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4 Simple Rules To Be More Creative

4 Simple Rules To Be More Creative

Suffering from writer’s block? Lacking creativity? Often we have the physical energy to do the task at hand, but there’s something missing that’s difficult to pin down.

So we pose ourselves the question, “How can we stimulate our brains to be more creative?” It’s a question with no simple answer. Unfortunately, you can’t just become Steve Jobs overnight. What you can do is take on advice from people whose very success is dependent on their creative output.

“Inspiration exists but it has to find you at work.” – Picasso

It’s important to combine work and leisure and, most importantly, not to expect creativity to find you if you’re leading an inactive life. In his new book, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (a researcher at Silicon Valley’s Institute for the Future) explores the value of leisure as being an aid rather than an enemy to creativity.

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He sees Picasso as a great example of someone who adapted their lifestyle to aid their creativity. As Soojung-Kim Pang puts it, “people who have long creative lives, who do really great work for decades, they don’t get inspired and start work. They start work and get inspired. And they do this every day.”

Though overworking leads to burnout, a sure-fire way to be less creative and less productive, it’s still important to be active. Mexico and South Korea have longer working weeks and working calendar years than places like Scandinavia, France, and Germany. They also have lower productivity rates. Soojung-Kim Pang emphasises the importance of leisure as it allows time for reflection and for ideas to hatch. This doesn’t mean lying around though.[1]

Overcome Perfectionism and the Fear of Rejection

Having written more than 500 books throughout his career, Isaac Asimov is one of the most prolific writers out there. He has some great advice. Don’t always strive for perfection. Start your work and then fine-tune it.

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Asimov wrote in detail in his autobiography about his own process and how he stayed so prolific over a long period of time:[2]

“Think of yourself as an artist making a sketch to get the composition clear in his mind, the blocks of color, the balance, and the rest. With that done, you can worry about the fine points.”

Perfectionism can only lead to self-doubt. It’s great to have high standards, but are they so high they’re holding you back? It may be time to adjust them.

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Focus on Quantity More Than Quality

Asimov gives the last section’s advice having suffered from perfectionism himself. He, of course, found a way to deal with the problem.

Being prolific is, in itself, a great way to avoid dwelling on past failures. In other words, work a lot and you will be less of a perfectionist because you’ll be too busy to dwell on the negative criticism. This, in turn, will help you to take more risks and be more creative.

As Asimov puts it, “by the time a particular book is published, the [writer] hasn’t much time to worry about how it will be received or how it will sell. By then he has already sold several others and is working on still others and it is these that concern him. This intensifies the peace and calm of his life.”

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Don’t Seek Praise But Criticism

Modern society is set up in such a way that it’s so easy to surround ourselves with exactly what we want to see and hear. We can adapt our feeds on social media and block people who annoy us on our devices, allowing us to be very selective about who we have time for. This isn’t a bad thing unless you’re also surrounding yourself with ‘yes men.’

This, in psychological terminology, is called confirmation bias.[3] It is the tendency to seek out, and to favor, information that confirms our own beliefs. Everyone does it to a certain extent; we tend to read media from news outlets that mirror our own political beliefs.

When it’s a real problem, though, is when you avoid negative criticism like it’s the plague. As Steve Jobs put it, “stay hungry, stay foolish.” Don’t dwell on negative criticism to the point where you’re too scared to try something new. Instead take it on board. If the criticism was given maliciously, their jealousy and negative criticism means you must be doing something right. If someone gives you useful and constructive criticism, on the other hand, keep that person around.

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Christopher Young

Freelance Blogger, Writer and Journalist

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

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