Playing With Fire

Tips for switching gears to creative tasks.

Playing With Fire

None of us have the luxury of just one kind of work. A friend asked me how I switch between more rational tasks into ‘creative’ mode. A lot of it is just practice: the more you exercise your creative muscle - coming up with ideas, expressing yourself without self-judgement, ignoring any sense you're ‘not a creative person’ - the easier it is to do.

But there are a few techniques I’ve found useful to get into the right headspace, whether looking to come up with ideas, solve a problem, or just make something. Personally, I've been writing fiction (for fun!) for about 20 years, always have a bunch of random creative projects on the go and usually have some kind of work-related challenge in adland that needs some oomph.

  1. Change energy

Don’t sit in the same space. Walk. Jump around. Changing how your body feels is the quickest way to change your mood and mind… a little change of pace and space will prime you. Stress and bad juju are the enemies of creativity.

  1. Change materials

If you’ve been sat in front of a screen, grab pen and paper. If you’ve been writing, find different materials, like coloured pencils or textured paper. Express ideas through a music playlist. Sing/dance stuff.

Changing materials and techniques, however subtly, is a cue to your mind that you’re in a different space.

  1. Warm up with volume, not quality

One of the best warm-up exercises is to forget quality and just go for volume. The surrealists loved automatic writing: fill an entire page with handwritten bullshit, never letting the pen stop. It will get you going. It might spark something useful.

If you’re struggling with good options, list the worst options you can think of. Try and outdo yourself in your quest for the terrible. Don’t just lose the fear of failing; make it your mission, and you'll make something new.

This technique is useful and fun, but also beneficial. It can be just for the warm-up. But increasing the number of ‘reps’ in anything usually improves quality, over time. Focusing on volume, not outcome, is a great way to master a skill.

  1. Seek some inspo

The late, great adman Paul Arden had a good fallback option -

Look out the window… whatever the first thing you see, make that the solution to your problem.

Flick through old books. Go on blogs you like. Listen to music. Draw inspiration from somewhere else, whether the outside world or the online. Soak it all in. Twist and remix stuff. Steal proudly, but always add something. Be a beginner.

  1. Make it a habit

Like I said: creativity is demand-side driven. The more you ask, the more you get.

In Keep Going, Austin Kleon talks about how a fixed routine - and a fixed location, like his ‘bliss station’ for creativity - makes it easy for him to get into the habit. Make it a habit, and it becomes easy.

In this case, practice does make perfect.