Hero image: A visualization of the Internet as it appeared in 2010, credit to The Opte Project. With all those connections, the Internet should be great at encouraging creativity, right?

Contrary to popular opinion, creativity is not about reaching deep inside yourself to some magical, incomprehensible place wherein lies the Fount of Novelty. Creativity is about solving a problem which already exists by combining several other elements which already exist.

For our purposes, creativity is not limited to super-artistic, right-brained, subjective modern art. Creativity is anything a person can do that produces something that didn’t exist before, from programming to architecture to entrepreneurship to Life-Size Play-Doh Sculptures.

Phases of Creativity

Creativity can be broken down into three activities:

  1. Collection
  2. Reflection
  3. Creation

These activities may not be distinct, but all three must be present for effective creativity.

Collect

Collection is the process by which the creator gathers the raw materials that will later be modified and combined in novel ways to form the final creation.

Expose yourself to many of interesting ideas, experiences, and information from many widely-varying fields and disciplines.

When ever you notice a problem that should be fixed, write down the problem and give yourself a few moments to think about possible ways it could be fixed. Write down these ideas, too.

Whenever you have an idea, always, always, always write it down no matter how dumb it sounds. Humans have a natural Anti Creativity Bias. A dumb-sounding idea may be the seed of future genius.

Reflect

Reflection is the process by which the creator gives his or her mind time to process the information he or she has gathered, assimilate it, and make connections between different pieces. This process often takes time and can’t be rushed.

Give yourself plenty of relaxed time to think and process the information you have collected.

Create

At your leisure, mentally follow the paths your ideas present, writing down your thoughts as you go. Whether or not the idea is “good” is irrelevant. Every idea you have presents a valuable opportunity to develop the skills of Divergent and Convergent Thinking, two important elements of the creative process.

Revisit your ideas at regular intervals. This will give your subconscious a chance to process the information relating to the idea, giving you new insights each time you come back to it. The time between each revisitation is commonly called the incubation stage (see Enhancing Creative Incubation; and this infographic).

Elements of Creativity

Elements of Creativity

Image credit: Everything is a Remix, Part 3: The Elements of Creativity

Architecting Personal Creativity

Theoretically, the Internet should be a huge boon to creativity. It’s a network of every type of information imaginable linked together in often surprising ways and accessible to virtually anyone.

Unfortunately, the Internet has made many of us into skimmers and compulsives, two behavior patterns which, if left unchecked, can prevent the deep digestion of information required for profound creativity.

Services such as Pocket and Instapaper offer a solution to this problem by allowing you to easily save lots of information when skimming, and then go back and thoughtfully read that information later. This means that skimming can actually work to your advantage by allowing you to quickly gather large quantities of disparate information, which is one of the prerequisites of creativity.

In summary, here are the things you should look for in a “read-it-later”-type service:

  1. It allows you to save large amounts of information quickly for digestion at a later date.
  2. It strips out distracting elements of the page, thereby making thoughtful reading easier.
  3. It allows articles to be read offline. (Just the presence of an Internet connection can be a big distraction.)
  4. It allows for easy saving of information for later search and retrieval.

Two contenders in this space are Instapaper and Pocket. I’ve never used Instapaper, but Lifehacker did do this thorough comparison of Pocket and Instapaper back in 2013.

Pocket has served the purpose well for me. It meets all my requirements for encouraging creativity.

My Pocket Workflow

Below I’ve outlined the workflow that I’ve found works best for breeding creativity over time.

Pocket Workflow

Image credit due to this wonderful article: Going Paperless: My Process for Keeping Evernote Clutter-Free

  1. Browse the Internet, saving interesting articles to Pocket as I go using one of their many browser extensions (such as the Save to Pocket Chrome extension).
  2. If I see a website I might want to subscribe to (more on that later), I’ll save every one of the articles on the first page to Pocket.
  3. Sync Pocket on my laptop and my portable device at sporadic intervals as is convenient.
  4. At my leisure, read the articles (even if offline), often a couple right before going to sleep.
  5. Save any links in the articles I read to Pocket from within the Pocket interface (allowing me to follow trails of information from article to article in a delightfully relaxed manner).
  6. If the article is worth keeping, star it before archiving it.
  7. When I’m online and in the mood, go through all my starred articles saving them to Evernote and then unstarring them in Pocket. (Note: You could create an IFTTT recipe to do this, but you’d only get the article’s URL, not the full text.)
  8. If (and only if) I find every article on a given website valuable, use IFTTT to automatically save new articles from the site’s RSS feed into Pocket as they’re published.
  9. Process (tag and organize) the newly-saved articles in Evernote, my outsourced, searchable memory.

One interesting addition to this list I’ve toyed around with is using an Applescript to retrieve a random note from Evernote for review. This has two potential benefits:

  1. It provides the opportunity to iteratively improve my Evernote library by giving me a chance to decide whether something should be re-tagged or deleted.
  2. It has the potential to improve my working knowledge of what I have saved in my library, improving both my access to said saved knowledge and my creativity by making it more likely I’ll be able to connect disparate pieces of information. (See: Spaced repetition; How Creativity Works, & How to Do It)

Here’s the AppleScript code:

tell application "Evernote"
  set noteCount to count of (find notes "")
  set randomNote to random number from 1 to noteCount
  set myNote to item randomNote of (find notes "")
  open note window with myNote
  activate
end tell

In the past I’ve also kept an Evernote notebook dedicated to ideas where I record all the ideas I ever have and revisit them as they regain my interest. This may have even more value than the Pocket workflow, and is a practice that has persisted even as I’ve moved away from using Evernote.

Sources