What to do when there’s no time for creativity

Every morning it seems as though a hundred things are clawing for my attention. Maybe you can relate to the feeling.

When I first wake up there are emails which have piled up during the night, dozens of notifications on social media, and the increasingly heavy pressure to start the day and get to work.

By the time I’ve made it into the office the list of things that need my attention feels entirely endless. There never really feels like I have time to be creative. I rarely feel like I can push all the distractions off long enough to really think.

My team needs me to solve a problem that bubbled up yesterday, my boss needs help with something urgent, and if I don’t get the work done today I know it will be there tomorrow in addition to even more stuff. My relationships need attention too. An old friend is in town and wants to plan dinner, my family keeps calling, I need to schedule a vet visit for my dog.

When it comes down to it: the reality is there will always be something to get in the way of creativity.

It should come as no real surprise: creative thinking is often viewed as secondary because it’s akin to play, experimentation, and change. Who has time for play and experimentation when there’s very real work sitting in front of them? Why try changing anything if things are working reasonably enough?

This is one myth around creative thinking we must break: if you don’t make time for creativity, it won’t happen.

Those who regularly practice creativity do so intentionally. They make creativity part of their routine, they regularly find excuses to experiment and play, and they schedule time for reflection and creative self-fulfillment.

If there’s no time for creativity, it’s because you haven’t made time for it. No excuse.

If you want to make more time for creativity, I recommend trying three things:

1. Make creativity an intentional act first thing in the morning.

Wake up 30 minutes to an hour or more earlier than usual. Set aside that time for writing, painting, meditation, a mindful walk around the neighborhood, anything that encourages creative thought.

By getting it out of the way, first thing in the day, you limit the potential for distractions. Starting your day with a creative intent also helps set your mentality for the rest of the day.

2. Embed creativity into anything you can get away with.

If you’re having trouble finding the time to be creative, try incorporating a little creativity into everything you’re already doing.

How might you make your work a bit different? What would happen if you took a different route to wherever it is you need to go? Who could you pull into brainstorming that you normally wouldn’t? Where could you try adjusting your environment or tools, just to see what happens?

3. Schedule time for yourself.

If you regularly find it difficult to find time for creativity, set aside small chunks of time throughout the day as dedicated creative thinking blocks.

You can use the time to challenge yourself, to produce creative work, or as a means of simply thinking and allowing yourself space to ruminate on ideas.

If you want more advice on how to be creative with little time or low energy, consider these tips from Michael Nobbs, who lives every day with Myalgic Encephalopathy/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.



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?

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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?

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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.



Two ways to improve how you personally have ideas

“Do not try to change yourself, you are unlikely to succeed. Instead: work hard to improve the way you already perform.” — Peter Drucker

If you aren’t aware of how you generate ideas, you’ll always struggle to come up with new ones when you need them most.

As much as we may want to believe in a formula for coming up with creative ideas, the reality is each of us develop and generate ideas in an entirely personal way. The best advice you’ll ever hear about how to be creative is just that: find the techniques that work for you.

Your brain may be physically similar to mine and some other 7.5 billion people, but the small connections that make up what’s in your skull are undeniably different than those in mine. Because of your unique life experiences and original perspective, how you think will always be somewhat different than how anyone else does. Your brain is very much uniquely yours, so are the ways in works.

So why would we rely on the exact same techniques for generating ideas or being creative? What works for me may not work for you. What “clicks” in your brain may not do much to connect in mine.

How do we learn what works best for us?

Document the experience of having an idea.

Whenever you feel a moment of “aha!” get into the habit of writing down not only the idea, but also what you were doing when it occurred. Where were you? How did you feel? What had you done just before the idea struck? When did you first feel the idea developing? Why might the idea have struck then rather than another time?

Even if the idea doesn’t turn out to be your best idea, or even a realistically feasible one, the act of having an idea that catches you off guard is valuable. You’d benefit by writing down anything you can about the experience.

Then look back through your notes. A few weeks of notes are helpful, but six months to a year should give you a really strong sense for how you personally generate ideas.

When you look through your writing, take note of any trends or surprising points that stand out. Where are you when ideas usually strike? Are there ever moments you encounter ideas more readily than others? Are there people or circumstances that prompt you to generated ideas? Where might you need support or otherwise be lacking what you need to generate more ideas, more of the time?

Of course one of the easiest ways to be mindful of how you generate ideas is to journal often. But self reflection is just one way to become aware of how you generate ideas. Another way is through feedback analysis.

Get feedback from those you’re closest to.

It helps to get an outside perspective on your creativity too. Talk to those closest to you—friends, family, co-workers—about how you act whenever you seem to have an idea. Ask them for feedback on your creative process and habits.

Have they noticed any peculiar behaviors whenever you’re about to have an idea? Do they feel a shift in energy or focus when they’re around you and an idea strikes? Have they ever felt inspired or motivated by your creativity, or vice-versa?

We may not fully understand everything that goes on in the recesses of our brains, but through personal reflection and feedback analysis you can start to get a sense for how you generate ideas. The next time you need to spur new ideas, you’ll be better equipped because you’ll have a more intimate sense of what does, and does not, help you do just that.



A creative life means opening a lot of small doors

“Art is the big door, but real life is a lot of small doors that you must pass through to create something new.” — Jean Giraud

To be creative is to be open to the idea your ideas—your way of understanding the world—are limited by what you have experienced.

A simple way of looking at it is: if you don’t open the door, ideas can’t get in. I got a good reminder of the importance of being open recently, of how being close minded or restricted by your beliefs can hinder creative thinking.

I was in Indianapolis talking to students about how to life a more creative life. I’ve been writing about creativity for 10 years, a reasonable amount of time to get my ducks in a row on the matter.

And yet, during the visit I ran into a few people—specifically: adults—who found themselves struggling with the notion of being open as a means of gathering more points from which to form ideas. They wanted to be more creative, they wanted to inspire others to be more creative too, so they asked me how to do it.

My response? I told them what I’ve learned, about helping students be open to new and different things, to change routine for the sake of changing it, taking the time to think about experiences. I mentioned failure and the importance of having small failures and how to overcome setbacks in order to uncover novel and useful ideas.

When I explained all this, a few of the people I talked to looked at me kind of skeptical, like none of the things I was talking about would make any difference.

I can’t blame them for their skepticism, it’s hard to hear anything that might stand in the way of your beliefs, or how you’ve always thought of things.

But I couldn’t help but think: maybe that’s your problem right there. You aren’t willing to consider different perspectives so you end up thinking how you always have. You exist inside a tiny bubble you’ve created for yourself with your own thinking. So when anything sharp comes along—a different opinion, someone who says you should try the thing you failed once at—you run the other way.

It’s no wonder so many people struggle to uncover a really insightful idea, or fail to learn means for overcoming life’s setbacks or difficulties. So stuck in their own way, they can’t see that the easiest way out of a bind, or routine, or block, is by opening up to new and different perspectives.

The quickest route to thinking creatively isn’t protecting your ideas or way of thinking. It’s accepting the fact your ideas, your perspectives on the world, are just one small blip in the much larger scheme of things.

If you want a way out of the monotony of your standard method of thinking: try picking up a book you’d never consider reading, and read it. Talk to people on the other side of the world (it’s easier than ever to do thanks to the Internet), or if you can afford it: go to the other side of the world and talk face-to-face with them. Try the frightening, hole-in-the-wall restaurant down the street. Do anything to broaden your perspectives.



If you do nothing, nothing happens

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If you want to be creative: you’re better off doing things than waiting around for inspiration to strike.

Too many people say they want to think more creatively—they want to have ideas for making money, turning their art into their livelihood, or how to have an impact—but end up doing little to nothing because they wait around for inspiration to strike. If you wait for the perfect idea you’ll end up with nothing.

On the other hand, something I’ve learned over my years is that if you take a chance and put in just a little work, you’ll get so far ahead of everyone else. While they’re waiting to be inspired by something (they don’t know what) you’ll have already learned more than enough to keep the ideas coming.

Doing nothing teaches you just that: nothing. But when you try something, when you dabble and experiment, you learn. You learn what might not work and what makes you feel good. You learn where creative energy might come from and what pulls it out of you.

Of course you have to find time to step back and reflect on whatever it is you do, but as my old peer Jez Burrows once said: if you do nothing, nothing happens.