Four Secrets of Creativity

To get your mental engine humming, ignore conventional advice.

By Mary Diduch, published on May 1, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Want to unlock your inner da Vinci? Many oft-repeated ideas about kickstarting the creative process conflict directly with proven techniques. If mind maps, brainstorming, and free association have led to nothing more exciting than a run to Staples to buy more paper, it’s time to rethink your routine. Recent research finds that you can bust your creative funk if you:

…are sleepy. If you’re usually a morning person, try writing your novel at night. While alertness is crucial to cracking straightforward problems like math equations, creative tasks require big and non-specific thinking. When your tired brain wanders, it can make random connections that might jump-start your next idea, reports a recent study in Thinking and Reasoning.

…plan ahead. Eureka? Not exactly. Inspiration doesn’t usually strike spontaneously. In fact, improving time management can fuel creativity, finds a study from the Technical University of Crete in Greece. Setting aside specific creative time in the day reduces stress and carves out a space where ideas can flourish, says study coauthor Leonidas Zampetakis.

…butt heads. Don’t shy away from arguments. Embracing conflict often leads to novel thinking. To resolve a paradox, you’ll be forced to think outside the box. “Instead of feeling pressure or stress, recognize the potential in making sense of contradictions,” says Harvard University negotiation expert Francesca Gino.

…ditch the library. A bit of background noise can enhance creativity, reports a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research. But don’t blast the television just yet: Too much noise impairs our ability to process information. To promote abstract thinking, we need just the right amount of distraction—about the volume level you would find in a café.