3 Essential Ingredients for Creative Inspiration

by Craig McBreen · 30 comments · Creativity


Ever had that one amazing idea when you’re on the verge of giving up?

The answer seems to come out of the blue, right?

And as soon as the answer arrives we know “ah, this is it!” better jot it down before that sucker disappears.

But, why does this happen?

It’s complicated of course, but if I could break down the practices that have helped me reach a more creative state of mind, I would list three and here they are. Maybe these will become your three essential ingredients …

1. Relax, my friend
We all need a recharge, but the state that really fosters creative insight is more about a completely relaxed state. When we’re NOT in front of the computer, work-obsessed or simply over caffeinated, our mind wonders. And soon enough, bammo, there’s that spark of an idea right out of the blue.

I think we all know the left hemisphere of your old noggin is the detail oriented side, the right? Well, it’s having a party all it’s own, dealing with associative elements like making sense of your uncle’s bad jokes, basically “connecting everything to everything else.” It is where intuition resides.

Steve Jobs was known to tap into his right brain through various practices, relying on a certain intuitive awareness to visualize products we now know and love. And moments of insight, like his, most often arrive when you’re in a relaxed state. When you quiet the mind and engage the right hemisphere. Some companies are beginning to understand that relaxed and happy employees solve more problems, because insights often come when we least expect them.

Want to be creative? Meditate. Go for a walk. Write free-form poetry. Don’t sit at your desk chugging coffee like a zombie. And if you want creative employees, let them relax.

2. Act like a kid
At Johns Hopkins University, researchers studied how jazz pianists create. Turns out just before they came up with an improvised melody (vs. one they had memorized), the part of their noodle that controls impulses (read: act like adults) is silenced and inhibitions disappear.

It’s almost like they flipped off the “serious” switch and got jiggy with their creativity, just like a 10-year-old.

Kids love to do this too, but at a certain point, they start to develop self awareness which inhibits inventiveness and artistry. And we all know what happens when we reach adulthood.

But imagination does NOT have to decay with age. The decline of creativity over time has more to do with culture. Things become routine, habits develop and creativity is lost. So the old adage “act like a kid” has some credence and is something we should embrace.

3. Seek solitude
People come up with remarkable ideas by themselves more often than you would think. And it turns out group brainstorming is highly overrated. In fact, seclusion brings forth inspiration and imagination.

Just like I said above, that old noggin needs time to recharge. And alone time will crank your creativity into high gear. There is power in solitude and good old peace and quiet.

So, do you want to make things happen? To improve you experience at work? At life? Learn to relax and tap into the right side of your brain? It helps if you act like a kid and a little seclusion is good for the creative soul.

Thing is. We all need a little creative inspiration from time to time. And these three practices have helped me immensely.

I’d love to know what you think and how you get those creative juices flowing, so please let me know in the comments below.

What are your thoughts on group brainstorming vs. alone time?

Have any of the above practices worked for you?

Do you meditate. How do you tap into the right side of your upper story processor?

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa December 20, 2012 at 10:49 am

I would agree, act like a kid – go outside and play with nature. It always gets my creative juices flowing. Sometimes too much :) I have a photo blog just for fun and I love taking pictures of nature and seeing things like a kid for the first time. It really helps.
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Craig McBreen December 20, 2012 at 6:55 pm

Hi Lisa,

That’s my favorite one! Sometimes looking at things from this perspective will help you make that little breakthrough you were shooting for. Never too much though, riiiight? ;)

Thanks for stopping in!

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Jens P. Berget December 20, 2012 at 12:40 pm

What works best for me is either to go for a long walk, preferrable in a forrest or to listen to music, and sometimes I’m doing both and that works great as well. I haven’t meditated before, and I haven’t tried yoga, but I’d love to try both :)

Great stuff Craig.
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Craig McBreen December 20, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Hey Jens,

Long walks are good, but unfortunately I don’t have a forrest near … must be great though :) Some music really gets my creative juices flowing.

Thanks, Sir!

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Ralph December 20, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Hi Craig.
I think your suggestions are great. They feed well into Todd Henry’s book The Accidental Creative. There are some other awesome practices in there that could augment your ideas here.

Getting away from the grind is hugely helpful for me too. It’s one of many reasons why we don’t work between Dec 24 and Jan 2 except on personal projects. R+R helps in a big way.

I really like the jazz analogy. There is a lot to be learned from the jazz musician as far as creative structure goes.

Thanks for the inspiration and Happy Holidays my good man.
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Craig McBreen December 20, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Hey Ralph,

Thanks! Getting away from the grind is just about the best thing (well, getting away and not acting your age ;))

R+R is a must really, otherwise you’re just fried, so I hope you enjoy your time away from the grind.

Yes, the great thing about Jazz is the improvisation of course. Too much structure kills the creativity as you know.

Thanks and Happy Holidays to you!

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Tim Danyo December 20, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Scheduling a time to blow things off and just do whatever has helped me. Friday afternoons have become that time. It’s when I dedicate at least 4 hours to it. That seems like a long time in a busy work week! It helps though. It’s like a reward for doing the more demanding creative video production and editing work that I do.

Another thing is to daily give yourself thought time to, as you say, let your mind wonder in a constructive way.

I like what you said about getting away from computer screens and practicing solitude. Taking walks is always great.. I do use my iPhone to record ideas and insight as I get them.

Another thing is running! I’ve had some great ideas while running. I know it’s a good idea when I start running faster and faster and faster…
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Craig McBreen December 21, 2012 at 1:43 am

Hi Tim,

Man, I love your plan! And Friday is certainly a great day to blow things off, right? :)

“Another thing is to daily give yourself thought time to, as you say, let your mind wonder in a constructive way.”
– This is very important if your in any creative profession especially. I have to remind myself constantly that’s it’s okay to do this.

Running is great. I remember when I was training for a race. Most of my best ideas would spring forth during the run. Ran without headphones and it was great for that.

Thanks, Sir!

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Rob Skidmore December 20, 2012 at 4:31 pm

YES!

Great list. Those are all things that I do regularly. I have tried meditating but with a young son it’s a little hard.

He does help me act like a kid though. I can’t wait till he is old enough to play with all the Legos that I am hopefully getting for Christmas! :-)

I love my alone time during my 20min commute to work. I turn off the radio and just drive. I have a lot of my best ideas on the road.

Two things that I would add to your list are surround your self with creative people and creative works.

My wife has a special relationship with the English language. Crazy and funny stuff comes out of her mouth all the time. It’s one of the things I love about her. A few examples include “Why is my nose so smelly?” and “Honey, stop before you think.”

Also we are lucky enough to know a number of artists and live in a community that has great support for the arts. It is always inspiring to walk into a gallery and see something new and unusual.

Great thoughts Craig. Always appreciate them.
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Craig McBreen December 21, 2012 at 3:36 am

Hey Rob,

Ah, I remember those days so well and I still am a big fan of Legos, so I know how you feel. I did have a passion for Lego towers when my kids were wee bairns.

Sounds like your wife is a lot of fun, and it’s great that you appreciate the fact that crazy and funny stuff comes out of her mouth. I often wonder why my nose is so smelly and I say quirky is cool.

Sounds like you live in a great creative community too. I’m lucky to live in Seattle for that reason, even though I still do complain about the weather.

Thank you for stopping in, Sir!

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Tanner Christensen December 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Definitely a solid list. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that solitude is an essential ingredient though. A lot of creative insights have flourished as the result of group thinking. Overall group brainstorming has more cons than pros, but you never know what a group can do that one individual cannot.

Still, good list, thanks for sharing.
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Craig McBreen December 21, 2012 at 3:39 am

Hi Tanner,

Thanks you, Sir!

Yes, depending on your chemical makeup, solitude can make or break you ;) If you’re even slightly introverted it’s usually the most creative time though. For the gregarious, not so much, so creative brainstorming is indeed energizing for many.

Appreciate you stopping in!

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Jay Schimke December 20, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Thanks again Craig. I’ve had my share of ‘breakthrough flashes’ as well.
If so inclined, check out my latest article (captured and published yesterday) here:

Beyond Work: Guiding Your Self and Your Spirit as WELL | Results AZ WELL Partners (Explore Life) http://bit.ly/TZE7eY

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Craig McBreen December 21, 2012 at 3:41 am

Hi Jay,

You’re welcome and those breakthrough flashes do often occur when we least expect them.

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Mary Stephenson December 21, 2012 at 2:16 am

Hi Craig

Like your list. Companies really should know happy employees help them make more money…too bad so few get the memo!

I like to go do something else if I can’t be creative at the moment. Working alone I am much more creative. If I need ideas, before I go to sleep I put in the request and something comes to me that night or the next.

Sometimes other people’s input can be helpful but too many usually adds to more confusion, especially if they are not after the same goal or thoughts to make it work.

Mary
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Craig McBreen December 21, 2012 at 3:44 am

Hi Mary,

Thanks! And yes, you are correct, so few did get that memo ;)

Yeah, if you’re stuck creatively it’s always best to back off and do something else. I’m more creative alone as well and I do like what Susan Cain wrote regarding group brainstorming. Too many leads to confusing and sometimes inhibits the most creative people who are afraid to chime in.

Thanks!

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Melanie Kissell @SoloMompreneur December 21, 2012 at 7:27 am

Very cool post, Craig! I’ve taken the liberty of sharing it all over the interwebz. Hope you don’t mind. :)

My best and most creative ideas seem to reveal themselves while I’m soaking in the bath tub, behind the wheel of my car (I spend a lot of time on the not-so-revered congested highways in Southern California – the traffic from hell!), and in the middle of night between 2:00 AM and 4:00 AM. I rarely go to bed prior to 4:30 AM. I work three part time jobs and when I get in after my night job, I get a second wind and then oftentimes a third wind. LOL!
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Craig McBreen December 21, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Hey Melanie,

Thanks! Oh, I don’t mind that at all ;)

Ah, yes, the car! I try to chill out in bad traffic too and the ideas spring forth, but I don’t have beautiful sunshine to distract me here in Seattle. The gray is conducive to creativity though.

“I rarely go to bed prior to 4:30 AM” Wow! Me too … I get my second and third wind at a different time of day ;)

Thanks!

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Sheila Bergquist December 22, 2012 at 10:18 am

Three great tips! The best part is that they can be combined so you can accomplish all three at once. Take a long walk (which is relaxing), kick a rock as you go along (something I used to do as a kid) and, of course, do this alone (solitude)!
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Craig McBreen December 23, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Hi Sheila,

Thanks and your combination of activities sounds perfect! The mix of activities you describe is often the best way to get “unstuck” creatively. :)

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Chris Badgett December 22, 2012 at 10:30 am

Thanks Craig for looking in to inspiration!

Solitude is so underrated. When’s the last time you truly spent time alone without technology? Yeah it’s been a little while for me too.

As a parent, when I watch my young children approach new experiences, I get inspired. Being a parent is a great excuse to act like a kid again :-)
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Craig McBreen December 23, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Hi Chris,

Solitude is underrated, especially today. I like to work in 1.5-2 hour blocks, then take a walk for a minimum of 20 minutes, more than once a day! It really does help.

“Being a parent is a great excuse to act like a kid again”
– Yes indeed. Reminds me of Rob’s comment about Legos. My kids are older, but hey by 13-year-old son makes movies and sometimes want the old man in them … all fun ;)

And as you wrote, spending time away from technology is great. Hard to untether from this stuff though, huh?

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Tim Bonner December 22, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Hi Craig

I don’t get much time to myself but when I do I love nothing more than walking along the beach or along the coast looking out to sea. You can get lost in it with your thoughts.

I act like a kid most days. It’s part of my job! Looking after my kids certainly has that one covered. I’ve not really thought of it helping to get the creative juices flowing though. The next time I’m flying to the moon with Peppa Pig though I’ll give it a go!

I don’t meditate. I get a lot of my ideas washing the dishes when I can look out of my kitchen window and see the Fife hills across the Firth of Forth.
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Craig McBreen December 23, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Hi Tim,

Yeah, I like that too. Don’t even mind doing this during those dark and gloomy days – and my home, like yours … has gloom about two-thirds of the year ;))

Yeah, I’m sure you have the acting like a kid thing down :) Peppa Pig, huh? Well, creative inspiration comes in many forms.

“Fife hills across the Firth of Forth” I challenge anyone to try and repeat that, at least four times in row … really fast.

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Brian D. Meeks (@ExtremelyAvg) December 22, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Most of the time I’m looking for writing inspiration. I don’t plan my novels beyond the next 1000 words, so when I’ve written them, I need to decide what is next. When it doesn’t come to me immediately I like to drive into Iowa City and write in public. The 30 – 40 minutes on the road I spend NOT thinking about the story and almost always an idea forces its way in into my noodle. When I get to the Hamburg Inn No. 2, I’m ready to write.
When I was writing a lot of computer code for GEICO, I would often take walks around the building when I was stumped and it always seemed to work. I’d figure out the problem with the code and be set.
The brain is cool!
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Craig McBreen December 23, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Hi Brian,

Not sure why, but I often have my best ideas when I’m driving, but I’ve given up trying to capture that idea on the smart phone or whatever. This is pretty dangerous ;) If it really is a great idea it will “stick” and you can let ‘er rip when you get back to your home/office.

Writing in public, huh? I’ve tried this, but have a really hard time with all the distraction, but it sounds like you have a beautiful system in place.

It’s interesting that you mention coding, because I’ve heard more than a few developers describing writing code as a creative process, and contrary to popular belief there is a strong relationship between coding and creativity.

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Christiano Kwena January 13, 2013 at 6:13 pm

This is excellent.

I have recently looked into creativity on my blog and I empasized on taking your creative work as a duty. When you take it that way, then you will likely have a conviction to come up with something tangible and put it down. Without that purpose, you may end up procrastinating even after you come up with creative ideas.

We all know people with 1000 ideas and zero execution. Kids excel because they execute their ideas and that’s what we notice about them.
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Craig McBreen January 13, 2013 at 11:27 pm

Hi Christiano,

Thanks!

“Creative work as a duty.” I like that! And you’re so right, it will give you the conviction you need to see things through and avoid the dreaded procrastination. And short-term distractions with empty “rewards” often stifle creativity more than anything.

Thanks for stopping in.

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Brian Thompson January 14, 2013 at 9:21 pm

Another great post Craig, I couldn’t agree more. I recently wrote a post about how solitude and taking breaks has helped spur my creativity as well.

I read this post out loud on my podcast this morning and riffed on it a bit here:
The DIY Daily Podcast #287: http://buff.ly/W17FdW

Cheers!
Brian
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Craig McBreen January 14, 2013 at 9:33 pm

Hey Brian,

Thanks! I’ll take a look at your post.

Cheers!

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