Need to innovate? Copy these creative habits of innovators.

Innovation is now an imperative

We used to wonder when or how we should innovate. We are in a crisis and there’s no way out but to reinvent ourselves and our businesses.  

“The enterprise that does not innovate ages and declines. And in a period of rapid change such as the present, the decline will be fast.” Peter Drucker

So how do we do this?

We copy the creative habits of innovators.

Why habits?

Habits make up a way of being. Habits are dependable. By adopting some of the creative habits of innovators, you will be able see real transformation in how you think and how you do things. You will be able to make innovation part of who you are rather than something you did once.  

What innovators do differently

Austin Kleon’s book ‘Steal like an artist’ is beautiful in its simplicity and pertinence. He is a writer and an artist who has distilled the key creative habits that have made an impact in his life. He writes the book as advice to his younger self.

I’ve taken his advice to steal like an artist and have nabbed three things he does to unlock creativity. Here they are for you to take on.

Three creative habits to copy

1.       Collect ideas like crazy

Your brain is a supersonic association machine. It is designed to look for connections, link ideas and imagine how these can be applied to what you are thinking about.

It is also designed to conserve energy and flee from danger. So, unless you courageously lean into the unknown and put actual effort into THINKING about your problem, it is either going to jump to the closest or most obvious way forward or remain frozen in doubt.

“In a time of rapid change, standing still is the most dangerous course of action.” Brian Tracy

You don’t want that, so choose option one: to lean bravely into this new area where you don’t know the answers and PUT YOUR MIND to truly thinking about a solution.

Now that you are really thinking, your brilliant brain will go searching through the contents of your mind and here’s where the collecting comes in: the more fantastic ideas, inspiration and knowledge you have in there, the more raw material your brain will have to work with.

“Your brain wants to connect the dots, but you have to put the dots in there first!” Nikki Bush.

Here are some ideas for getting those dots in there:

  • Be more curious. Ask more questions. Look things up.
  • Read, read, read. Expand the horizons of what you read. Venture into new territory.
  • Become a squirrelous note taker (yes, I just made that word up – you get the picture.) Always keep a note pad or digital app like Evernote with you. Note down your observations and thoughts. Note interesting comments people make. Write out passages from books that resonate with you.
  • Keep a Swipe File. This is a digital file or scrap book of all the things that make an impression on you. It can include photos, documents, diagrams, voice recordings, video snippet, whatever you like. Come back to this file whenever you need inspiration or ideas.

Artist David Hockney had all the inside pockets of his suit jackets tailor to fit an ideas sketchbook.

Richard Branson said that his most prized possession is a notebook. “It may sound ridiculous, but my single most important tool is a little notebook that I carry in my back pocket… I could never have built the Virgin Group into the size it is without those few bits of paper.”

Nothing is truly original. Everything is, in some way, a mashup of what’s gone before. Even things we think we came up with are a remix of something we’ve seen, heard, read or experienced. The great association machines of our brains use those inputs to create something new.

Don’t worry about copying. As Tony Buzan explained it, when our infants are learning to speak, we don’t tell them to make up their own word for dada! Once you have processed the ideas and applied them to your situation, they will be different from what they were before. They will be more.

 In art school they teach this trick: draw two parallel lines. Now count how many lines you have. Two? No, three. The two you just drew plus the negative space that runs between them. So 1 + 1 = 3.

2.       Go analogue - work with your hands

We don’t need scientific research to tell us that sitting in front of a computer all day is not natural. We intuitively know we must exercise and move blood around our body. However, it’s not that obvious how important physically creating things is for our mental health.

Bring your body back into your work. Our culture of consumption has played havoc with our well being. One of the reasons for this, especially for knowledge workers, is that we’ve tipped the scales and consume more than we create. And the things we do create are mostly digital and removed from the touch of our hands. Consuming all the time without creating leaves you feeling listless and strangely discontented despite all the great stuff you’ve been consuming!

“In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits!” Lynda Barry

Computers are fantastic but they are not where ideas are born. We are too easily distracted to do thinking for ourselves that is required to think creatively. We are too tempted to go down rabbit holes of research to see what other people have thought first. Yes, do some research on your computer. Yes, use it for editing and publishing. But “there are too many opportunities to hit the delete key. The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us – we start editing ideas before we have them,” says author Austin Kleon.

“We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is that we do not get them from our laptops.” John Cleese

If you have the space, set up a separate workspace away from your computer desk. Be creative with the space you have. This is your analogue workspace. Get yourself some paper, sticky notes, markers, coloured pens, butcher paper… whatever will help you with your thinking process. Do your thinking, designing, and planning work at this station.

Use your hands. Write out your ideas on bits of paper. Cut them out. Stick them on the wall. Look for patterns. Walk around whilst you think –sort through your thinking in as physical a way as possible – before taking your ideas back to your computer to take to the next stage. We tend to do this quite well in groups but not on our own. Try it!

3.       Set some limits

It may seem contradictory, but creative thinkers use constraints to boost their creativity. Limitations actually free them up.

We think we want limitless possibilities and then we get anywhere near that we are paralysed. Knowing what is really important involves understanding what NOT to do.

Tim Ferriss famously explained how a ‘not-to-do list is as important as a to-do list. His not-to-do list includes not answering calls from unrecognised numbers, not emailing first thing in the morning or last thing at night and not agreeing to any meetings without a clear agenda.

 "The key to having more time is doing less and there are two paths to get there:
1) Define a short to-do list,
2) Define a not-to-do list."
Tim Ferriss

You could constrain yourself in terms of time limits, budget constraints, resources or amount of research you are allowed to do before you begin a project. Verity Price did a brilliant TED talk on how the constraints of the water crisis in Cape Town unleashed huge creativity in her and her community. She went on to apply her own constraints to various aspects of her life to increase her creativity.

Dolly Parton would sometimes give herself a lunch break to write a whole song. Dr Seuss’ editor bet him that he couldn’t write a book with only 50 words. He wrote Green Eggs and Ham and not only won the bet but produced one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.

How can you be bold and apply some constraints to your or your team’s work to boost creativity?

Get innovating

So, there you have it. Three habits to steal from innovators:

  1. Collect ideas like crazy
  2. Go analogue – work with your hands
  3. Set some limits

Note these down somewhere right now and set aside some time to start putting them into action. Plan to discuss them with your team when you next meet. Which ones can you work on together?

I also recommend getting your hands on Austin Kleon’s book, Steal Like an Artist. 

I’d love to hear how your habit building goes.

Mail me here with your comments: [email protected]

Images from Steal like an Artist,  by Austin Kleon


Get regular creative inspiration

Sign up to CREATIVE CAFFEINE to receive free tools, resources and inspiration to help grow your creative intelligence. It's your steaming cup of creativity stimulation!

We hate spam and promise to safeguard your information.