There are ample benefits to thinking creatively—not just at work but in our everyday lives as well. The theory of cognition argues that creativity is actually a necessary basis of human life. Creativity can lead to better problem-solving skills, mood, and health, and an overall increase in personal fulfillment and happiness—for everyone, not just for those who have creative jobs or think of themselves as “creatives.” Basically, when you’re given the chance to be creative, whether at work or in your personal life, you’re able to thrive. Here are some creativity exercises to get you started.
Five easy creative-thinking exercises
Use the easy creativity exercises below to stretch your creative muscles and push the boundaries of your daily creative thinking.
While creativity knows no bounds, the act of creative thinking itself involves a bit of structure and planning. The first step of any creative thinking is to set a clear intention so that your thoughts are focused, organized, and useful. Orna Ross is a poet and proponent of creative intention setting. Ross argues that our goals, including creative ones, are often coupled with self-doubt. “Goals are often made from a mindset that sees you as flawed, in need of fixing,” Ross writes. “Creative intention recognizes that before you start, you stop and see that, actually, you are good enough as you are.”
1. Creative intention setting
Let’s say you’ve been tasked with creating a new company product. Initially, you might experience overwhelming negative feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt. Maybe you don’t know where to start or don’t think you’re “creative enough” for this challenge. By setting clear and affirming intentions, you’re able to remove all those negative thoughts that get in the way of the creative process. Ross says when you remove all of that clutter, you are able to fill that space with new, creative ideas. Setting clear intentions also helps free yourself of any self-doubt and insecurity and allows you to focus on only whatever creative endeavor lies in front of you, which helps the ideas to flow easily.
2. Eidetic imagery
Jacqueline Sussman is an author, speaker, seminar leader, coach, and one of the foremost practitioners of eidetic imagery psychology—a method that allows people to uncover stored images in their minds for personal creative development. Sussman has worked with some of the world’s top companies, including Google and Mattel, to help them establish a more creative work environment. The goal of her eidetic imagery method is to envision what you want to create in very concrete and specific ways so that you can better understand how to materialize it in reality.
“Imagery and creativity go hand in hand,” Sussman says, “because any time we want to do something creative, we’re likely seeing images in our minds.” When you read a recipe, for example, you likely picture all of the ingredients the dish calls for. Maybe the recipe is for a delicious salad. As you read the ingredients list, you’ll likely start imagining the bright red tomatoes and the vibrant green lettuce. For this creativity exercise, what your mind is actually doing is calling forth eidetic images to assist you in creating that meal.
Eidetic images are vivid images stored in our minds from all of our life experiences. You’re able to picture those tomatoes and lettuce because at some point in your life you’ve seen both of these vegetables. Eidetic images can be powerful tools to help flex your creativity because they allow you to concretely envision whatever it is you want to create—whether that is something as big as the design of a new company product or something as commonplace as choosing what to wear to work in the morning. By using eidetic imagery, your creative thinking becomes less abstract and distant and more concrete and tangible.
While working with Mattel, Sussman used eidetic imagery to help the design team unlock ideas for new toys. She says the first thing she did was have the designers work in a child’s playroom to try to get them into the mindset of how children play. “The adult has already been cut off from the real experience of how children play and create, which is kind of magical,” Sussman says. “But when you use imagery, you can literally see through the eyes of children and how they play.”
She then had the group begin picturing kids at play in their mind’s eye, asking various questions like how are they playing? What are they saying? Are they standing still or moving around? Then she was able to move on to the toy itself: How does it look? How does it feel? How big or small is it? What is it? The goal was to try to see through the eyes of the child to better understand what was actually enjoyable and useful. “When practicing the eidetic imagery method, it’s important to not just sit and freely imagine these vivid images,” Sussman says, “but to also record all of the creative ideas that download in your mind throughout the process as you’re recalling these vivid images.”
Sketchnoting is a visual thinking method in which you take visual notes—rather than just text-based notes—in real time, during a lecture, meeting, or the like. According to Craighton Berman, the founder and creative director of product design company Manual Chicago and sketchnoting extraordinaire, this creativity exercise helps you process information by drawing images, text, and diagrams. But don’t be confused: Sketchnoting isn’t doodling; rather, it’s a deliberate process that requires hefty brainpower.
Let’s say you’re sitting in a long, important meeting where a bunch of information is being thrown at you in various presentations—information you’re going to be required to recall later. Sketchnoting forces you to listen closely to the speakers, synthesize what they’re saying, and then represent that information through imagery that captures the idea. Instead of recording everything that’s being said, you are forced to decide on the most noteworthy information to creatively represent in your notes. This creative-thinking exercise thus allows you to hone your skills in observation, listening, structuring information, and thinking creatively. You can practice it every day by watching TED Talks and taking sketchnotes, for example.
Sometimes when you’re stuck, the simple act of putting words on paper can help activate your creativity. Freewriting is a strategy that was developed by Peter Elbow in 1973. It’s incredibly simple: or a set amount of time, start writing and don’t stop. Just let the words flow and see where your mind takes you without thinking about sentence structure, spelling, or proper grammar. Don’t make a plan or think about what you’re going to write about. It’s kind of like brainstorming but in writing. Set a timer for 10 to 15 minutes and go.
The key is to not let your hand stop moving, even if you’re writing things like, “I can’t think of what to write next.” This allows your ideas to flow freely, without censorship. That will activate your creative thinking and generate a cloud of ideas. Most of what you write during the exercise will be nonsense, but you might be surprised by the ideas you come up with when you let your mind and pen run wild.
5. 30 circles
Whether you’re working alone or in a group, a simple warm-up can help activate your creativity. Thirty circles, originally created by the design agency IDEO, feels almost like an activity straight out of a high school art class—that’s why it works. The activity is simple: Print out a template with 30 blank circles on a large sheet of paper (you can also draw the circles yourself on a blank sheet). Then see how many circles you can fill with recognizable drawings in three minutes.
The drawings can be of anything. People often start out drawing pizzas, soccer balls, even simple clocks, but as they fill in circle after circle, they’re challenged to come up with increasingly creative ideas. When the three minutes are up, you should share with the group what you came up with. If you did the exercise on your own, you should take some time to reflect on your work. A challenge like this, with a set of simple limitations, can help fire up the creative juices by freeing your mind from distractions and focusing on making something new.
Practicing on-demand creativity at work is not easy, but there is inspiration to be found and creativity exercises to help. And if you train your creativity as you would train a muscle, it can get easier.
This article was originally published on February 10, 2020, and has been updated throughout by the editors.