The growing caste of professional “creatives” are asked to do something that doesn’t psychologically make sense: innovate day after day. Stated another way, to break from routine websites, writing, or design, and to do it routinely.
Yet the work gets done, and the designers and writers that keep their jobs are able to reliably produce shiny creative newness. Their secret? When we demand ourselves to be routinely creative, we need creative routines. Actually, routines are just the start. While working, creatives strap on a huge number of constraints and chains…in extreme cases, a creative cage!
To claim that constraints are necessary to our creativity may seem wrong at first. This is because we are overrun with misleading stereotypes about creativity, like “absolute artistic freedom” and the artist’s desire to create without any limitations. As my Grandy Scoots would say, Hooey!
As a growing body of psychology research shows, structure is the sustenance of creativity. When creativity breaches out of the ether, the trick is to keep it in your toolbelt with structure. The structure that is right for you won’t hinder your freedom, it will instead focus your ingenuity.
Deep within all of us are pathways to ingenuity that can be opened with the right structuring. Below are three angles of creative structuring that can help you tap into that natural ingenuity.
Let’s start with the old. 18th-Century English poet John Keats knew about creativity. His almost unbounded creative energy made him one of the English language’s most inventive and revered poets, despite only writing for four years (not to mention his final, 25th year being consumed by tuberculosis). Yeah, I’ll admit a literary crush here.
Yet his poems were not sprawling and revolutionary in the sense of, say, Walt Whitman’s. Instead, they were almost always sonnets–at the time Keats wrote, the sonnet form was gathering dust, associated with buttoned-up love poetry of Shakespeare and Donne. Indulge the failed English teacher in me by attending to Keats’ 1819 poem, d, which contains both a justification for Keats’ chosen form and, underneath, a theory of human creativity:
If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d
By ear industrious, and attention meet:
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.
To Keats, the sonnet was limiting to the English language, but one that had extra potential for beauty within its constraints. If the sonnet must by “fetter’d” (come with unbending rules about rhyme and meter: 14 lines, 10 syllables per line, a set rhyme scheme…), instead of letting “the Muse be free” (writing poetry that is wild, natural and without structure), Keats will adorn sonnets “with garlands of her own” (write really good sonnets).
Sonnets were something conventional that Keats’ ingenuity made unconventional. Rather than totally inventing a new form of poetry, he creatively innovated what inhabited the form–with Keats, lines run over, half-rhymes abound, and sonnets read like gripping narrative rather than cloying romantic appeals.
Like Keats’ sonnets, adhering to the parameters of a form can provide the limitation necessary to unleash ingenuity on a specific task. If you’re a designer, the “traditional” tools of templates, fonts and grids are a daily reality, and a great deal of your work fulfills predestined models. Yet, within these stayed models one can bring limitless creativity.
Even if your creativity doesn’t express itself in poetry, take heed! Like Keats, DT’s IMPRESS service doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, or, to be honest, to do anything that hasn’t been done. Instead, we leverage web design patterns that are proven as effective, impactful and meaningful, and bring character and originality to each page (all on a compressed timeline). We expect the 19th-Century poet would be proud.
2. Get Flow
Another way to describe ingenuity is creative flow, a state of deep engagement and productivity with creative tasks at hand. In his research of creativity, Cognitive Psychologist Ronald T Kellogg writes:
[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the [artistic] process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of [an artist’s] method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state.
As Kellogg says above, practices, or structures, that encourage flow bring about a special creative state. Here are several to keep in mind:
Set the right goals
According to the experts, we tend to “set goals that go against our nature,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of Confidence. “We all have predispositions, character traits, and habits that we have built over many years….most of our New Year’s resolutions and goals involve breaking these patterns, which is very difficult to do and requires a lot of work.”
The wrong goals can work against you, and the right goals will challenge and energize you toward betterment. Instead of setting goals that change who you are, set goals that cultivate and leverage your best.
Keep a rhythm going
An axiom in boosting productivity is to remain on a strict work-break-work cycle. One is the Pomodoro Technique, or to work for 25 minutes, dropping work completely for five, then resuming for 25, etc.
Limit team size
Follow the lead of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, and keep the number of people on teams quality and very limited (more on Bezos’ “Two Pizza Rule”).
Single-tasking as a remedy
Are there 11 tabs on your browser right now? Read the papers: single tasking is the new multi-tasking. Multi-tasking (or rather, “attempting to multi-task,” since multi-tasking is basically impossible) impedes the focus of our creative processes.
Back to another writer, Haruki Murakami:
When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.
The Paris Review, Summer 2004 / [[See also: “The Running Novelist,” The New Yorker, June 9, 2008]]
Murakami’s insight (“mesmerism”) taps into the mystical dimension of creativity–but it gets at the same idea as Keats and the neurology of creativity: When strictly adhering to a structure (of assignment, routine, process…), one gains access to sustained ingenuity. When you are in your creative mode, ritual keeps you creative.
Let’s toss romantic delusions about creativity on the compost heap. Thought doesn’t come from nothing, and creativity (as unromantic as it may seem), requires a steady routine and structure. A similarly realistic approach to innovation sees breakthroughs as a result of iteration (approaching perfection via slogging trials) rather than singular events of divine inspiration. With a realistic sense of creativity comes a way to take control of it, and a better way toward goal-reaching.