Creating a mirror for your mind

To learn whether or not there’s something in your teeth, you use a mirror.

Mirrors tell us almost everything physically about the outside of our bodies. Are we having a good hair day? Does our outfit look attractive? Are the rings under our eyes getting softer or darker? Do we look how we want to be perceived today?

Mirrors can be helpful for getting a glimpse into how we look on our outside, but don’t do very much for exposing us to what’s going on inside. They’re specifically not very helpful for reflecting what’s going on our minds.

To look around our thoughts and feelings we need other, specialized tools.

Most of us feel as though we already have a good handle on our thoughts. Why would we need something to reflect back to us what we’re already thinking? But, like the time you got a big leaf of spinach stuck in your teeth, you don’t know what you don’t know about yourself until the mirror shows it to you.

For reflecting your thoughts and ideas you need a mirror for the mind. And there are a myriad of tools we can use to reflect what’s going on inside our brains. Therapists and conversations with close friends can be insightful.

Undoubtedly the best mirror for your mind comes in the form of a regular journal.

Personal journals, like mirrors, allow us to see ourselves from our own advantage. They ask us to look and interpret what it is we see about ourselves, and all the beauty or ugliness that comes with it.

When we take time to journal we’re stepping up to the mirror and taking note of what we see. Are we having good thoughts? Do our ideas feel unique and valuable? Are we consistently thinking in the same ways we always have, limiting our ability to see new possibilities? Do we think in ways we want to be?

It’s hard to know what your hair is doing at any given moment, a mirror can help. Similarly, it’s hard to know what our thoughts are doing unless we put them in a place we can reflect on them.

We can’t get the food out of our teeth if we don’t first know it’s there. We’ll struggle to think in the ways we want to—creatively, more constructively—if we don’t put our thoughts into a mirror too.

How to think more about your thinking

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We’re always thinking, even when we don’t think we are.

Our brains are constantly working to solve problems, to remedy issues or mental conflicts, consolidating information, and processing new knowledge or stimulus. Our brains function in ways we can’t consciously comprehend, always doing something behind the scenes. By becoming more in-tune with our personal thinking patterns we can develop healthier habits of creative and productive thinking.

If you tend to think of unique ideas when you’re surrounded in a noisy room by strangers, it’s powerful to know why that is so you can recreate the stimulus more of the time. Or if you find yourself struggling to feel motivated whenever you’re at home, figuring out why that is can help you change the environment or create different types of motivators there, and elsewhere.

Building self-awareness isn’t always as easy as it may seem however. There isn’t a silver bullet to self-awareness, but there are ample things you can do on a daily basis to build awareness of your own thinking. In her book Insight, Tasha Eurich dives into the research around why self-awareness is so foundational to performance, decision making, relationships and creativity. She also uncovers a number of exercises you can do to improve how you think about your own thinking.

Meditation, occasional free-writing or journaling, reading, daily check-ins, trying new things, and having regular conversations with a good friend, are all great ways to become more aware of your thinking patterns.

With mindfulness meditation the goal is to sit silently with yourself for anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more. No music, no direction, just sitting with yourself and learning to observe where your thoughts go.

It’s amazing when people first start meditating like this. I’m often told by those just starting to meditate: “My thoughts jump all over the place! I can’t control what I’m thinking.” And that’s the whole point of this type of meditation practice, you’re not supposed to try and control your thoughts, you simply need to be aware of where they come from, how long your mind tends to sit on any particular subject, notice if there’s anything surprising or recurring in your thoughts that might need more attention when you’re done with the meditation practice.

The longer you meditate over time, the more in-tune you can become with your inner thinking patterns. (I recently built a simple meditation timer and tracker to help build a habit of the practice if you’re looking for an elegant app to help you get started.)

Free-writing or journaling also helps you become more aware of your thinking patterns, but in a way you can come back to later on and be more reflective of. The trick, as Eurich explains in Insight, is to not spend too much time being reflective or focusing on negatives in your life. A good way to keep journaling beneficial is to use prompts to help focus your thinking as you write.

You can find a ton of free resources online for daily writing or journaling prompts. If you have an iPhone or iPad I built a free app for creative writing called Prompts.

Eurich gives a few other exercises you can use to become more self-aware, including what’s known as the Miracle Question: imagine while sleeping tonight a miracle occurs which influences many parts of your life. When you wake up, think about how you would feel and what would have changed.

Or consider one of the best ways to gain awareness: ask someone you’re close to for feedback about you. What traits first come to mind when someone thinks about you? What do they view as your sentiment towards things, what are your regular habits or behaviors? When do you appear to be more creative or productive than not?

We may not be able to fully control everything that goes on in our brains, but through building self-awareness and habits of thinking we can help encourage more creative output.

Using systems for creativity diminishes your ability to experience it

In my career of creative research, I’ve spent much of my time believing that if we could better understand how creativity works we would be able to establish a process for doing more with it.

If we can determine the cognitive instigators of fresh ideas, we can better harness their abilities.

But now I’m wondering if creativity is what it is simply because happenstance allows it to be. By attempting to turn creativity into a process, we cut out much of what makes it work: newness, particularly in the frame of serendipity.

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson lists serendipity as one of the seven causes for creative ideas. In order for an idea to be creative, it must have some element of unanticipated and unpredictable newness to it. Without that unpredictability what you have isn’t creative, it’s analysis.

In the book Creativity, Inc., Pixar’s Ed Catmull writes of beginner’s mind, a type of zen practice that promotes new thinking by focusing on always believing you don’t know anything:

“By resisting beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new. The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.”

To put it another way: to be truly creative you cannot expect to follow a pattern and get equally creative results every time. What works under some circumstances (for example, taking a walk with a co-worker to resolve an outstanding task) may not work in others.

Simply because you found yourself inspired at the act of free writing does not make free writing a go-to method for inspiration.

This is part of what makes creativity so damning. You can dedicate your entire life to being creative, but unless you’re willing to forget what you know, what you think, you can’t stumble on the inspirations you are seeking out.

“To advance creatively, we must let go of something,” Ed Catmull writes.

Undoubtedly the best process for stumbling on creative ideas, then, is to stumble forward, often through the dark, often blindly. It can be tremendously frightening to do so, but it produces equally tremendous results.

At least, that’s what the past eight years of researching and writing and creativity has led me to think. But what do I know?

Read this next: What we get by demystifying creativity.

Making time to think about making time to think

Writing helps us to ground our ever-flowing thoughts. Walking is a great way to provoke insightful thinking. Doodling allows us the opportunity to visually explore thoughts as they come and go.

What all of these acts have in common is that they allow us to think deeply. I say “allow” because it seems that there is hardly any opportunity to really think these days. We’re bombarded with communication, stress, and stimulation. We have the television or radio endlessly droning in cafes, the ever-building burden of responsibilities, and the incredible pressures to compete with everyone and anyone for attention and opportunity.

When we are given just a few moments to simply think – to finely tune-in to what is going through our head at any given moment – we are doing what we do best, yet rarely have an opportunity to do well.

This, I think, is a crucial element in being able to think creatively: setting aside the time to simply think. Whether it’s doodling in a meeting, free-writing on a Saturday, meditating for 15 minutes in the morning, or visiting a museum to sit in quiet and ruminate about the work in front of you.

These things matter if we want to be creative, as they allow us to take control of our thoughts, to guide them, rather than letting them flow unconstrained, distracted, and weighed down.

If you want to be creative, you have to set time aside to think. It doesn’t matter how you do it, or really for how long, just that you do it.

Read this next: The ways writing helps improve your thinking

Photo by Scott Smith

Know a good idea when you see one

How do you ever really know if an idea is worthwhile or not?

Nobody can really tell for sure. I certainly couldn’t tell you.

It seems that the best thing to do is have a purpose or a goal on which to evaluate your ideas. The goal can be anything: to write the book outline, to doodle the plan, to tap out a rhythm, then do what it takes to accomplish that goal.

With a goal in place, any idea that meets or exceeds that marker can be identified as a good one.

This way there’s no confusion, no wondering. The idea is good – no matter what it looks like, how it works, or how far away it is from what you originally envisioned – because it accomplishes what you set out for it to do.

One of the best ways to determine whether an idea is a good one or not isn’t whether it fails. It’s whether you created what you set out to do, whether someone (somewhere) connects to the idea, and whether you keep being drawn to it in some way or another.

If you can address all of those things and the idea doesn’t seem sound, it’s time to consider that all of the other factors – the environment, the presentation, the timing – may be off, not the idea itself.