Need a Creativity Boost? Try This New Multi-Pronged Approach

Groundbreaking research pinpoints 14 specific 'building blocks' of creativity.

Posted Nov 28, 2016

Source: Ollyy/Shutterstock

Earlier this week, researchers from New Zealand's University of Otaga published findings suggesting that everyday creativity produces an upward spiral of well-being and a path to flourishing. The November 2016 research appears in The Journal of Positive Psychology. 

Lead author Tamlin Conner found that every day after someone had participated in a creative activity the previous day, he or she felt a psychological boost that fueled more creativity on the following day. This created a chain reaction which resulted in more creative output and an upward spiral of positive emotions that could be strung together for many days in a row once someone was on a roll. 

The most common examples of creativity reported in the study were: creative writing (poetry, short fiction); making new recipes; painting, drawing, and sketching; knitting and crochet; graphic and digital design; songwriting and musical performance.

In their abstract, the researchers conclude, "Overall, these findings support the emerging emphasis on everyday creativity as a means of cultivating positive psychological functioning." These findings open up more complex and elusive questions such as: "What is creativity?" and "How can someone kickstart his or her daily creativity?"

A Computer Expert and Linguist Identify 14 Building Blocks of Creativity

To answer the "What is creativity?" question and present empirical evidence that unpacks the complexities of the creative process (in a way that translates into practical and actionable advice) I tracked down a new study from the University of Kent that was published October 2016 in the journal PLOS ONE

This meta-analysis brings together a massive amount of data based on everyday language used to describe creativity from 1950 to 2009 in thousands of articles from almost one hundred different academic publications. To create their lexicon of creativity, Anna Jordanous (a computer analyst) and Bill Keller (a language expert) homed in on 694 words used to describe creativity that they boiled down into 14 key components of creativity.

Anna Jordanous, used with permission
These fourteen key components of creativity were identified through a meta-analysis of word clusters by Anna Jordanous and Bill Keller.
Source: Anna Jordanous, used with permission

Agreeing on a singular definition of creativity is practically impossible. There are countless denotations and connotations of creativity and the creative process. How would you describe creativity? Personally, I describe creativity as "Connecting novel ideas that are seemingly unrelated in new and useful ways." 

Legendary creativity researcher, Ellis Paul Torrance, once said, "Creativity defies precise definition … even if we had a precise conception of creativity, I am certain we would have difficulty putting it into words." In an attempt to measure creativity, he created the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) in the late-twentieth century. The TTCT consists of a battery of simple tests designed to gauge divergent thinking and other problem-solving skills.

What makes the 14 building blocks of creativity identified by Jordanous and Keller so useful is that having everyday language which pinpoints the multi-facets of creativity makes the creative process more tangible and easier to tackle. For example, if you are feeling stuck or have 'writer's block,' you could review this list for both inspiration and insights. After reviewing the checklist, people from all walks of life and creative disciplines could be reminded that "active involvement and persistence" is just as important as "spontaneity and subconscious processing."

Below is a detailed list created by Jordanous and Keller that specifically describes the elements of the 14 key components of creativity they've identified.

14 Building Blocks of Creativity by Jordanous and Keller

1. Active Involvement and Persistence

Being actively involved; reacting to and having a deliberate effect on the creative process.

The tenacity to persist with the creative process throughout, even during problematic points.

2. Dealing with Uncertainty

Coping with incomplete, missing, inconsistent, contradictory, ambiguous and/or uncertain information. Element of risk and chance—no guarantee that information problems will be resolved.

Not relying on every step of the process to be specified in detail; perhaps even avoiding routine or pre-existing methods and solutions.

3. Domain Competence

Domain-specific intelligence, knowledge, talent, skills, experience and expertise.

Knowing a domain well enough to be equipped to recognize gaps, needs or problems that need solving and to generate, validate, develop and promote new ideas in that domain.

4. General Intellectual Ability

General intelligence and IQ.

Good mental capacity.

5. Generation of Results

Working towards some end target, goal, or result.

Producing something (tangible or intangible) that previously did not exist.

6. Independence and Freedom

Working independently with autonomy over actions and decisions.

Freedom to work without being bound to pre-existing solutions, processes or biases; perhaps challenging cultural or domain norms.

7. Intention and Emotional Involvement

Personal and emotional investment, immersion, self-expression, and involvement in the creative process.

The intention and desire to be creative: creativity is its own reward, a positive process giving fulfillment and enjoyment.

8. Originality

Novelty and originality; a new product, or doing something in a new way; seeing new links and relations between previously unassociated concepts.

Results that are unpredictable, unexpected, surprising, unusual, out of the ordinary.

9. Progression and Development

Movement, advancement, evolution and development during a process.

Whilst progress may or may not be linear, and an actual end goal may be only loosely specified (if at all), the entire process should represent some progress in a particular domain or task.

10. Social Interaction and Communication

Communicating and promoting work to others in a persuasive and positive manner.

Mutual influence, feedback, sharing and collaboration between society and individual.

11. Spontaneity/Subconscious Processing

No need to be in control of the whole process; thoughts and activities may inform the process subconsciously without being inaccessible for conscious analysis, or may receive less attention than others.

Being able to react quickly and spontaneously when appropriate, without needing to spend too much time thinking about the options.

12. Thinking and Evaluation

Consciously evaluating several options to recognize potential value in each and identify the best option, using reasoning and good judgement.

Proactively selecting a decided choice from possible options, without allowing the process to stagnate under indecision.

13. Value

Making a useful contribution that is valued by others and recognized as an achievement and influential advancement; perceived as special, ‘not just something anybody would have done’.

The end product is relevant and appropriate to the domain being worked in.

14. Variety, Divergence, and Experimentation

Generating a variety of different ideas to compare and choose from, with the flexibility to be open to several perspectives and to experiment and try different options out without bias.

Multi-tasking during the creative process.

Just like baking a cake—these 14 ingredients can serve as a recipe for your daily creative process. If you feel like something you're wrestling with creatively is lacking gusto, or isn't coming together cohesively...go through the checklist above to pinpoint what might be missing and should be added to the mix.

Creativity is always going to be a complex juggling act and work in progress. That said, having language that deconstructs the creative process helps to break it down into specific individual spokes that are all part of a singular wheel. By 'truing' each spoke on this wheel regularly, you can keep your creative activity moving forward on a daily basis. 

As another example: Maybe you're overthinking and micromanaging a creative project. After consulting this list, you might realize that it's time to 'zoom out' and 'unclamp' by being more intuitive and less cerebral. Conversely, maybe you're being too laid back and need to dial in by forcing yourself to be more results driven, analytical, and pay closer attention to detail . . . If you are feeling stifled creatively, you might review this list and ask yourself, "Am I playing it too safe? Should I just 'wing it' by introducing more spontaneity and uncertainty?" You get the gist.

When describing his method of acting at a roundtable discussion, my Hampshire College classmate, Liev Schreiber, once said, "I just give the scene what it needs." I love this advice. And believe it can be applied to any creative discipline, especially with this 14-point checklist in hand.

Aerobic Exercise Can Boost Your Creative Capacity

Aerobic exercise is a fantastic way to get your creative juices going. Albert Einstein casually said of his earth-shattering E=mc² eureka! moment, "I thought of it while riding my bicycle." 

I'm someone who tries to flex my creative activity muscle most days of the week; especially when I'm working out physically. Based on life experience, I've found the best way to maintain superfluidity (a state of zero friction or viscosity) creatively is to stay nimble by constantly taking inventory and analyzing my ever-changing creative processes, especially when my body is in motion.

For example, during a long jog, I'll text myself messages to remind myself of creative revelations I've had about a riddle I'm actively ruminating about and trying to solve. The minute I get home, I transcribe these texts into a permanent file on my computer. A lot of the ideas are duds. But every once in awhile, there is a gem. 

Over the years, I've made myself a human lab rat and road tested the power of running, biking, or swimming—at an easy and low-intensity pace—to spark creativity. Anecdotally, I know that exercising at a 'tonic level' facilitates my ability to "think about my thinking" and connect the dots in new and useful ways.

Throughout history, many creative thinkers have had profound aha! moments while hiking in the wilderness, walking in a city park, or doing some other type of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. (To read more on the link between aerobic exercise and the creative process, check out my Psychology Today blog post, "The Neuroscience of Imagination"). 

Daily Creative Activity Is a Pathway to Flourishing

Hopefully, having a succinct 14-point checklist that sums up the building blocks of creativity (along with the motivation to stay physically active as a time to "think about your thinking" and problem solve) will help you stay more creative in your day-to-day life. As Tamlin Conner has shown us, everyday creative activity is indeed a pathway to positive emotions, flourishing, and overall well-being. 


Tamlin S. Conner, Colin G. DeYoung, Paul J. Silvia. Everyday creative activity as a path to flourishing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2016; 1 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1257049

Anna Jordanous, Bill Keller. Modelling Creativity: Identifying Key Components through a Corpus-Based Approach. PLOS ONE, 2016; 11 (10): e0162959 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0162959