Originally published in “Graphic Define Magazine“
Over the last few years I’ve done quite a bit of thinking, learning, and searching for new ways to be more creative. I’ve read numerous books, articles, and blogs. I’ve even attended panels and sessions at conferences to get a glimpse into the creative rituals of others.
Through all of my research, I’ve come to realize a certain similarity between the things we do to be more creative and the things we do to be more productive. For the last few years I’ve been a big fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), and I’ve used the basic principles (modified greatly to fit my personal work style) to help me be more organized and much more productive.
Recently, I’ve started to use GTD as a way to boost my creativity. Let’s take a look at some of the basic facets of GTD and how it can be applied to get you out of a creative jam.
The foundation of GTD is rooted in the idea that you should capture everything you have to “deal with” into a trusted system. This means jotting down ideas, notes, and to-do’s, and relying on your system to remember things for you — ultimately freeing up your mind. I know this is probably what helps me the most when it comes to being productive. I now spend much less time trying to remember things because I’ve got everything important, safely stored away, in my system.
I’ve recently taken to recording less important things; things that may help spark my creativity. I keep a journal of notes, drawings, and random thoughts that I often refer to for inspiration. I also keep “files” — both on- and off-line — of things that inspire me. I’ve found these files and the bits of inspiration they contain to be extremely helpful in relieving myself from creative block.
One of the most important things I use my system for is recording ideas. Ideas can be fleeting, and to make the most out of creative impulses it’s important to be able to record those ideas no matter where or when they hit. I’d be willing to bet that, like me, you get good ideas at the most inopportune times. If you get in the habit of using your trusted system to capture this stuff, you’ll never lose a good idea again.
And then there is the practical benefit of being able to focus on being creative because your mind is freed from lots of little details.
Focus on Creativity
Speaking of focus, another big part of GTD is the idea that you should focus on the tasks at hand and eliminate distractions when possible. I’ve found this same technique can be amazingly effecting to jumpstart creativity.
While many creative people thrive in chaos it’s important to note that even if you are a “right-brain” type, focus can help get you moving. Try removing distractions, even little things that often fuel design, like background music, and see what happens.
I am willing to bet that simply turning off Instant Messenger, your phone, and e-mail will take you straight away to a more creative state of mind.
Related to focus is the notion that contexts are important. It’s important to tackle tasks at the most opportune time and tackle related tasks together. For example, if you find yourself at your desk waiting on a meeting for an hour, pull up and take care of tasks you can do at your desk. If you’re at home and have a free morning with nothing pressing, pull up your @home tasks.
(The @ symbol is an identifier for contexts in your to-do lists. @home means a list where the context is home, @office would be the office, etc.)
The same idea can be applied to being creative. Create a creative time and space for yourself. Make sure it’s free of distraction and get into the habit of going there as often as you can. When there, pull out your @creative lists and get to work. I find this is a great way to tackle smaller creative problems. It’s how I come up with — and get started on — most of my writing. This article is a result of my @creative time.
Do a Creative Review!
One of the basics tenants of GTD is the act of reviewing your lists, items, and reference items. You should have a routine for this. The same goes for being creative. Review your ideas, your inspiration, and often. Something you may have seen over and over again could be the key to a problem you’re looking to solve, or it might be that catalyst for that ever-elusive idea.
Set aside some time each week to review your inspiration, your ideas, and any creative tasks you’ve set to yourself. Keeping these things fresh in your mind can help keep you in a creative mindset that can be applied not only to what you’re reviewing, but to other problems and ideas that come up and require a creative solution, as well.
Make a Habit of Being Creative
You may have noticed I mentioned routine and habit a few times. A big part of GTD, for me anyway, is discipline. I make a habit of capturing items, reviewing them, and taking time to act every week. I’ve also got other habits that help me get things done: I make sure my inbox is empty at the end of the day, I keep my desk very clean, I set aside blocks of 3 to 4 hours to work on specific projects, etc. These things help immensely.
I’m also trying to develop creative habits. I’m trying to take at least one photo a day, for example. I’m trying to get into the habit of writing 1,500 words of fiction a week. It’s my hope that if I can make a habit of being creative — if I can develop a creative routine — I’ll be more creative overall and my design and problem-solving skills will benefit from that.
I believe that a good designer can be made and the skills needed to be a genuinely creative person can come through discipline, learning, and practice, not just god-given talent. Working hard and getting things done can lead to a more creative life, I’m sure of it.
By adapting the principles of GTD and making a habit of being creative, I’ve found that it’s much easier for me to enter that “creative mindset” I need to be in to do my best work, whether it’s writing, designing, or solving problems. Regardless, I can’t recommend enough taking a look into GTD (or a similar system). It can free your mind to tackle big problems, reduce stress, and help you get more done, period.
If this piqued your interest and you want to learn more about Getting Things Done, here are some great links to get you started:
D. Keith Robinson is one of the founders and the creative director for a small, Seattle-based design firm, Blue Flavor.