Updated: Mar 27
Do you spend hours creating the perfect place to think, and then get frustrated when the ideas don’t start to flow? There is a reason for this. We are creating the wrong sorts of thinking spaces because we are focusing only on the positive attributes of places where we have had creative ideas in the past. Instead, by understanding the opposite of our best thinking space, we can reverse-engineer a psychological space that actually works. In this blog, I want to consider four ways we can look at the things that kill our creativity to find new, deeper wells of original thinking.
1. Understand what interrupts your thinking to carve out places where you can think well
Do you have a perfect thinking place? If you are lucky, this might be your office, but there might be a time of day, with the sun streaming through the window or late at night. You may have everything tidy and in its right place, and a good cup of coffee sitting in front of you. Only once you have created this space do you start writing, and of course as a result, that perfect time never quite happens. Perhaps you need to get away from your office and spend a week in a writing retreat, or maybe you go for a walk or find a quiet nook in the library. The problem is that even when we manage to create these spaces, the creative juices often refuse to flow. The reason is that we have focussed on getting our external environment right, without paying attention to the internal environment we need for creativity.
The most effective thinking spaces are explicitly carved out of the dark fog that prevents us from thinking well in the rest of our working lives. First, ask yourself what is the opposite of your best thinking space, or what prevents you from doing good thinking? Then look into that dark place and understand it on the deepest possible level, so you can create its opposite – the light, creative space that actually works for you.
The opposite of a creative place may, for example, be full of deadlines, chatter, distractions, unrealistic expectations, fear of failure or imposter syndrome. If you understand the things that get in the way of creativity, then you can start to reverse-engineer a creative space that enables you to do deeper thinking than ever before.
For me, this is about creating a space that is free from the pressure of deadlines, the fear of going wrong and imposter syndrome. If I haven’t dealt with these issues, then I can do all I want to find a beautiful working space or place to walk, but it doesn’t work. Instead, I am constantly interrupted by jabbing thoughts that remind me about forgotten things I promised people and haven’t yet done. My heart starts to race as I realise how little time I have till my next deadline and realise I can’t afford the luxury of this thinking time. At other times, I hear the voice of the critical reviewer on my shoulder, and as my imposter syndrome starts to grip me, I start editing my thoughts before I ever even put pen to paper. As a result, despite making the space and the time to think, I discover that I have wasted my time, and have nothing to show for it.
Instead of trying out a different working space, I now look into the reasons I don’t think well. I’m looking at my diary and the various approaching deadlines, and deciding when I’m going to do that work. Then I’m protecting my time for creative thinking, in the knowledge that I have enough time for each deadline, and they can wait until after I give myself this time.
I look for the roots of my imposter syndrome: why do I feel so nervous, why am I so frightened that this might fail, who am I trying to please or who is judging me? I’m dealing with these thoughts and feelings before I go into my creative space. As a result, imposter syndrome casts no shadow, and I think well. However, if the voice of the internal critic comes back, I ask exactly who I think is criticising me, and make the internal conversation in my head explicit. I may verbalise those vague disempowering thoughts and write them down. There on the page, in black and white, I can see how irrational those thoughts are. If they are in fact rational, then I identify and choose alternative narratives that are equally credible but more empowering. Ultimately, I may realise that the person sitting behind the imaginary reviewer on my shoulder is in fact an over-bearing father or a fifth-grade violin teacher or some other more deeply held doubt or fear.
Look into the darkness to create safe, light and creative spaces where you can do your best thinking.
2. Suspend reason and embrace uncertainty to find original ideas
As an academic, you are trained to build on the shoulders of giants. Only once you understand the prevailing theory or consensus can you legitimately build your own programme of research. You build firm foundations, starting with a literature review, and draw from the methods that people use in your discipline. As a result, you get incremental insights rather than genuinely ground-breaking innovation.
Instead, there is a more risky, but ultimately more rewarding option. You can jump off the cliff edge, into a place where you suspend reason, and start looking for answers in completely new ways. I do this using a type of brainstorming method.
As a method, brainstorming is rarely done properly. Done well, brainstorming enables you to write down as many ideas as you can as fast as you can, forcing you to suspend your inner critic and allow your mind to start using the power of word association and draw on subconscious connections between ideas, instead of than relying on your intellect or the theory and methods of your discipline. To get the most out of brainstorming, try it with some colleagues and get someone to help write stuff down, so the ideas can flow freely. Many of the ideas will be impractical or silly, but every now and then, one of those ideas will really resonate with you or your colleagues, and take you on a completely new intellectual journey.
Before I explain my own approach to this, I should make it clear that I assume you have a good understanding of the subject and discipline in which you are working (otherwise the ideas will almost inevitably just be in the “silly” category). When I want to come up with something really original in my research (often when I’m writing a research proposal), I start by resisting the rational urge to go to the literature to read about everything else that has ever been written about this particular problem (I’ll do that later). Instead, I start with a blank sheet of paper and see how many crazy ideas I can come up with. The more ideas I have, the more I tend to realise the limits of my knowledge, and the more tempted I am to go to the literature. But I try to resist this urge, and keep trying to come up with alternative ideas. As a result, every now and then, because I did not constrain my thinking with the constructs and limitations of those who came before me, I find an approach that is genuinely new and different, and a research project is born. Finally, at that point I go to the literature, and read to my heart’s content.
As a creative process, suspending reason and embracing uncertainty in this way is much more likely to deliver radical innovation, rather than just the next incremental advance.
3. Make friends with procrastination
It is possible to harness procrastination to become more creative. Rather than fighting the urge, you look directly into the face of procrastination and harness it as part of the creative process. You are not just avoiding or putting off the creative task. This is a purposeful approach to procrastination, and this requires some prior thinking.
First, you must put the creative challenge you need to work on into a back-room of your mind. You must clearly define the challenge and know exactly what it is that you want to achieve through the creative process. Once this is clearly defined, you purposefully put the challenge to the back of your mind, rather than getting to work immediately. Clearly, if you put the task off indefinitely, you might find yourself up against a deadline, and if you haven’t left long enough then the stress of your deadline will instantly dry up any creative juices. However, if you leave the questions hanging in that back room for long enough (and if you have a deadline you make enough room in your schedule to do the work in time), you discover something almost magical…
When you return to that room in the back of your mind, you find that a number of ideas have sneaked into the room while you were waiting. Now, you can pluck these ideas from the air, give them shape and start working on your challenge from a very different starting point, compared to where you would have started if you had got to work immediately. Over the weeks and months of procrastination, you have been vaguely aware of the questions sitting in that back room, and you started to spot ideas from other parts of your work or life that reminded you of the question and started you thinking in new ways. Finally, when you actually put pen to paper, you write something far more creative, based on a far richer range of ideas from many different sources. Crucially, you would never have stumbled across many of these ideas or ways of doing things, had you had not procrastinated.
If you have a deadline to meet, then something else happens too, when you procrastinate. The trick is to procrastinate until the deadline is uncomfortable, but still achievable. As a result, you are forced to put everything else aside and focus entirely on the task in hand. Now, compared to the short, regular bursts of activity that you have when you plan your time the traditional way, you do all the work in one or two sittings. Working the traditional way, you spend a lot of time getting back into the right thinking space, and you actually spend longer working as a result. In contrast, by leaving the work until the deadline is uncomfortably close, you achieve a level of uninterrupted focus that enables you to make connections between ideas across the work, and create something more coherent, in less time.
4. Embrace or create limitations
It is well known that people become more creative when they are given constraints, whether that be a limited colour palette, a fixed number of lines and syllables in a poem, or a word limit in a paper. The method here is to look for new opportunities that will take you to the edge of your limitations. For example, you may choose to write for an audience in a journal you’ve never tried to target before. You may force yourself to cut your manuscript down to fit into a journal with an uncomfortably short word limit. Or you may propose a research project that goes one step beyond what you’ve ever tried before. As you reach your limitations and persevere, you very often find a creative beauty in the end result that surprises you. The limitations force you to take a different approach. This is uncomfortable at first, but as a result of those constraints, you discover new ways of doing things that are often more creative and rewarding than the approach you would have taken if you were unconstrained.
Sometimes, others may be more aware of your limitations than you are. It is important to look into these critiques and ask if they have a point, rather than just defending yourself against criticism. By looking your critics in the face and exploring their point of view in humility, you can often find deeper insights and more creative ways forward than you would otherwise have considered. This is an uncomfortable place to look, especially if you end up realising that you were wrong. However, in that place of darkness, if you have the courage to really look, you will often find the bright sparks of a new idea that would never otherwise have occurred to you.
Ideas to light up dark places
Each of these creative methods are counter-intuitive. Rather than instinctively defending against challenge and limitation, if you are prepared to delve into what is uncertain and uncomfortable, it is possible to find a deeper and more satisfying form of creativity. Depending on what you discover when you really start to look, it may take courage to carve creativity out of that darkness. However, if you look deeply enough, it is possible to harness what you find there, to light up the dark.
Find out more
Listen to a longer version of this blog on the Fast Track Impact podcast.
Find out more about how to think more effectively as a researcher in The Productive Researcher.
About the author
Mark is a recognized international expert in research impact with >150 publications that have been cited over 14,000 times. He holds a Research England and N8 funded Chair in Socio-Technical Innovation at Newcastle University and has won awards for the impact of his research. His work has been funded by ESRC, STFC, NERC, AHRC, and BBSRC, and he regularly collaborates and publishes with scholars ranging from the arts and humanities to physical sciences. He has reviewed research and sat on funding panels for the UK Research Councils (including MRC, BBSRC, ESRC, NERC), EU Horizon 2020 and many national and international research funders. He has been commissioned to write reports and talk to international policy conferences by the United Nations, has acted as a science advisor to the BBC, and is research lead for an international charity.
Mark regularly advises research funders, helping write funding calls, evaluating the impact of funding programmes and training their staff (his interdisciplinary approach to impact has been featured by the UKRI, the largest UK research funder, as an example of good practice). He also regularly advises on impact to policymakers (e.g. evaluating the impact of research funded by Scottish Government and Forest Research), research projects (e.g. via the advisory panel for the EU Horizon 2020 SciShops project) and agencies (e.g. Australian Research Data Common).