7 Signs that You Aren’t Thinking Creatively

… and how to do better.

None of us want to be left behind. With reality morphing quickly and our business landscape shifting unnervingly under our feet, we need to be able to nurture fresh thinking and enable innovation in our teams.

Dr Roger Firestien, esteemed professor of creativity and author of Create in a Flash, puts it this way:     

“When the rules change, creativity is key.”

In the past, fresh thinking got us ahead of the pack. Now we need fresh thinking just to keep up.

You have most likely seen the need to reinvent some part of your work life this year so far. You probably needed to innovate for how you motivate your team, how you maintain team well-being, how you engage your clients or how you attract customers. There is no getting away from the need to innovate!  Therefore, there is no getting away from the need to develop creativity.

First let’s get clear about our definitions of creativity and innovation.

Before I start, let us get on the same page with our definitions of creativity and innovation. There is no innovation without creativity. If innovation is a house, creativity is the foundation. Creativity is the use of imagination to create something novel and useful. You need to use your creativity in order to innovate.

So, what is innovation? As Dr Amy Climer describes it so succinctly: Innovation is creativity with economic gain. Innovation is creativity commercialised. Another way of thinking about it is in relation to a game of football. If innovation is the game on the field, then creativity is each player’s individual fitness.

So, are you a good leader of creativity and innovation?

And how can you get better at this?

We are going to start with you first. When you are on a plane, the air stewards always tell you: First, put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping fellow passengers. Your personal creativity is the starting point for creativity and innovation in your team, or your organisation at large. I believe this is a huge gap in our business landscape today. Lots of people are focussing on innovation and sometimes some tips for thinking creatively are suggested. However, I am not seeing organisations invest properly in training people to understand and develop their creative intelligence to any significant extent. Extolling the virtues of physical fitness and suggesting a few exercise routines on the company portal is not going to make your employees fit!

Using the football example, training your people in innovation strategy but not developing their creativity, is like giving your football team a game plan, but not developing their physical fitness. Imagine a football manager letting a player on the field for a big match when that player is physically unfit and cannot run across the field without huffing and puffing or stopping with a cramp. Never!  Yet, this is what managers in businesses do all the time. They put team members onto projects when they are creatively unfit and expect the team to get great results!    

To get better at leading creativity and innovation, start with yourself.

<I’m looking at the man in the mirror!> Sorry, Michael Jackson just crept into my head there.

Let’s start with your own creativity health check. The following warning signs indicate that you can improve your creativity and thus become a better leader of creativity (note: creativity is contagious.)

1.    You check your phone in the first hour of your day.

Photo by Shane on Unsplash

Okay. Most of us are culprits here. Checking your phone as soon as you wake up is a big creativity killer. I’m not talking about switching off your phone alarm. I’m talking about picking up your phone in bed and checking your WhatsApp messages, checking your email, scrolling through Instagram, watching the news and so on.

Hang on, I hear you say. These things aren’t bad!

You’re right. They are not bad per se. However, by defaulting to your phone as soon as you wake up, you are not only losing a huge opportunity to tap into your subconscious, set your mood and set your priorities for the day, but you are also training yourself to be reactive rather than proactive.

Jim Kwik - brain coach and author of Limitless (I highly recommend this outstanding book) says:

“If you can win your morning, you can win your day.”

Jim’s morning routine includes recalling his dreams, doing morning pages (see my blog post on this), making his bed, meditating, and taking a cold shower. Eek! I love all of that until the cold shower part. I need to work on that.

You can read more about Jim’s morning routine here: My Morning Routine (How to Jumpstart Your Brain & Day) He’s got so many things in there, I find it a bit overwhelming. I think if you can just work on NOT picking up your phone for the first hour and writing morning pages in addition to any prayer or reading you may do, then you’d be well on your way to increased creativity.

2.    You doubt yourself.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Henry Ford

When we run our Creativity Wake-Up workshops, the biggest creativity killer we come across is self-doubt. Whether you doubt that creativity is required for your job or that you have the capacity to be creative, you are entertaining a self-limiting belief. What is stopping you from being creative is you!

Your inner critic can cripple you. Don’t underestimate the power of toxic thinking. Don’t let that toxic thinking grow in your head. When you think the same thoughts over and over again (such as: I can’t do this, I’m not creative, This will never work, etc.), you are creating neural pathways in your head. Over time these develop a myelin sheath which is a type of ‘hard-wiring’ in your brain. Your brain is always trying to conserve energy, so its natural choice will be to follow a path that is already there, rather than build a new one.

The fantastic news here is that you can change your brain. You have the ability to create new neural pathways by how you CHOOSE to think and respond.

When you start choosing to believe in your creative power and start understanding that creativity is a skill that can be learned, you will develop a new way of thinking and will start enabling your brain to think more creatively.  You can increase your creative intelligence and can become a more creative thinker by training. If you are still reading this, you are already on your way.


3.    You don’t ask enough questions.

Curiosity is a key aspect of the mindset of creative thinkers. Through the ages great thinkers have asked lots and lots of questions. They disregard the assumptions everyone else around them blindly adopts and they ask: why, what if and how might we?

We need to learn from children in this regard and keep asking why, why, why, why and why – five times! It’s so frustrating but it gets us thinking. Many times we don’t have an answer to give them. We just have not given the subject sufficient thought.

How curious are you? What interests you that you can start asking more questions about?

Now, this is just for laughs, but here are some questions to ponder:

  • Why is it that no matter what colour bubble bath you use, the bubbles are always clear?
  • Where do forest rangers go to "Get away from it all"?
  • Why is it called "after dark" when it is really "after light"?
  • If man evolved from monkeys and apes, why do we still have monkeys and apes?
  • Why doesn't Tarzan have a beard?
  • Why there isn't a shorter word for monosyllabic?
  • Why does "fat chance" and "slim chance" mean the same?
  • Was it a cruel joke to put an "s" in the word "lisp"?
  • How come you never hear about gruntled employees?
  • Why are they called "apartments" when they're stuck together?

Silly, I know. But a sense of humour and keeping things light are very important for our creative brains.

To be a better leader of innovation, start asking more questions. Challenging assumptions is what separates creative leaders from the people who follow the herd. Harvard Business Review had a fantastic issue about the power of curiosity in business. Read it here.


4.    Your first good idea is good enough.

The first few ideas that pop into your mind are usually not very creative. As I mentioned earlier, our brains are designed to conserve energy, so unless we really push them to reach out into deep recesses and make connections and associations with interesting thoughts and knowledge that we stored away long ago, they are just going to go for whatever is closest. If I say draw something sour and yellow, you will most likely draw a lemon. That’s easy and close-by in your brain. If you take some time and push your mind to divergent thinking, you will come up with many more creative ideas.

Your idea may be good, but there is almost always a better option. We have been lulled into a consumer culture that values comfort over hard work and short-cuts over tough discipline. We simply can’t be bothered to put the energy into creative thinking. A good idea is fine, but a brilliant idea is what will set your business apart.


5.    You want to be seen as an expert.

If you’ve not read Range by David Epstein, get yourself a copy. The byline is: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World. (Thank you, Wayne Sachs and Adam Raviv, for recommending it and Celia for buying me a copy.)

“For too long, we’ve believed in a single path to excellence. Start early, specialise soon, narrow your focus, aim for efficiency. But in this groundbreaking book, David Epstein shows that in most domains, the way to excel is something altogether different. Sample widely, gain a breadth of experiences, take detours, and experiment relentlessly.” Daniel Pink

Being really good at something or knowing a lot about one topic is not a bad thing. However, going for expertise to the exclusion of other inputs is bad for your creativity. Here’s the thing: focussing too narrowly on your expert area, can lead to a one-dimensional approach to problem solving.

Creative minds consume lots of vastly different content. Our brains are association machines. The more dots we put in there, the more dots our brains can use to make connections.

Do a review. How diverse is the content that you consume? Is your reading limited to your industry? Just one genre? Just one part of the world? How can you broaden your horizons by diversifying your interests? By the way, this includes fiction. Non-fiction feeds our knowledge, but fictional stories feed our creativity. Don’t neglect your imagination. Read a novel, watch a science fiction film or play a computer game. Let yourself be inspired. 


6.    You have a limited network.

Photo by Joe Waranont on Unsplash

This one is similar to the point above about the content that you consume, however it is related to people. Most people interact with around fifty humans on a regular basis (not necessarily face-to-face.) This group includes our family, friends, colleagues, fellow-hobbyists, exercise buddies, parents of our children’s friends, and so on. Picture that group in your mind. How diverse is that group? Are they all of similar age? Do they all live in the same place? Are they from the same place? Are they all the same race? Do they have similar interests, beliefs and ideas?

Though it is natural and convenient to associate with people who are very similar to us, with a little bit of effort and intention, we can stimulate our creativity by adding even one of two people into our lives who are very different from us. Getting to know a very different person opens our minds to different approaches to life and different ways of solving problems. We don’t have to agree with everything they say or do, nor take on their ways of living, but we can get to know them and learn from them.

“In the real world, there is no such thing as the lone wolf genius. Every genius, like every person, is a social network. And every genius stands on the shoulders of a social network, not the shoulders of giants. …In the same way, the portrait of Einstein as a lone wolf patent clerk who published the revolutionary 1905 papers leaves out a network of his influences—from Newton to Lorentz, and Poincaré to Minkowski. It also obscures the roles of his friends, teachers, and colleagues in physics, of his first wife Mileva Marić, and his math assistant Walther Mayer. …The important point is not that Einstein worked with and depended on others. It is that Einstein is those others—they are embodied in his self as a social network.” Einstein’s genius wasn’t in his brain; it was in his friends, New Scientific Insights on the Source of Creativity Show How Social Networks Drive Ideas. By Sal Restivo

If your group is very homogenous, how can you diversify it?

7.    You don’t build in unfocus time.

Can you remember the last time you did something just for fun? Too busy to think properly? Is your life just go-go-go? WhiteSpace founder Juliet Funt says:

"The pause is a formidable source of professional power." 

Drive is a powerful quality which can propel you to get results. But when drive becomes overdrive it is a creativity killer.  The relentless treadmill of serious work with no pause for stillness or play comes with a cost. The ability to be still and quieten your mind is an important creative skill. The state of ‘unfocus’ comes from stillness and enables the powerful Default Mode Network of our brain to find solutions.

In his book "Tinker Dabble Doodle Try", psychologist Dr Srini Pillay explains that our minds work best on focus-unfocus-focus-unfocus cycle. This means we need to break up our periods of focussed thinking with time when we mentally hang up from that intense 'zoom call' and do something different like go for a short wander outside.  You can work hard and get things done and still build in some 'white space' for creativity into our lives. We need to slow down enough so great ideas can grace us with their presence.

If you find it hard to sit still, it's important to understand the power of the strategic pause. Everything in nature works in cycles and we are no different. Constant work with no rest not only reduces our productivity in the long run, but also impacts our health and our relationships.

Build regular times of rest, rejuvenation and play into your life. This is what I am working on (getting there ...slowly!)

  • Daily: stream-of-consciousness writing first thing in the morning, time to switch off and exercise, take a walk every day
  • Every evening: a pause before you go to sleep to note down some things that you are grateful for that day
  • Weekly: at least an hour per week doing something that makes you feel alive and joyful (no friends or family allowed), a date with yourself, so-to-speak
  • Weekly: a complete day of rest every week not doing any of the work that is required for your job/ business/ vocation
  • Monthly: a morning taking time to pause and reflect back on the past month and ahead to the coming month with no fixed agenda
  • Annually: a weekend adventure on your own (even if you are a parent) to go and think or explore or be active, whatever you like

I trust that you will find that this white space empowers you to be even more productive, more creative and more purposeful more with the rest of your hours.


So, there you have it. Seven warning signs that you aren't thinking creatively and how to do better.

Developing creativity is a journey not a destination. If you see these warning signs in your life, don’t dismay. If you pick just one of these areas to work on and truly commit yourself to improving in that area, you will start noticing the benefits of creativity growth.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” Maya Angelou

We need a creativity revolution. We need every human being tapping into our creative intelligence. Unfortunately, as Ghandi pointed out, we can’t start revolutions by trying to change other people. It starts with us.


Blog header Photo by Emilio Garcia on Unsplash


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