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Productivity Hacks and Tools for Creative Thinkers

Karla Lant
Karla Lant / October 31, 2017

Too often creativity and productivity are painted as though they are at odds with one another—opposing forces necessarily doing battle for your time and the soul of your work. But traditional schools of thought are not the only route toward productivity, and creative thinkers can achieve amazing results with the right tools and techniques in place to help them.

Whether you're a classic creative like an artist or writer trying to get things done, or simply a creative thinker in a more traditional career role, these productivity hacks for the creative thinker will help you.

Creative Thinking at Work: Hacks and Tools

Although scientists have conducted extensive research on creativity, we actually still know relatively little about how to make ourselves more creative. What we have been able to identify are patterns and traits that affect creative thinking. Based on those, we can create hacks and tools based on what stifles creativity and what helps it thrive.

The four Ps of creativity, first described by Mel Rhodes, refer to two things that you can't really control, and two things that you can partially control as part of your productivity flow. The two factors that are out of your hands are the traits of creative Persons and the Products (or outcome) of your creativity. The two that are within your control are the Processes you use and the Press, which just means the environment you work in.

The following hacks and tools that work for creative thinkers are highly accessible and easy to use. Each one plays into one of the two Ps that are within your control—either your Process or your Press (environment). Often old-school productivity tools fail for creative thinkers because they are focused solely on the tasks that need to be accomplished (the items on a "to do" list, for example) rather than on how the mind thinks and creates.

Productive creative thinking

Induce a state of psychological distance

Psychological distance helps creativity. There are simply some situations in which we feel far more creative or feel a higher level of creative productivity than others. One factor at work here is psychological distance, which just means that our minds are more likely to think creatively about things we aren't experiencing right here, right now.

A sense of psychological distance allows us to think of more creative solutions without stress. To do this we need to feel a little more removed from the problem, and there is more than one way to do this. One option is to take another person's perspective. Ask yourself, who else is working on this problem or talking about this issue? What would a painter, or a programmer, or a physicist think about it? If you want or need to, reach out and ask friends or colleagues or peers in related—or even very different!—industries what they think about the issue or problem.

Another way to create psychological distance is to reformulate the task or challenge by thinking of the central issue or question as if it was hypothetical, unlikely, futuristic, distant, or unreal. Researchers have found that two teams of people asked the same questions will perform differently when they are given different information about the source of the questions. In other words, even when both groups are asked to do the same task—say, list as many modes of transportation as they can think of—the group who thinks the questions originated with a distant university will come up with more options than the group who believes the questions came from a nearby university.

Creative thinking sometimes requires distance

This can be applied at work. For example, if you want a team to come up with all possible solutions to traffic jams in a city, don't choose your city. Find a sister city that is thousands of miles away, if possible, with similar statistics, to get the creative solutions started.

Another way to achieve psychological distance is to switch to another project anytime you start to feel overwhelmed, and to schedule regular breaks.

Each time you take even brief time away from a project, you can approach it once more from a more objective, distant perspective. This enhances you ability to think abstractly, and optimizes your originality. To maximize the impact of your breaks, blend this technique with those discussed above. Take 20 or 30 minutes and then come back to the task by considering the problem from alternative perspectives.

Save high priority tasks for high productivity "flow" hours

Creativity ebbs and flows naturally during peak hours—which vary from person to person. Consistently trying to work against your natural clock and rhythm can mean consistently getting less done.

For most people, high productivity hours take place in the morning, but this isn't true for everyone. Right now, as I write this, it's 2:23 am, and I am always writing at this time of night. These are my flow hours—and what a difference it makes in my productivity! Research on ultradian rhythms indicates that almost all of us run in focus/productivity cycles of 90 to 120 minutes that themselves happen throughout the 24-hour day—that is based on circadian rhythms. Almost no one focuses well for longer than 120 minutes; we need breaks. And most of us have times of the day when those cycles are at their best for focusing and getting things done.

Chris Bailey, author of A Life of Productivity, recommends recording energy, focus, and motivation "scores" for yourself for 3 weeks to track your peak hours. Record at the same times so you don't skew your data. Get his productivity worksheet for tracking here. Basically, you'll be ranking your energy, focus, and motivation from 1 to 10 every hour for work hours, for about 3 weeks. Don't overthink it; the first score that pops into your mind is what you should go with.

Productivity tracking spreadsheet

You can plot your scores on a chart to look for patterns, and write notes down when you think outside factors are having an impact ("got three hours' sleep, barely functional" or "just had a venti coffee, feel awesome!").

Productivity tracking spreadsheet

Nail down your creative flow hours by systematically tracking yourself this way for a few weeks instead of just going with the morning person/night owl stereotype. It sounds like a lot of work, but it only takes seconds per hour. Once you know which hours are truly less productive for you, you can schedule administrative tasks like billing or responding to messages for those times and save bigger, thought-intensive projects for your peak hours. Both kinds of work will feel less onerous once you make this change, and you'll spend less time overall.

Graph average productivity during the day

Place creativity-boosting constraints on yourself

Creative, non-linear thinkers can benefit from the right constraints, but not from micromanagement or too much restriction. It's about finding the sweet spot. (For example, if you're a manager of creatives, know what you want and need from each member of a team without assigning detailed tasks down to the hour.)

Constraints change the way we see the world around us, and the way we solve problems. Although it may intuitively seem like fewer rules equals more creativity, this isn't actually the case. Researchers have found that people who have experienced having fewer resources tend to show more creativity in problem-solving and think more expansively, because when resources are abundant, there's less incentive to use things in innovative ways. This is actually good news: it means that to some extent creativity is situational, and can be cultivated.

The brain likes to conserve energy whenever it can. Resource abundance means seeing things in conventional ways—the easy way. Therefore, we can often generate more innovative solutions to problems when we place constraints on them; those parameters force us to think creatively to maximize what we have rather than relying on what we've done before. With constraints in place, our memory gets out of the way of our creativity.

As an example, if you ask an architect to design a house without a budget or too many parameters, you will probably get a collage of nice ideas—some of their "greatest hits" thrown together in one generic house design. If you that architect to design that house within a budget, and according to some high-end green building specifications, chances are excellent that the design they produce will present you with a number of creative solutions—and probably a better design.

Apply this in your own work by setting the bar high enough to really be a challenge, and to constrain you enough to produce better results, but not so high that you shut down the creative process. You will also probably save work time in the end, because your product will be closer to what you really want.

Brain chemistry image

Optimize your neurochemical balance

Creativity loves the right neurochemical balance. To get your creative productivity flow going, you need serotonin and dopamine.
Your brain is more creative with high levels of dopamine and serotonin circulating. So how do you optimize this neurochemical balance?

One must is reducing stress. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol chase away the creativity-enhancing effects of serotonin. They also cause problems like higher blood pressure that detract from your brain's overall ability to relax and focus on cognitive work.

As your body and mind divert energy and reserves into more vital areas, things like creative expression and production can suffer. When you're under stress, you are less likely to be open to new ideas. If you're stressed out about getting somewhere you're less likely to take a chance on your route, even it is very likely to be faster, for example. When we are stressed, we prefer the familiar.

It's also important to get enough sleep—even though you might sometimes experience high levels of creativity when you're feeling sleepy. You still need up to two hours of deep sleep every night to get your serotonin levels back where you want them, and you can usually only slip into deeper states of sleep if you've been asleep for awhile and gone through some REM sleep. Deep sleep only makes up about 30 percent or less of our sleep night anyway, and when that night is interrupted, or when we consume caffeine or alcohol before bed, we get even less of it.

For most people, serotonin levels are highest in the morning (but don't forget to track yourself because everyone is different). When you’re feeling unusually cynical, depressed, craving sweets in an unusual amount, or feeling high levels of anxiety, chances are good that your serotonin levels are low. On the other hand, when you’re feeling confident, inspired, and energetic yet relaxed, you’re more likely to be in a good place with your serotonin.

Maximize those times when you experience elevated levels of serotonin, whenever they are, by choosing high-protein, healthful foods to support brain function. As for coffee, if you're already feeling great and productive, go ahead, enjoy another latte. If you are an anxious, hot mess, avoid that java, please.

One last thing to remember is to get up and move. Aerobic exercise boosts creative potential. Physical movement can also help creative people overcome feeling uninspired and get past mental blocks. Cardiovascular exercise helps produce serotonin, so it's a great thing to do during some of your break times.

Use tools that allow for networked thought and processes

For more traditional thinkers, A always leads right to B, and then C, and so on. For creative thinkers, A might lead to B, and a host of other ideas, or it might not lead to B at all, and just hit that forest of alternative concepts instead. That's why the results are perceived as "creative"— they're unexpected.

If this is the way you think, you need to be able to work with tools that let you process things in ways that make sense to you. For example, mind mapping is a great tool for creative thinkers. This technique allows you to create a visual of wherever your mind takes you, bringing all of the great ideas you get along the way with you.

MindMeister is a great tool for this if you don’t mind paying for a tool with a lot of capabilities, as is iThoughts if you work on Apple products. And SimpleMind is an excellent free option that lacks a few bells and whistles but is very easy to use.

Do you like the feel of sketching things out on a whiteboard or paper as you brainstorm, especially with a group? Balsamiq is perfect for this. It lets you build mockups and wireframes, but feels a lot like a whiteboard or paper experience, without all of the ink on your hand and scribbling.

Thinking back to the 4Ps of creativity, the ability to think in innovative ways isn't entirely within our control. Some of that ability relates to the way the brain is wired, and some relates to the actual solutions you're able to generate over time. However, the two Ps that are within your control are the processes you use and your working environment (Press), which can either nourish your creativity or stifle it.

These productivity hacks for creative thinkers are especially useful if you already think in these ways, but they will help anyone improve their creative practice and enhance their creative output without losing focus and productivity. And while some of us (myself included) will always be easily distracted by everything from social media to video games, learning how to focus your creative energy will help you improve your output.

Title photo by Alexas_Fotos via Pixabay. Lightbulb image by chrisckphotography via Pixabay. Global hands image by stokpik via Pixabay. Brain chemistry image by SpiritBunny via Pixabay

Photo of Lawrence Watkins

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