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Seven Steps to Boost Creativity in a Pinch and Meet Your Next Deadline

Seven Steps to Boost Creativity in a Pinch and Meet Your Next Deadline

That nagging nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach just exploded into full blown anxiety. The important deliverable your boss wants? It’s due in “five minutes.” The paper that counts for half of your final grade? It should’ve been done yesterday.

But no need to fear, constraints drive creativity and you can unlock your imagination and drive solutions by THINKING DIFFERENTLY. Here are the seven steps to conquer creativity in a pinch and meet your next deadline:

1. Ditch Traditional Brainstorming and Give “Gamestorming” a Try

Traditional brainstorming is broken in that it stimulates ‘groupthink’” and adds unneeded pressure. To make matters worse, ideas offered by the loudest people drown out the great ideas from those who aren’t as extroverted.

Gamestorming incorporates co-creation in ways that stimulate thinking and states of play. It requires breaking into two ‘zones of thinking’, the divergent zone, which is all about quantity, and the convergent zone, which is where choices are filtered down.

Once when faced with a crazy deadline and a completely booked-up team, I had to brainstorm campaign ideas for an emerging startup. Rather than wait for the clock to run out, I made a fun game of it I call the “50/50 experiment”. I challenged myself to come up with 50 ideas in 50 minutes. Don’t have 50 minutes? Aim for 20 ideas in 20 minutes or even 10 in 10. Shoot for quantity over quality, you can separate the wheat from the chaff when you converge afterwards.

Nothing jump starts creativity like pressure. Combine the stress of a fast approaching deadline with the adrenaline of a gamestorm – you’ll be hooked.

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2. Frame and then Reframe the Problem

Einstein famously said, ”If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Hopefully your life doesn’t depend on meeting your next deadline, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take cues from Albert. (I hear he was a relatively smart guy.)

Stanford Professor Tina Seelig demonstrates the power of reframing by asking an identical question in two different ways: “What is the sum of 5 plus 5? What two numbers add up to 10?” The first question has a single definite response, while the second can be answered in many ways.

It’s easy to get lost in the details when the pressure is on. Ask yourself: “Why?” “What If?” “Why not?”

If you are trying to make a chair more comfortable, does the problem lie with the chair or the way the person is sitting in it?

Think about how to reframe the problem at hand and get back to the root of what you are up against. An obvious solution may be waiting right in front of you. By constantly reframing the question and the problem, you can unlock new, productive ways of thinking.

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3. Dig Deep. Think “Sideways” 

Even when up against a ticking clock, immerse yourself in the task to boost creativity.

In typical education systems, we’re taught from an early age to use logical, goal-centric approaches to thinking. This makes us want to jump to ‘solutions’. However, this can also stand in the way of creativity.

Don’t be another person that uses Google to arrive at the most obvious idea and proceeds to try to pass it off as their own. To truly arrive at your own thoughts, use what psychologists call “lateral thinking”, or what I like to refer to as “thinking sideways”.

Founder of Contently Shane Snow wrote a fantastic book called Smartcuts that shows the power of lateral thinking.

I like to approach creative projects like a crime TV show drama by mapping out my work in a ‘war room’. I find going analog is a much more flexible way of working and stimulates teamwork by creating physical spaces to display information in plain sight.

This saturation period is a critical part of the creative problem solving process. Don’t be afraid to interview people and ask questions to really dig deep. If you are designing the vending machine of the future, call vending machine repair companies and ask them what breaks often and why. Starting with ‘why’ helps you to break out of the status quo.

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4. Let it Soak

Do the hands on the clock feel like they are moving faster and faster, barreling you through time closer and closer to missing your deadline?

Why don’t you go have a snack? Not hungry? Take a shower then.

It’s time to let the work you have done in the saturation period marinate. Step away from work for a couple minutes and refresh your mind.  You may not still be consciously working on the problem, but your mind will continue to try to process and make sense of it.

In a scene from TV’s Mad Men, a partner from Don Draper’s agency remarks to him, “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.”

I don’t suggest you adapt all of Draper’s work habits, but creatives have always understood the importance of taking time aside to let your thoughts develop. The minute you stop actively thinking about how to solve a problem is usually when a solution presents itself.

5. Check your Surroundings

Still struggling to get your work done?

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Consider your surroundings. Our brains are constantly absorbing the stimuli around us and our environment can have a profound effect on our creativity, or lack thereof.

Steve Jobs found long walks around Palo Alto to be an invaluable way to problem solve and contemplate the products that would shape technology forever. Determine the environmental inputs that drive your desired outputs. The right people, places, and music (or lack of) can make all the difference.

6. Strike While The Iron is Hot    

Once the ideas finally start flowing, keep working and capture them however possible: momentum is a fire you must never stop fueling. Thanks to a sudden ‘ah-ha’ moment, the blocked lows of creative problem solving can give way to an exhilarating rush of ideas that will make your deadline attainable.

7. Be Vulnerable

Creative problem solving dies without the courage to fail your way to each and every success. Brainstorm. Observe. Repeat.

Remember Theodore Roosevelt’s great words about the power of vulnerability:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Featured photo credit: Shutterstock via shutterstock.com

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Last Updated on March 21, 2019

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

“What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

1. Start Small

The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

Do less today to do more in a year.

2. Stay Small

There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

Why?

Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

Peter Drucker said,

“What you track is what you do.”

So track it to do it — it really helps.

But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

5. Measure Once, Do Twice

Peter Drucker also said,

“What you measure is what you improve.”

So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

For reading, it’s 20 pages.
For writing, it’s 500 words.
For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

6. All Days Make a Difference

Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

Will two? They won’t.

Will three? They won’t.

Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

What happened? Which one made you fit?

The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

7. They Are Never Fully Automated

Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

10. Punish Yourself

Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

11. Reward Yourself

When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

In the End, It Matters

What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

“Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

Keep going.

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More Resources to Help You Build Habits

Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
[2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
[3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
[4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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