Unleash Your Creativity

Marketing demands creativity. But the need for productivity often gets in the way.

In fact, one study found that 80% of employees feel pressured to be productive rather than creative. And 75% said they’re not living up to their creative potential.

How can you resolve this disconnect? For starters, it helps to have a solid understanding of what creativity is. There are a lot of definitions out there, but I like this one from Psychology Today: “Creativity is the ability to bring together disparate ideas in new and useful combinations.”

Encouraging creative thought is mostly about helping your brain make new connections between old ideas. That’s right, you don’t actually need to come up with original ideas, just new links between ideas that already exist. But as marketers, it can be tough to do this on the spot or consistently.

With that in mind, here are some proven techniques to help your brain see connections where it didn’t see them before and jumpstart your marketing creativity:

1. Collect your thoughts

If creativity is all about combining old ideas in new ways, you’re going to need a system for generating, collecting and reviewing ideas. It’s all part of the creative process.

New experiences lead to new ideas, so get out there and do something. Exercise has been shown to improve creative thinking—one more reason to try that barre class your friend told you about. More than just providing inspiration, traveling abroad also provides a creative boost, so use those vacation days!

With your creative juices flowing, you’ll need a way to keep track of all your thoughts and ideas. Buy a notebook and take it everywhere. Or, for a digital solution, use Evernote to store everything on your phone (or really any device), since you take it with you everywhere already. Find a system that works for you—create a file folder of tear sheets and clippings, or pin things to a bulletin board.

Finally, and most importantly, review what you’ve gathered at regular intervals. Writer Steven Johnson reviews his “spark file” every few months. Your frequency will depend on how often you burn through ideas or are called to come up with new ones. But here’s a tip: the more you make a habit of it, the easier it will be to connect seemingly random ideas in useful new ways.

You will be surprised how many new blog, campaign, or content ideas you will have by the end of a week or a month.

2. Time is of the essence

We’re all familiar with the concept of early birds and night owls. No doubt you know which category you fall into. But did you know that creative thinking is actually at its best at non-optimal times? This means if you’re a morning person, creative insights will come more easily at night, when you’re tired. That’s because tired brains tend to lose their filter, which can lead to improved creativity. At work, set aside creative tasks or brainstorming sessions for the end of the day when fatigue has set in. Or try scheduling early morning creative meetings to get the most out of night owls.

Another way to use time to your advantage is to schedule creativity, and guard it fiercely. Making creativity part of your routine—whether an hour a day or one day a week—will help you develop a habit. Creativity is part of your job: Treat it as such.

For decades, 3M has maintained a tradition of setting aside 15 percent of the workweek for creative pursuits. All of its R&D scientists devote that time to working on their own pet projects. That’s how Art Fry and other 3M scientists were able to collaborate on the perfect bookmark for his church hymnal, a.k.a. the Post-It Note.

Whatever you do, don’t be fooled into thinking time pressure will spur creativity. Research has shown that to be false. Complex thinking takes time, and without it, creativity is nearly impossible.

3. Optimize your environment

It takes more than time to improve creativity. Thankfully, there also are a number of environmental factors that can help the ideas flow.

First, set aside a space devoted solely to creative thinking. It can be a communal area, a second desk, or a separate office. Removing yourself from your “productive” workspace to a different creative space sends a signal to your brain that it’s time to shift your thinking. And since research has shown that a messy space is more conducive to creativity than a tidy one, a change of venue could speed the transition between work modes.

Once you’ve decided on a designated creative space—or if you’re trying to optimize creativity for an entire office—other elements can come into play.

  • Color: As a marketer, you’re already aware of the power of color—science suggests that seeing blue and green can boost creative performance. Maybe it’s time for a new blue pen or a green coffee mug?
  • Noise level: Ambient noise up to 70 decibels (about as loud as a vacuum cleaner) has been proven to improve creative thinking. Try some background music, an app of recorded sounds, or even working in a café.
  • Lighting: If you’ve ever planned an event, you know that lighting can set the tone and mood of an event almost as much as the personalities in the room. When it comes to creativity, research found that “darkness elicits a feeling of being free from constraints and triggers a risky, explorative processing style.” Go ahead and dim the lights.
  • Temperature: A Cornell University study found that workers in a cool office were more distracted and less able to concentrate on creative tasks than those in warm offices. Turn up the thermostat or put on a sweater.

4. Tolerate failure

Encouraging creativity isn’t foolproof. Challenging situations—like launching a new product or expanding internationally—can lead to failure. But they can also inspire creative thought.

As Robert Epstein explains in Psychology Today, failure can be “a great wellspring of creativity.” To fail at a task wakes up the creative centers of the brain, and causes them to compensate for the failure by performing better afterward.

If failure is good, bad ideas are even better. In fact, having a lot of bad ideas means you’ll also have more good ones. Studies at MIT and the University of California at Davis have proven this. It’s sort of a numbers game. Seth Godin has written that people who produce ideas for a living—entrepreneurs, writers, artists, and I’d include marketers—fail way more often than they succeed. But they succeed more often than those who have no ideas at all.

How do you inspire new ideas and encourage creative thinking? Do you have a marketing story that came from using one of these tips? Share your story or leave your tip in the comments below.