bits, we can allow ourselves to process more or less information by chunking information in different ways. By doing this, we allow our mind to either dive deeper into a thing and its various parts, or we allow ourselves to connect more concepts through working memory.

If you find yourself creatively stuck, consider the way you’re chunking up information. Then either attempt to look closer at what it is you’re working around, or step as far back as possible and see a wider view of it. Doing so will help allow you to connect new bits of information together, spurring creativity.

Puzzle photo by Mike Kniec.

Discover the obscure through attention and curiosity

To be creative we must develop our ability to see what’s not immediately clear to us.

Creativity is being able to make connections between concepts, in an effort to generate entirely new ones. But sometimes the connection that needs to be made is the one we can’t readily see (figurateively and, in some cases, literally). How can we possibly come up with ideas if we can’t see half the pieces required to form them? Creativity may be about connecting things, but part of that process is uncovering the possible connections in the first place.

If you were to sit down with me and ask what one thing I would recommend you do in order to increase your creative potential, I would tell you, without skipping a beat: develop your ability to discover the obscure.

This is the one skill I think the truly creative individuals are capable of doing more so than anyone else. The keyword here is: skill. Being able to dig out previously undiscovered concepts is a skill anyone can develop.

It should come as no surprise why this is the case. Creativity becomes a valuable way of thinking only in that it allows us to explore the unexplored, to see the unseen, to find insights where nobody has before.

In her book, Willful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan writes on this point:

“We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial.”

This is the point that matters most for our exploration into what it means to think more creatively. Our “blindness” to ideas, and entire concepts within the world around us, stems from our experiences and the things we choose to draw our attention toward.

To develop the skill of uncovering the obscure, we must overcome our conscious and subconscious biases that keep our mind’s eye focused on everything but what we may need to be looking at.

At the heart of the skill are two critical things: awareness and curiosity. If you’re just highly aware, you are only looking at what’s obvious. If you’re only passionately curious, you’re likely only aware of what’s familiar or comfortable.

We must seek out the peculiarities of new and interesting things. What makes this so difficult to do is that interesting things are rarely uncovered without encountering a few uninteresting things along the way.

Slogging through dull or boring ideas or sources of inspiration makes the search daunting, but there is hope!

How do you know that you don’t like the genres books that seem to be boring to you, unless you pick one or two up to read?

So one step to uncovering the obscure is in expanding our interests and using a keen awareness paired with a powerful curiosity. Explore new things, pick up books and read them at random, travel to new places (near or far), speak with strangers, do the things that will readily expand your awareness of what’s possible.

But there’s another step to seeing the at-once un-obvious that I like to use every day. I’ve found it’s a great way to more quickly discover the previously undiscoveredpursuing the obscure about otherwise unobscured things.

Changing your perspective (both literally and figuratively) is the easiest way to do this.

What better way to uncover the obscure than by asking obscure questions? Or by trying to see familiar things from obscure perspectives?

Questions with no immediate or obvious answer, asked about things that we typically find to be obvious or commonplace. Or flipping our heads upside-down to see things how others may not.

Both of these approaches often yield dull results, but on the occassion they lead to new insights or a further curiosity to explore, they are worth whatever time we can invest in them.

Whenever I find myself creatively stumped, or idly spending my time, I’ll look around me and start to apply these approaches to thinking. I’ll wonder what the objects immediately around me remind me of, or how adding or removing one small attribute of them can make them appear or act like something else.

What would it be like to temporarily disable gravity so we had to walk and work along the ceiling, rather than the floor, of the room? What similarities does my laptop computer have with the desk, and how do those similarities influence my work without me even realizing it? How would I work differently if I had to do my job using only large markers and small sticky notes?

These questions seem silly at first, but that’s exactly why they work for helping uncover new possibilities: they point us in a direction we were blinded to in the first place.

To better think creatively, start working on building the skill of discovering the obscure, by tuning your attention and curiosity to the world around you.

Photo by Chris Goldberg.