Monday, January 30, 2012

We’ve all been there: You’ve had a raucous weekend, and now it’s Monday morning, time to drag yourself into work. If you have a certain kind of job, it’s no big deal. You can coast a bit, maybe surf the web and take a few extra trips to the water cooler until you feel up to really working.

But if your job requires you to be creative  and perhaps you’re getting paid a decent amount to come up with ideas  then you don’t have that option. In that case, you have to start coming up with ideas even though you’d rather be lying on your couch eating Cheez Doodles.

1. Take a Break From the Web

Heresy, you say? According to experts who study creativity, to get in touch with the muse, you have to first do the mental equivalent of cleansing your palate. "Clear your head for a few minutes," says Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School. "Maybe take a walk someplace. Get yourself out of whatever mindset you're in."

 Rex Jung, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, also says the answer is to disengage. Jung believes that web time spent in "knowledge acquisition" is an essential part of the creative process, but at a certain point, you have to walk away from your PC and maybe leave your smartphone behind, too. "You have to take your frontal lobes offline for a bit to allow for those new ideas," he says.

Michael Lebowitz, the founder and CEO of digital ad shop Big Spaceship, says he often uses this "take a step back" approach. "Often it's as simple as spending a few minutes internalizing the challenge at hand, and then doing something else entirely," he says. "Taking a walk is easy enough, but if there's time, reading something on a different subject, going to a museum or [doing] anything that actively stimulates your mind and senses really opens things up. Also, sleep. Never underestimate the power of sleep."

2. Expose Yourself to New Ideas, New People

So what do you do after you've untethered yourself from your PC? Amabile says it's a good idea to strike up a conversation with someone -- inside the office or out -- who you don't know very well. "The more random the person, the better, because it will force you out of whatever mindset you’re in," she says.

A corollary of this is to expose yourself to people with expertise outside of your usual professional ambit.
Advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, for instance, has a rule, articulated by co-founder Alex Bogusky: "Anyone who's looking for inspiration from other ad agencies is in the wrong building."

Scott Prindle, executive creative technology director at Crispin, says he likes to pair up people from different backgrounds and see what they come up with. "I find so many creative ideas come from mixing and matching," he says. "Like putting a video game designer on the MetLife account."

3. Find an Easy Way In

Though common sense might tell you to tackle the hardest part of your problem first, Amabile says that the opposite is true. "Think about an aspect of the task that most interests you and use that as your entry point," she says.

For Prindle, the best entry point often comes during consumer research. The best ad campaigns, Prindle says, come from uncovering what exactly arouses emotion in consumers who interact with the brand. For instance, Crispin created a program called "Pizza Tracker" for Domino's that let customers track the status of their orders. Prindle says that idea came about by witnessing the "tension and facial expression" of consumers who were wondering what was going on with their pizza. "It was a 30-minute black hole of despair," says Prindle. "I always look at, from a human level, where does the tension exist?"

4. Avoid Brainstorming in Large Groups

There's a lot that scientists don't know about creativity, but one thing they all seem to agree on is that brainstorming sessions involving large groups of people is a bad way to go about soliciting ideas. "If you have four or five people trying to brainstorm at once, it's going to lead to a lot of talking in circles because so many people are going to be trying to be polite," says Jung. Amabile agrees: "I haven't done any research on this, but I've read the literature and it seems pretty clear that with large groups, people feel inhibited."

Crispin's solution is to put together teams of two. The idea isn't new. In fact, in advertising, there's a long history of two-person teams, often a copywriter and an illustrator, nowadays maybe a copywriter and a programmer, bandying ideas back and forth. The same holds in the arts as well: Ever wonder why songwriters often work in two-person teams -- Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richard, Rodgers/Hammerstein, Goffin/King?

That said, Amabile says that brainstorming in a large group can work if it's done digitally, rather than in the flesh. A chat room, for instance, might be a more welcoming place for new ideas than an actual room. A low-tech variation on this is "brainwriting," in which people write their ideas on a piece of paper, anonymously, and then throw them in a pile.

5. Revisit an "Old Favorite"

Though new people and new ideas are essential for getting into creative mode, it's also a good idea to revisit things that inspired you in the past, like books, movies, places and artwork. For Sam Ewen, CEO of guerrilla marketing firm Interference, that means, among other things, the book at left, an out-of-print title about the PR industry.

6. Use the Jerry Seinfeld Trick

No one wants to be known as a hack, but there are days that you're not feeling all that creative and you have to do your job anyway. At such times, it helps to focus on getting something -- anything -- done. As Amabile notes, even great artists were known to produce some dross -- sometimes a lot of it -- in the service of their art. Beethoven, for instance, is known for his great work, but produced a lot of mediocre stuff as well. "The thing is, you really do have to persist," Amabile says. "You may or may not come up with a great idea, but in studies of people who have produced a a high level of creative work, they might not be higher in ability, but they are higher in persistence."

A good example of this is the British author Anthony Trollope, whose iron work ethic will be explored in the next slide. Another is Jerry Seinfeld, who came up with a system called "Don't Break the Chain." The idea is simple: Mark an X in your calendar for every day you achieve your creative goal, whether it's writing something new or coming up with a workable idea. Then, maintain that day after day, so you put pressure on yourself not to "break the chain."

7. Use the Ernest Hemingway Trick

So you're on a roll, but it's getting late. What do you do now? How about the Ernest Hemingway trick. To avoid facing a blank sheet of paper in the morning (this was in typewriter days), Hemingway used to write the first paragraph of his next scene and then sign off for the day.

Anthony Trollope, the British novelist, used a somewhat similar technique: Trollope would rise at 5:30 every day and then put his watch in front of him. When he reached three hours, Trollope would go off to his job with the postal service. If he happened to finish a novel within that time, Trollope would take out a fresh piece of paper and start on the next one.