What types of mental blockades hinder creative thinking?

What types of mental blockades hinder creative thinking?
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Often we get in our own way without realizing it. Figuring out which habit of thinking help or hurt us can be tricky. Often habits emerge from the environment and conditioning. The heart of creativity is solving problems in interesting ways.

Here’s a list of ten ways to look at your creative processes based on problem solving techniques used to change unhelpful thinking and the resulting behaviors.

Tip 1: Embrace the grey.

Compromise and find middle ground. Often when we’re stuck creatively, it’s because we’ve decided it exists as one thing or another other. It appears as the perfect most photorealistic painting or it is completely worthless. We must use all paints and no pencils. We’re a print graphic designer and don’t do the web.

Those are perfectly acceptable choices, sure. It’s also worthwhile to consider—revisiting the above examples—that any effort painting can yield lessons. That mixed media becomes really cool and interesting. And knowing a bit about the web, even if you’re primarily an expert print designer, is still better than nothing.

Tip 2: Focused on the task at hand.

Over-applying negatives about a task to all aspects of our life can trip us up. We’ll define ourselves by our job, our art, and our relationships. If we’re not “always” a perfect artist, this trap tells us, then we’re “never” worth much in all areas of our life. If your project isn’t the most original thing in the world, it doesn’t represent your self-worth.

Tip 3: Identify the positives.

We tend to only see the negatives. The positives are invisible to us. Notice what’s good about your efforts. It’s the only way to keep motivated to keep working and making.

Tip 4: Positives matter.

Even if we see the positives, it makes sense to take delight in good aspects. Make sure that you notice the positives about your work, and that you actually like and love those awesome aspects. Find where your strong happy emotions are. They tell your point of view.

Tip 5: Consider alternative solutions.

The first solution isn’t necessarily the best one. Avoid jumping to conclusions. Feel free to jump in to reality test your assumptions. Just because you’re trying something doesn’t mean it’s true either.

Tip 6: Stay present.

You can’t predict the future. We often envision disaster as a form of procrastination. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. We developed an imagination to help us understand and avoid danger. Catastrophizing and fortune-telling takes this to an implausible level and cripples our creative muscles.

Tip 7: Gather comments.

Don’t assume the worst. Clearly communicate as best you can to your audience and collaborators. We don’t know if others will hate our work unless we share. Carefully curate that feedback for what we find usable and doable.

Tip 8: Consider evidence along with feelings

Don’t believe everything you feel and think. Consider what these thoughts and feelings are really based on. From there, we can create brand new conclusions.

Tip 9: Work with what’s possible

Don’t demand unrealistically about yourself and others. Understand where your expectations come from and what they are. There’s a thin line between positive idealism and negative perfectionism. Learn to understand how to be most productive.

Tip 10: Describe specific circumstances.

Avoid negative labeling of yourself and others. There’s no need to use unkind names when a neutral word or thought will do. Consider all contributing factors.


These ideas are based in part by tips described in David D. Burns’s Feeling Good Handbook.

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

6 DOs and DON’Ts for Killer Creative Teams: Confession of a bad team player

In my day-to-day life as an art director, being a team player has some challenges. Most of the time I think I manage pretty well, though it has taken a lot of practice. Over ten years ago, I was just a fine art student at Bowie State University dealing with a dreaded group project. Cue ominous music. You all remember the collective groans we   all had when a professor started matching us up with the class full of strangers? The theme from jaws plays.

Fine art majors had the unusual requirement of taking twelve theatre credits. The structure of the group project was that the teams each had to make decisions themselves how to split the work and would receive a single grade for the entire group. We didn’t have an assigned leader or structure, we had to decide how to proceed from scratch from that I learned a few tough lessons. How do we as a member of a team contribute and be ready to take on various roles?

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” Helen Keller

Our first assignment was to research and individually present pieces of theatre history. It seemed easy enough for us to quickly discuss which part we would each work on. Once on my own, working on my section I’d run across information that my teammates agreed to take care of. I’d worry that they wouldn’t do their part, so I’d type up what excess research I found.

As a working professional, think about how ridiculous that really would be now. If I – as a professional designer – were to start editing copy. How this would show my lack of faith in my editor. Or in my ability to communicate and manage my concerns. I’ve had this happen to me, where a copy editor would redesign my pages according to their whims: Dude, either get a job as a designer or stick to editing copy. As pop singer Sara Bareilles once said, that kind of “help just hurts.”

On one hand, I took sole responsibility for my grade.  On the other hand, I didn’t take the step to even try directly addressing potential issues with my teammates. Ultimately, we discovered just before the presentation that my team member did fail to have their assignment completed. She did use my notes at the last minute. I had now encouraged and enabled her to continue to not contribute. It would have made more sense to meet well before the presentation to practice and check our work. At that point, we would have discovered the lack of committment and been able to decide on consequences from there.

DON’T be a pushover or enable others.

DO build in time to check your team’s productivity.
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In my imaginary version redoing these events, we would have discussed these problem as a team. My more assertive present-self would suggest to younger me to arrange regular meetings. Use them as a chance for everyone in the group to bring up concerns. The key is to focus on behavior and how it impacts the team. Be constructive and have empathy by asking them why they are struggling. They likely already know they are causing a problem, yet are acting unable to hold themselves accountable. If you really want a helpful response, it helps to appear sincerely curious as someone who is on their side. Otherwise, they may just be glad to bring you down with their sinking ship. If they’re really unable to do the task, discuss what can be done.

These days at work, if I’m really overloaded and can’t make a deadline I’ve learned to express politely honesty and to ask for honesty in others. The regular meetings build in opportunities for positive communication and a focus on constructive criticism as part of your regular interactions.

DON’T pressure, assign blame or take productivity issues as a personal assault.

DO be aware of feelings and find constructive ways of dealing with them.
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As the semester continued, we eventually wrote an assigned play together. Conversation was a bit uncomfortable considering we were a group of introverted strangers. Paying attention to this, a team member noted we weren’t getting more than a basic plot developed through our continued discussion.

In the spirit of improv theatre’s “Yes and” philosophy, we all nodded and had built on this thought to develop a plan. Since I had once a worked on a comic strip project once where each would draw a piece and then improvise based on what had come before, I pitched that idea for our writing play. We wrote three separate parts one after the other, with the person whose schedule allowed to finish the writing of our beginning and then passing it on to the next member.

We didn’t know then that the “collective intelligence” of teams is not based on IQ. It turns out that it’s based on the ability for team members to take turns during conversation according to research led by Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon. Being aware as individuals of the “social sensitivity” of the group dynamic as an individual and how you give to it can change your ability to perform. Listening will help find and work with the strengths and experiences of each team member

DON’T focus on your team’s weaknesses.

DO listen carefully.
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The teammate who I was enabling wasn’t the only problem. As I was the last team member to work on the play’s finale, I also had the least amount of time to study the first two parts. I felt I had a strong memory, yet didn’t account for the amount of time it took to memorize and practice lines. I totally bombed during our in-class play performance.  This was one case where the reception of the performance and disappointment among my team members was consequence enough to refocus my behavior. Internally, I took responsibility for my unprepared performance and future performances for the class improved. While the group was conflict averse, conflict is necessary for change and inevitable.

DON’T underestimate the time it takes carry out your plans. 

DO be ready.
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As I was a fine art student, part of one class was to have sessions overseeing the art shows on campus. A simple job of greeting people who entered the gallery asking them to sign the guest book. One of my group members visited the show and I greeted her by the wrong name… I noticed in the guest book after she left. It was a terrible faux pas that I addressed and apologized for next meeting.

Research by MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory shows that teams who communicate outside of formal meetings and who have increased opportunities for information communication do better.

DON’T avoid addressing the elephants in the room. 

DO get to know your team personally.
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As none of us had much practice with leadership, the professor took that role and discussed our team dynamic and addressed directly that she would have liked to have assigned us to different groups for more balanced. None of us had experience with the necessary decisiveness at the time. Ultimately, even if the real group dynamics never really worked, this turned out to serve as a great learning experience which was the real purpose of college study. Just because it doesn’t work out the way we wanted, doesn’t mean it didn’t work out.

When we are learning, we feel that our actions directly impact our future. According to researchers Martin Seligman and Roy Baumeister, this sense of control connects to to a meaningfulness and happiness.

DON’T beat yourself over imperfect experiences.

DO learn from every situation and give yourself credit
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For more ways to work with others, see my podcast episode on How to Collaborate More Effectively. So how do you think I could I have dealt with these situations better? Have you had any terrible teamwork experiences that had very little team or work?

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

How to Discover Clever Ideas Thanks to Diversity

Travel Makes You Think Differently

“Picasso, Handel, Hemingway and Stravinsky all created their most well-regarded work while living in foreign countries.” Tendayi Viki writes for Forbes. Multicultural experiences helps others become more flexible with their ideas. Multicultural experiences helps you become more flexible with their ideas. Experiments linked understanding meanings of diverse cultural behaviors with the ability to connect ideas. Experiments connect the understanding different cultural behaviors with your ability to connect ideas.

Try this: Travel without traveling. Try something new that’s outside of your normal environment like a class or museum. Look at photos and imagine how different people might think. Talk to new people. Talk to those you know about new subjects. I’ve found many new places within my own neighborhood just by walking in different directions.

How other culture’s perspectives help you create

Exposure to other cultures has instant benefit Studying abroad and living abroad boost creative thinking. Priming individuals with information about cultural icons allowed participants to generate more creative ideas.

Children who grow up in multicultural families had more unusual ideas. The exact reason for all of this is still not completely explained by studies. Theories point toward thinking more flexibly due to exposure toward different cultural perspectives.

Try this: Place yourself in situations that require thinking about different cultural perspectives. Consider taking foreign language lessons. Listen to podcasts that expose you to different ways of life. Volunteer with classes that force you to interact with different cultures. Try looking at local workshops and try something absolutely new.

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

You are an ambassador of creativity

If you know or care about something, you’re in a position of authority and power.

When feeling smart or passionate, folks often do think that gives them a pass to be a strong-willed. I’m sure I’ve done it too.

When someone talks to me about design, art, or music, I have to choose to be happy that they’re engaging with me on a topic that I love. I’m best when I’m super encouraging about their quest for knowledge on the subject. Talk about an effort over outcomes.

If not, they’ll hate that subject. They’ll hate how I deal with it. Long before they’re interested in the details that I’m super right about, they’re going to choose avoidance. Many people will be quick internalize this idea that they’re not creative.

Use your powers for good. When you’re in authority, you’re more obligated to be responsible. Authority is one of the most common social stressors.

It’s no fun when we come at it as show off or expect others to be impressed. (Unless you do it in a way that’s mocking that character.) Lots of folks are completely turned off from being creative become of these types of interactions.

This is why I often dodge talking about their people’s jobs. That thing you do all day isn’t obvious. And pent up passion can quickly become aggressive if not approached positively.

Same with sports. What’s not my kind of fun: Guessing about the future pretend you absolutely know what will happen based on bias for a team. Constant one-upmanship about sporty knowledge. I don’t generally find history fun as a subject and there’s all this history. I see the appeal of storytelling and drama in sports. The whole culture around it is not fun. I find a lot of politics to be sporty and team based more than reasoning.

Various online tests say that authority isn’t a stress trigger that I identify with. I’m pretty comfortable switching to a novice stance. I see myself as an eternal novice.

Most every subject is more vast than any one human can grasp.

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Your Environment Changes Your Imagination

How’s your office space? I’m in an exposed area surrounded by people. While I like these people, I don’t feel I have any sense of physical security. As an introvert, it’s also difficult to work  in the presence of so many others. And as the article says, it’s hard to tune out since they work on dissimilar tasks. I loved working in the newsroom. It was easy to see how their work tied into mine.

We’re more creative in the dark.

Dimmer light and darkness helps creative performance. Darkness inspires feelings of freedom and encourages riskier behavior. Researchers published six studies on the effect of light. Four of the experiments linked darkness and dim illumination to more creative outcomes. The final two tests found connections between darkness and increased exploration. Other ways of encouraging feelings of freedom helped keep participants creative.

That matches my exploration style. I’m definitely a night owl. It’s not just the darkness. Night time feels more free from me. Generally I have less planned and less obligations later in the evenings. So that sparks the feelings of being able to do anything possible with my time.  Researchers also found that imagining that you’re in the dark has similar results.

“Freedom from constraints: Darkness and dim illumination promote creativity” explains the details in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2013.

High ceilings spark the imagination.

“When a person is in a space with a 10-foot ceiling, they will tend to think more freely, more abstractly. They might process more abstract connections between objects in a room, whereas a person in a room with an 8-foot ceiling will be more likely to focus on specifics.”
Joan Meyers-Levy, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management (Science Daily)

Simply moving to a room with higher ceilings helps you think outside of the box. Meyers-Levy and Rui (Juliet) Zhu discuss in “The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use”

Privacy helps us think in new ways.

I’ve written before about how private spaces help many of us in our creative processes. We’re more likely to take risks when we mistakes aren’t public. Increased noise levels and physical health concerns come into play in shared spaces as well. We can take action to create space by taking walks and meditation,

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.