Secrets to using mindfulness for creativity

When I started Refigure it was to create and develop spaces for people to learn about meditation, self-reflection and wellbeing techniques. My ambition was – and still is – that anyone can learn these skills and rituals to powerfully improve their confidence, purpose and resilience in the workplace.

But for years these techniques have also worked incredibly well for me as a booster and focus for creative work. I’ve shared the connection between wellbeing and creative output  informally with friends, colleagues and clients, who all saw benefits. Now it’s important to share this connecting point as widely as I can; to show that beyond simple wellbeing improvements, meditation enhances all aspects of your life, including to bring you more access to your creativity.

For this blog entry I asked some of Brighton’s business leaders how they get creative and I’m delighted they’ve shared their secrets with us. Some of these ideas are new ways of looking at similar techniques, some are completely fresh. I hope you’ll be inspired to try something new.

Mystery solved: inspiration happens through osmosis

I worked with talented groups of web designers and programmers on multiple websites and apps in my previous career as a digital project manager. I was always in awe of the way designers and developers came up with creative solutions for complex problems.

I asked Andy Budd, founder of global UX consultants Clearleft, about his thoughts on creativity:

‘A lot of people assume creativity is something that’s innate. Those occasional flashes of genius you get while out walking the dog or in the shower. These moments of inspiration are your subconscious processing large amounts of information, and coming up with connections. Designers have learned how to harness this power, and turn it from a random occurrence into a repeatable process.’ 

We’ll hear more from Andy later.

Find your flow with a change of view

Changing my view helps me to enjoy the writing process and prevents me falling into habits or creative loops. I like writing in a notebook on the beach, in a park, or in a busy coffee shop. When I start writing, I don’t worry (in the moment) about if the writing is any good or not. Editing comes later – it’s a different job. I just allow ideas to flow and scribble down my thoughts before I forget them. I try not to force writing and I will take a break if the flow pauses for a bit.

I’m also in the habit of writing by hand. This may be a generational thing but personally I find it easier to let my thoughts flow with a real-life pen and paper. A time constraint such as a deadline can also be very useful. Give yourself, say, one hour to write the first draft of a blog post. The change of scene supports that deadline process. ‘I’ll be in this café for one more hour.’

I was fortunate to get some thoughts from Nikki Gatenby, Managing Director of award-winning search consultancy Propellernet. Nikki is also the author of Super Engaged a fantastic upbeat book about values in the workplace and the power of being people-focused. Nikki says you need to:

‘Get out of your head!’

By that she means:

  • get out of your normal working environment
  • turn off every piece of digital technology you have (take that Apple watch off)
  • go for a walk in the countryside/along the beach/in the park, for at least an hour
  • don’t write anything down for at least an hour, just be with your thoughts around the challenge/opportunity you want to focus on
  • it’s amazing how clearing the space enables new ideas in
  • the good stuff will stick!

‘You can do this on your own or with a small group of others. The trick is to take time to reflect in a way you don’t normally do. If you’re with others, don’t fill the silence with conversation, fill it with thoughts and share them after the hour (that’s hard to do! But it works…),’ concludes Nikki.

Start with passion and terrible ideas

Blast Theory is an international interactive media company run by artists and creative technologists. They recently launched the awesome Gift app, at Brighton Museum. They’re always coming up with game-changing, fun ways to work with technology. I asked Matt Adams, Blast Theory Founder, how he comes up with his new ideas.

On creativity the first thing that comes to mind is Ken Robinson’s definition: having original ideas that have value. Simple! I always start with terrible ideas. Then as I throw those away, some bad ideas make themselves known. Then the odd good one shows up. And I just keep generating and winnowing. Slowly something starts to emerge that I can hold onto it. And when it’s going badly I comfort myself that the most ’skillful’ and ’talented’ artists are often dull beyond words. Having passion, perseverance and a point of view can take you a long way.’

Set intentions, rather than goals

Matt’s thoughts on ideas generation remind me that I find ‘setting the intent’ is often the key to creating a piece of work, whether that’s a blog post, a painting or a podcast. I do this by closing my eyes and taking a few deep breaths. A key teaching in meditation philosophy is around setting clear intent: when you start any piece of work, when you start your day, when you begin a course of study. You need to clear your head; clear all your expectations; and think about the impact you want to make, with that work. It’s not about YOU, it’s about who the work is for.

I say out loud or write down, a clear intent. For example:

I now create a fantastic blog post about creativity, that is useful and inspiring for everyone who reads it.

There might be a time-lag of a few minutes or hours before those ideas start to come. Sometimes I make a note of the deadline, because the ideas might not come along until closer to the time of the deadline or event. I know now that I can’t rush this process; that forcing myself to write when I’m not ready just doesn’t work for me.

Prepare for the big fish!

The filmmaker David Lynch talks about how meditation has helped him with his ideas, in his wonderful book Catching The Big Fish. Lynch explains that ideas are all around us, yet we need to be open to receive the best ones – the best and biggest ‘fish’.

For me, as for Lynch, regular meditation helps to clear out distractions or obstructive thoughts, including negative self-talk and worry. This allows more creative thoughts to come through. A stronger feeling of confidence in my authentic ideas starts to become apparent.

If it feels like a struggle to write, I know it’s not the right time. Instead I try to wait until the energy is there, a little like catching a wave. Sometimes I wake up and a fully formed blog post is there in my head. I keep a notebook and pen next to my bed for this reason. I quickly write down the thoughts before I forget them. Later I’ll type up the notes and let them sit, before posting later, in case I need to make any changes. When I type I have to use headphones and listen to ‘concentration music’ – instrumental music with no lyrics at all, to keep focused.

Doing something different can help with creativity. Setting yourself a daily challenge, such as taking a photo or drawing a doodle every day for a month can be a fun way to unlock your creativity. Don’t forget to share your creations on Instagram with a cool hashtag. One father I know, drew a different cartoon for his kid’s lunchbox every single day, just for fun.

Boardroom games for ‘Design Thinking’

Here’s Andy Budd again:

As designers we use a range of techniques which are variously known as design games, innovation games or boardroom games. These techniques are sometimes grouped under the concept of Design Thinking; a process that uses the tools, processes and techniques of design, but applies them to a wider set of problems, including common business problems.’

‘The first thing all good designers do is gather as much information about the problem and the people they are trying to help. This often involves going out and seeing how people currently solve those problems. The next step is to generate as many ideas as possible, without worrying about whether they are good or not.’

100 Designs in a Day

‘One technique popularised from product design is called a 100 designs in a day. As the name suggests you attempt to ‘write force’ the problem. The first few dozen ideas come easily, because they’re obvious. However as you start running out of the obvious ideas, you force yourself to be more creative.’

What is the common thread?

‘Another common technique is to take existing concepts and shove them together in new ways. So what’s AirBnB for boats, YouTube for Universities, or Uber for food?

Making these solutions visible allows your subconscious to do its work, and you can start the process of synthesis; whittling the large number of ideas down to two or three likely candidates. Lastly you test these ideas on real people to see which ones have the highest chance of success. As such, what often looks like pure creativity from the outside, is actually the result of process, hard work, and experience,’ concludes Andy.

Get back to basics

I enjoy hanging out with Matt Locke, Storythings Founder and Director. He’s got such a different way of thinking about the world around him and constantly comes up with interesting and practical solutions, usually through connections I hadn’t seen.

Matt says:

‘I don’t have any specific tips about generating ideas. I think there’s a lot of stuff written about specific techniques but the basics often get missed out. Always be curious, read loads of stuff, look outside your peer group and give your brain time to filter through it all. This last stage tends to happen best when you’re distracted doing something else, not in a workshop.’

‘I find my bike ride home along the beach is a time when lots of ideas tend to come to me, because I’m not listening/looking at a screen, and my brain has time to filter through stuff.’

Collaborate with your network

‘Talking through ideas with people is great as well, as is blogging/sharing them. Great ideas come out of networks, not individuals,’ concludes Matt.

Ideas belong to the collective consciousness

Mariam Crichton works for Every1Mobile and is a Wired Sussex Director. She’s also an advanced meditator, so I was very keen to find out how she comes up with new ideas.

‘When people say to me ‘we need ideas’ and they struggle with ideas and they get stressed about having ideas, and they need to find people who have ideas, I have no comprehension of that and I’m clueless as to what they’re talking about. Ideas have just always come very naturally to me.’

I feel that people think that ideas need to come from someone else, or from somewhere else. But I feel ideas come from within. They don’t come from external places. I think ‘ideas’ are not even our own; they come from the collective consciousness. In order to receive these ideas you just need to be empty; you need to be not trying too hard; you need to be relaxed and not letting your mind or ego get in the way.’

Drain the swamp (in your mind, of course!)

Like me, Mariam directly connects her meditation to her ease with ideas generation:

I can’t begin to have ideas without meditating first. I have to be emptied of all my worries, thoughts, whatever’s going on inside me, all of that clutter. I need to be clean on the inside and empty on the inside for the ideas to come, because I think the ideas do come to us. Like that genius moment – it just comes, we don’t really own our ideas.’

We’re like instruments and receptors. We’re like an antenna on a TV for receiving ideas – and if we’re empty and not cluttered on the inside we can receive those ideas. If I need to do some art and I’m not copying something that’s technical; I don’t know what I’m going to paint, I’m just going to come up with some abstract art, I have to meditate first. I have to clean my mind first. Even if I’m in a creative workshop I need to empty myself so I haven’t just brought in stresses and strains from the meeting before. You can be more creative at problem-solving.’

Creativity is a process. You come up with some crazy idea; you try, you iterate: it’s a journey often,’ concludes Mariam.

Thank you so much to Andy Budd, Nikki Gatenby, Matt Adams, Mariam Crichton and Matt Locke, who kindly shared with me their thoughts on creativity and generating ideas. Thank you to David Lynch too for his wonderful book and films.

Do you want more help with creativity, finding your spark or making things happen?

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