First and foremost, as the editor and founder of Idea to Value, I want to say a big thank you for deciding to join us as someone who wants to improve their creativity. It’s people like you who are the most likely to come up with the breakthrough ideas of tomorrow.
You’re probably on this page because you asked to be sent the Idea to Value creativity tracker, the original worksheet designed to help you include the sorts of activities in your life which will help train your Deep Creativity. Either you were sent it directly by email, or you got it as part of your free membership level to this community. (If you haven’t got your free account yet, you can sign up here, and it is often updated with new members-only resources which you can access from your members homepage).
What is Deep Creativity?
This is the type of thinking which triggers ideas when you aren’t expecting them. It is related to the sorts of ideas which rely on what is called divergent thinking, using parts of the brain which piece together information in radically different ways to form original ideas.
This is based on more than 3 years of research so far into how the brain actually comes up with ideas (Nick Skillicorn continues to refine it based on new research).
So in order for you to understand why these are the activities listed on the sheet, let me explain to you what creativity experts have concluded happens in the brain when you have an idea
The Four Stages of Creativity
Your brain will go through all four stages above when developing a truly new idea. What is fascinating is that the majority of this work actually happens in the subconcious parts of your brain which you are not aware of and over which you have little control. This is one of the reasons why ideas will often come to you when you are least expecting them, like in the shower.
The various exercises to be completed as part of the creativity tracker are specifically selected to train all of these stages of creativity, to give you an overall improvement and benefit.
[If you’re interested in more of the science behind how this works, I strongly suggest you watch this video interview I had with Professor Vincent Walsh who is looking at the neuroscience of creativity.]
How to use the creativity tracker – Setup
The tracker is designed to be printed and kept somewhere visual, where you can note down what you’ve done on a daily / weekly / monthly basis. A4 (or letter) size works best for keeping it in a notebook, A3 size to be stuck to a wall.
You will notice that the first column says “Day”, and there are 31 rows grouped into sections of 7 rows. This represents the maximum of 31 days in a month, grouped by week.
It is completely up to you how you want to start your numbering for whatever month you begin on. Some people will prefer to label the first row as the first day of the month, no matter what weekday it is. Some people will prefer to have their first day be a Monday to align with the weeks. If you’re starting partway through a month (which the majority of people are likely to have when they download the tracker), they might prefer to number all the rows from 1 onwards and shade out the days in the month which have already elapsed (if you are just getting started, this is the method I recommend for most beginners, as it encourages you to get started immediately).
Understanding the sections
There are six different sections, representing the types of activities you should be completing, along with how frequently you should be doing each type of activity (every day, at least once a week, or one per month).
For the daily exercises, it is important to understand that this is not a religion, so don’t punish yourself if you miss one. The more often you manage to do them, and the more they become a habit, the more benefit you will start seeing. But I know that sometimes life gets in the way, and you might find yourself at the end of a day not having been able to complete a section. That is ok, just note it down, and keep on with the schedule and habit of doing them in the following days. Don’t try to “catch up” by doing extra sections the next day as this won’t have much of a benefit overall.
Section A: 15 minutes of unfocused time
We now know that your brain’s ability to be creative depends not only on what you know and how you approach problems, but also by how active the brain is. Much like your heart rate, your brain has different frequencies which it operates at depending on how active it is, which also determines what it becomes good at. When you just wake up, it is still in a relaxed state, but as you become more alert and get to work, it “speeds up” as it is required to focus on tasks. When it is focused, it becomes very good at executing on problems in front of it, and combining ideas in a conscious way.
The issue is that this also prevents it using energy to form deep new connections which lead to ideas, which happens most efficiently when it is quite relaxed, in what’s known as an “alpha” state. This is why people will often have ideas when they aren’t actually focused on a challenge, such as when they are in the shower, driving, walking or waking up (watch the interview where I go into more detail on this here). Therefore, part of becoming more creative is about making sure that you have some time each day which encourages your brain to get comfortable going back into this state.
Therefore, part of becoming more creative is about making sure that you have some time each day which encourages your brain to get comfortable going back into this state. And this requires you to force yourself to have “unfocused time”, when you aren’t engaged in any activity which is requiring you to focus. What sort of things require you to focus and should therefore be avoided during this time? Here are a few:
- Doing work
- Speaking with people (including meetings)
- Playing games
- Looking at a screen of any kind (TV, computer, phone are all equally bad)
- Actively listening to anything which includes a human voice (conversations or music included)
- Being in a noisy environment
- Engaging in something competitive, like team sport
Essentially, you need to become comfortable letting your mind wander for a period of about 15 minutes. Be warned, the first time a lot of people try this they actually find it physically uncomfortable, and want to start doing “something” like check their phone (fail!). The secret is to find a time during the day when you can fit this 15 minute period into something else you’re doing, which often involves going somewhere (to collect your lunch, walking during your commute, a stroll around the park etc). This makes it significantly easier and will quickly become a comfortable habit.
How to mark it successfully on the tracker: If you managed to have 15 minutes of unfocused time that day, just put a tick in that box. Done
Section B: Creativity Exercises
Your brain is a magical machine which has evolved to be unbelievably efficient. To illustrate this, get out a stopwatch and time yourself to see how quickly you can solve the following two puzzles, while at the same time gently tapping yourself on the top of your head:
- What is 7 + 3?
- What is 7³?
While you’re likely to have solved the first one faster than the blink of an eye, for most people the second would be much more challenging, requiring us either to calculate it manually or cheat. You’re also likely to be able to do the first one tapping your head, but you may have even noticed your tapping stopped for the second one. The reason for the difference is not the complexity of the math itself, it’s that you have memorised the answer to the first equation many years ago. The brain is stunningly efficient at returning memories since it has been taught that these “correct” answers are safe and can be relied upon and it finds this process very comfortable.
The issue arises when you’re trying to come up with new ideas. When set any challenge, the first things your brain will look for, find and make you aware of are the “correct” answers, which are stored as memories. But if it needs to push beyond these memories, it needs to begin not only accessing less efficient and slower networks of neurons, it also needs to try various wild combinations of knowledge which don’t result in a correct answer, which requires a lot of energy and can result in a risky solution. This is why even though the “eureka” moment you come up with an idea often feels great, the time before the idea can be physically uncomfortable and scary to many people. You can find out more about this in my TEDx talk on the science of creativity.
This can be overcome by doing regular daily exercises to train the brain in overcoming this “comfort barrier” through asking questions to which there is not definitive correct answer, and then asking it to come up with as many different solutions as possible for a period of time. A good metaphor is doing physical exercises which push your comfort limits, like seeing how many pushups you can do in one minute. The first time you attempt it, it will likely feel very difficult and you won’t be able to do more than a few. But as your body (or brain) gets used to them and begin to build up their abilities, you’ll be able to do more and more in the same time period.
My research shows that three short sets of creativity exercises a day is likely to begin making the brain a lot more comfortable in working through creative challenges when they come up in real life. If you’re starting out, I suggest beginning with a time limit of 2 minutes to think of as many diverse and original ideas to each exercise for the first week, then moving on to 3 minutes per exercise in the second week, 4 minutes in the third week and then 5 minutes in all the weeks after that (more than 5 minutes will lead less improvement). If you want to get one month worth of exercises, you can check out my book 30 Days of Creativity Training on amazon.
So where do you find creativity exercises to complete?
(last dated: Feb 2016) Now, this is where it is challenging. Because this field of research is so new, there aren’t any set programmes or lists of exercises out there which can be done regularly. Moreover, the exercises also need to be a surprise each time they are seen, so producing them in the form of a long list will lead to the eye skimming future exercises which ruins their effectiveness. At the moment, the most efficient thing to do is to find a group of people and alternate each day who sets an open-ended creativity exercise to the other people, to keep it fresh each time.
To address this issue, Idea to Value is currently investing in building and producing an online training system of creativity exercises which we hope to begin testing soon and make available in the coming months. This will be a truly groundbreaking way to improve creativity found nowhere else on the internet, and we’re hoping to make it affordable enough for everyone to benefit from it. Keep an eye out for regular updates on our progress through email and on the blog.
Section C: Challenges you’re working on
This section is a lot easier to explain. Other research into the creative processes of not only great artists but great innovators shows a common thread:
- They come up with a large number of ideas to address whatever challenge they are working on
- When one thing turns out not to work or need improvement, they try to learn from why and then adjust the idea for the next attempt, or try a completely different idea
- They keep executing on their ideas
Essentially, this section is about holding you accountable to actually execute and improve your ideas. Because no idea is perfect to begin with, and that is no reason to feel like it is a failure.
Because no idea is perfect to begin with. Even the works of geniuses go through iterations and improvements before they get to the stage where we remember them. That’s the way creativity also works: It will produce a new, original idea, but that will need to be refined based on feedback from experiments and people.
How to mark it successfully on the tracker: So in this section, each day you should write a very short summary of a challenge you’re working on, or a solution you’re after, and then a summary of an idea that you’re willing to try that day. If that idea ends up fixing the challenge, you can put a massive tick next to it, along with a smiley face if you like. And if not, it gives you the basis to refine it for the next time you attempt the challenge.
Section D: Variety & New Experiences
As we previously mentioned, you brain is efficient at retrieving memories. Another effect of this is that it becomes very comfortable recognising patterns and then choosing the most efficient next steps based on memory, all in your subconscious. You may not realise this, but you are likely to be experiencing a large proportion of your day in a sort of autopilot state.
Think back to any regular activity you do, such as commuting through the same train line, driving the same roads, or your morning routine where you prepare breakfast. Now ask yourself “what exactly was I doing during that time?”. In many cases you won’t be able to remember or visualise it. You might feel like you had “zoned out”. This is because your brain was choosing the most efficient thing to do: it could either process the same information coming into your eyes, ears and skin each time it happened (which requires a lot of processing and energy), or recognise a pattern of activity was about to happen and relied on memories instead (much easier as these neural pathways have been used time and again, each time reinforcing themselves).
These habits and routines may be efficient and easy, but they also decrease the brain’s ability to form new connections between distant pieces of knowledge and generating ideas. I spoke to Assistant Professor Simone Ritter about why this happens, and what can be done to address it.
This is why in this section, you should make sure you actively seek out new experiences and variety as often as possible, and making a conscious effort every now and again to get out of a routine / habit. While there are little things which can be done every day (like not getting the same type of coffee / tea / soft drink every day), this is more likely to happen on a weekly level.
The two types of activities should be as follows:
- Variety: try to actively step out of your routine once a week, such as taking a new route to work / home as often as possible, or getting lunch from a different place. This will snap you out of your autopilot state more frequently and get your brain accustomed to it.
- New Experiences: Give your mind something it hasn’t experienced before and push it out of its comfort zone. This can be by going to new neighbourhoods or cities, taking a dance class, going to a heavy metal concert or a modern art gallery or a Tai Chi class or watching your first Film Noir of Kung Fu movie. The more varied and differentiated the knowledge and experiences you feed your brain, the more various and unique combinations it will begin trying out to form ideas, even when you aren’t trying.
How to mark it successfully on the tracker: Write a short 2-3 word summary of something new you did that week. You can fit as many in the boxes as you actually accomplished. And then in the following weeks, try out things which are different from those as well.
Section E: New Knowledge
All ideas begin based on knowledge, since this is just a collection of information spread across neural pathways in your brain, each piece connected to numerous other pieces. So by gaining new knowledge, you’re helping the preparation stage of creativity, where it can find not only new information to be used in developing ideas, but also new starting points to try new combinations.
You should try to gain three types new knowledge each week:
- Domain knowledge: information and new facts which are related to what you specialise in / work on (your domain). Especially in industries or jobs which require a lot of experience and knowledge, it becomes very easy to get to a stage where you think “this is what I’ve learned to be correct, and this is what I’m good at, and this is what works in our industry”. But you should stay up to date with what other people are trying out in the field. What sort of research is out there? Are other companies trying a different business model? What new techniques is this up-and-coming artist trying out? What are the customers thinking? So try to gain this knowledge not only by reading from the big trade journals and going to the big conferences, but by reading from some of the alternative viewpoints, academics doing research, bloggers and smaller companies.
- Domain-adjacent knowledge: Similar to the reasons above, but remember that often the biggest breakthroughs to problems come from people outside of the industry, because they approach problems which “experts” are stuck on with a different perspective. And often these new insights come from people in a similar / adjacent industry to the challenge, as they are likely to be dealing with similar limitations. So for example, if you work on cars, an adjacent domain might be boats or light aircraft. If you work on blenders, it might be lawnmowers as they both need a controlled spinning blade. If you work banking, the field of mobile technology is becoming more and more adjacent, especially in the developing world. So try to also get regular information from a couple of similar industries which are different from your own.
- Non-domain knowledge: Finally, one of the most effective ways of training your creativity is to build up and satisfy your curiosity. Learn things about how the world works just because they are interesting, whether or not they are likely to solve any specific problem. Feeding curiosity with a positive mindset helps the brain become better at forming temporary new connections between vastly different pieces of information. Documentaries are a great way to do this, and it can also be achieved at the same time as whatever you do for Section D: New Experiences. Idea to Value also has a whole category of articles where we regularly show interesting insights into how the world (and the things within it) work, so keep an eye on your inbox for those.
How to mark it successfully on the tracker: Write a short 2-3 word summary of something new you learned that week. And then in the following weeks, try out things which are different from those as well.
Section F: Creative Project
This is where my students usually freak out a bit!
“Nick, you want us to produce a whole creative project each month??? I can’t write a book or paint a picture that quickly!”
That’s not what I’m suggesting.
This section is about encouraging you to produce something, anything, that you take ownership of, and release it out there into the world, even if you feel it isn’t 100% perfect. It is this fear of failure if we don’t reach perfection that is one of the most dominant forces holding back your creativity.
Also important to realise is that this activity each month isn’t about skill. It’s about getting it done.
Executing rather than execution.
It doesn’t matter if you’re not a great painter, singer, dancer, carpenter or programmer. Those are all skills, and skills can be improved over time, and they will improve if you work at them.
Make a commitment to yourself that each month, you will create something which didn’t exist before, either for work, someone else, a group, the internet or just for yourself (which is often the most liberating). And with all the tools available for free or cheaply built into your smartphones, computers or the internet, there is no excuse.
It doesn’t need to take a whole month to produce. Some might just take a few minutes and be ready, whereas others might take a bit longer. But what is important is that you individually had intentional input into whatever it is being created, so for example just taking a smartphone picture and using the built-in filters before posting it online does not count since you didn’t really have much of an input. At the end of each month, you need to be able to look back and say “I created something”.
Some examples of creative projects you can try (but find your own):
- Start a blog and write about a subject that interests you
- Use your smartphone to record videos and then use free online tools (like the Youtube video editor) to upload it to Youtube
- If you’re not a programmer, learn CSS
- Create a new PowerPoint template design
- Write a limerick
- Draw a sketch
- Varnish some wood, like some cheap picture frames
- Create a mosaic out of post it notes
And then each month, try to push yourself a bit further than you did previously. Eventually you should then start asking other people what they think, and getting more comfortable taking on their feedback (which will itself always have variety within it).
How to mark it successfully on the tracker: Write a short description of what you created and set yourself a challenge for the following month. If you did more than one, write them all down.
And there you have it.
By regularly following the guidance on activities on this tracker, you should soon feel progressively more comfortable coming up with ideas, and you’ll also notice that they come to you more easily, are more diverse and more creative.
I’d love to hear how your progress is going, so let me know in an email (I read all emails).