Thoughts on the creative thinking process Part three

14 Aug

This is part three of the creativity series. In part two we discovered:

  • The traits of creativity. Namely Domain Mastery, Cognitive Skills, and Motivation
  • How the creative process works. It is split up into 1. researching, 2. formulating questions or a hypothesis, 3. taking time off away from the project, 4. testing the answers, and 5. evaluating the feedback you got from 4.
  • That creative insight happens most often when we give the unconsciousness time to go wander. Therefore it is important to create empty space


In this last part, I am going to talk about how you can boost your creativity before I close this series with some closing thoughts. I hope you enjoy it and I would love to hear your feedback!

How to boost your creativity

Quit a fixed mindset

Psychologist Carol Dweck discovered two approaches towards learning. One she called the fixed mindset. That is a mindset which implies being good or bad at something is outside of the personal realm of control. Sayings like “I am bad at math” or “I am too old to learn a language” are common under people with a fixed mindset. They tend to be overly fixed on the outcome. On the other hand, the second approach towards learning is having a growth mindset. They focus on the process no matter the outcome. Stretching their mental or physical performance excites them, even though they might fail. After all, it is the progress of learning, even from failure.

You can easily see that we need to cultivate a growth mindset for the learning process of thinking creatively. Not everything might be a success but this does not mean we cannot learn from it or stop trying at all.

Learn from mistakes

As we know it is important to learn from our failures. It is one of the things that are easy to say but hard to do, because our ego gets in the way. It can be hard to admit that we made a mistake. Especially when we are committed to one topic and we use it to define our personality through it. Under these circumstances, making a mistake proves our very fallibility, undermining our credibility. Psychologists call the behavior of denying mistakes the cognitive dissonant theory’. Not to reassess, to deconstruct, and analyze our mistakes will undermine our very own learning potential. Mistakes are crucial information which we need in order to come up with new, innovative ideas. Every mistake, every failed idea shows us a way of how to not do and therefore narrowing down the field of potential ways. By analyzing mistakes we might find important points which give us relevant information for our creative process e.g. where we could improve or connect with new information. Matthew Syed coined the term black box thinking as a systematic approach towards mistakes. He states that having a system which has, like airplanes have, a black box is one of the most important points for overall progress.

Matthew Syed coined the term black box thinking as a systematic approach towards mistakes. He states that having a system which has, like airplanes have, a black box is one of the most important points for overall progress. Personally, this means that you create your own black box from which, in the case of a mistake, you can analyze the data and reassess your approach. This crucial approach is understood as an open loop system. A constant spiral of action, feedback, and reassessment.

Create a stimulus rich environment  

As it comes to creative thinking the place you are in will directly influence your way of thinking. Thinking about things no one has thought of before can be intimidating to other people because you fell out of their normal perception of reality. Some might be jealous because they do not have the courage to do the same, to think freely without restrictions. Others will just make fun of you and laugh, telling you that the things you are thinking about will never work, that you are a daydreamer, detached from reality. Thinking outside the box often even threatens the professionality and self-worth of people because their personal identity is connected so much to their worldview, their personal conception of reality.

Therefore it is important for creative thinkers to create a none conformity environment. Ideally, this place has high degrees of autonomy, access to many different resources and different, tolerant people to freely exchange ideas with. You should feel comfortable and liberated from bad, long-term stress and your surrounding environment should inspire you. On the other hand side, your surroundings should stretch your inner horizon and challenge your assumptions, so you constantly get feedback and see holes in your own way of thinking.

Getting stressed for a short period of time proofs beneficial for learning anything. We need to get out of our comfort zone to really expand our knowledge.

I personally get a lot out of traveling and changing my environment on a constant basis. Every time I come back from a travel experience or a weekend away from home, I feel new energy and new ideas just popping up without even thinking much creatively. It is important to give your brain a break, to challenge it in different ways, to seek new inspiration in different places. Through that, you will see the world around you in a different light every time you come back home and fresh energy will boost your overall creative thinking.

Another thing I have personally observed to boost my creative thinking process is having access to Mother Nature. Our brains are actually hard wired to respond positively to nature and it calms my busy mind, so I can release stress and think more clearly. Nature itself can be a great teacher on how to let go of control and just be in the moment, it can teach us about time and to appreciate the small things. Nature has some great insights for us if we are willing to listen to its message.

Find your way

Every one of us is different. We learn differently and experience the world around us differently because we all have different experiences, we are genetically different. Everyone is unique and has their own style of learning and thinking. Therefore it is important to know what learning type you are when your energy levels are highest, and in which environment you thrive. Do you like to think on your own or with a group of people?

There are quite a few things to think about when it comes to the way we personally function.

First of all, you should know what learning type you are. In general, there are three basic ways of learning: Visually, auditory, and kinesthetically.

If you are a visual learner you learn best through seeing. You probably enjoy pictures, diagrams, demonstrations, or watching videos. If you are a strong reader, good speller, or pay close attention to body language than you are probably a visual learner. You tend to remember things you see, rather than the things you hear, you prefer art over music, reading over being read to, and visual associations are easier remembered.

If you are an auditory learner you learn best through hearing. You like listening to audiobooks, music, and discussion, or verbal instructions. You prefer getting new material explained rather than reading through a long scientific paper instead. You are good at expressing yourself through talking. Do you read out loud in privacy or do you move your lips when you reading? Do you remember things better when you hear them than things you see? Then you are an auditory learner.

The last type is the kinesthetic learner. They learn best through doing things, moving around, touch, and having hands-on experiences. You probably prefer movement and physical activities and learn the easiest by performing physically. Do you tend to write and speak more slowly? Do you find yourself standing closer to the person you talk to? Do you touch people to get their attention? Then you are definitely a kinesthetic learner.

A closing word is needed at this point. Everybody uses all the three learning types, but generally one or two of them are stronger developed. To have the most efficient way to acquire the information you should combine them all three learning methods with a focus on your strengths. Knowing your learning type is essential for the creative thinking process because in order to come up with new questions we need to acquire new information first, and the fastest way to do so is playing with your strengths.

Furthermore knowing what your type is indicates how you come up with creative thoughts best. If you are a visual learner you probably have most creative insight while writing your thoughts down, the auditory type probably finds being most creative when verbally expressing ideas, and the kinesthetic type when being physically active or creating something. These are just very broad categories and if you want to go more deeply into that topic I would recommend checking out the ‘theory of multiple intelligences’. We have them all but again they are differently weighted and we are stronger in some categories than other.

The next thing to be aware of are your energy levels throughout the day. We tend to have periods throughout the day during which we feel especially energized. I do best before noon and the late afternoon. A good starting point is to find out what chronotype you are. The chronotype indicates when your body prefers to rest throughout a 24-hour period. It is based on your inner biological clock called the circadian rhythm. This inner clock times your hormonal processes and energy spikes. Having a daily routine that fits your circadian rhythm is therefore important if we want to maximize our creative potential. Some might do best in the very early mornings, some in the late, late nights and some, just like me, do best throughout the day period.  After all managing your physical and mental energy is all about your inner awareness. If you feel drained take a quick energy boosting break and do some jumping jacks, go for a walk, get a cup of water and a snack or nap for 20 minutes.

The last thing to mention here is again your environment. It is the best to find a place where you are least distracted when acquiring information. This does not mean finding a quiet place at all. There are famous authors who write best when sitting in a full café but there are others who like to turn their back to civilization and go to live solitarily in nature throughout their writing process. Either way, find the environment where you feel most energized and least distracted.

Creating a flow state

Another thing which is crucial, not just for learning but the overall creative process, is something called the flow state, you may know it as being in the zone. Essentially it is a state of peak performance.  The flow state was popularized in the book ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D.. Following his line of argumentation, the human brain is capable of processing 110 Bits of information per second. When you are in a flow state all of these 110 bits are occupied by the task at hand. You literally do not have any attention capabilities left.

Flow state commonly shares the following nine characteristics:

  1.       Intense hyper-focus on the present moment
  2.       No difference between the action and the moment, thus as you are outside of                 reality
  3.       No self-reflection occurs during the flow state
  4.       The activity feels personally manageable, you have a sense of inner clarity and you
  5.        know what and how to perform a given task
  6.       Loss of the feeling of time
  7.       The activity feels intrinsically rewarding
  8.       The activity gives immediate feedback
  9.       Feeling of possible success
  10.       Feeling of personal importance of the activity


But how does one enter the flow state?

First of all the ‘thing’, or whatever you are working on needs to be just out of your reach of your personal skill set. There must be a challenge, but it should not be so high that your momentary skills are not enough to overcome that challenge. The so called sweet spot is reached when your level of skills is equally developed to the level of challenge so that you are able to overcome it. Csikszentmihalyi calls this feeling as being aroused. Another point to enter the flow state is simply doing something you love. For example writing this blog post. Matching something you love or consider meaningful with something you are good at can naturally increase the possibility to enter the flow state. Lastly, paying very deep focus to the moment can bring us into the flow state. Other as the two points before, this tactic relies solely on your internal muscle to channel attention onto one thing. It is actually the only way which does not need an external component in order to trigger a flow state. Meditation or any mindfulness practice is a great way to strengthen that inner muscle of attention channeling. One last thing that can block you entering the flow state is your emotional and energy state. If you feel emotionally aroused –angry, sad, anxious, etc.- or have low energy levels –being tired, feeling no drive to do something- you first need to change that. Try to meditate for 10 minutes before starting work on your creative process, take a nap or eat a snack.

That leads me to Josh Waitzkin’s idea of building your personal trigger.

‘The point to this system of creating your own trigger is that a physiological connection is formed between the routine and the activity it precedes…Once the routine is internalized, it can be used before any activity and a similar state of mind will emerge.’ Josh Waitzkin

To begin with you can build a quick routine of eating a light snack, then meditating for 10 minutes to calm the mind, followed by ten minutes of physical activity to get the blood flowing and to wake you up, followed by one or two things you enjoy doing (such as listening to your favorite music), which puts you into a positive state of mind. This seems like a very extensive and long thing to do but it is worth it. The idea is to perform the routine every time you need mental peak performance or flow state. Over time you can shorten the routine by cutting down the minutes spent on each activity until you reach a point were closed eyes and two or three deep breaths trigger your optimal state of mind. The key is to make small and slow changes so that the routine does not differ too much from earlier one. Keep in mind that you should build your routine as personally as possible.

So why is the flow state so important for creative thinking?

First of all being in the zone triggers the release of basically five neurochemicals. It starts with Norepinephrine, known as adrenaline, which triggers the sense of being alert and paying attention. That is the reason we experience deep focus and an eye for small details when we are in the flow state. This is important for our creative thinking process because not seeing the details or paying close attention to the problem hinders our overall learning success and consequently we might not be able to have a creative breakthrough. The next neurochemical that is released is Dopamine that boosts our pattern recognition, which is crucial if we want to find out the underlying principles of the things we are working on. They later will form the basis for our creative breakthroughs. Endorphins are next on the list. They basically let us feel like Superman. They can boost our confidence and bring us to the limits of our performance. This is central to the creative thinking process in which we try to create something which is out of our personal reach. Serotonin is the fourth neurochemical that is released and it helps us to balance our mood, which makes us less affected by sudden emotional shifts. It helps us to maintain a steady focus and concentration. The last neuro chemical released is Anandamine which enhances our lateral thinking, the ability to think in indirect and creative ways, using unusual reasoning does that not follow the normal rules of logical thinking. These are some pretty strong arguments for why we should try to get into the flow state every time we think creatively.

The other thing the flow state does, it puts us in the right brain wave frequency. There are six in number: infra-low waves (<.5 Hz), delta waves (.5 – 3 Hz), theta waves (3-8 Hz), alpha waves (8-12 Hz), beta waves (12-38 Hz) and gamma waves (38-42 Hz). The three frequencies we are interested in are the alpha, theta and gamma waves.

But what are brainwaves in the first place?

To answer this question we first must look at how our brain works. A thought, for example, is nothing more than an electrical charge which runs through a system of neurons in our brain. Brainwaves are nothing more than a product of the synchronization of these electrical pulses, of millions and millions of electrical charges running through the neurons at the same time. Think of it like music. Low-frequency brainwaves are a slow and steady drum beat, while higher frequencies are like fast high pitches. The brainwaves changed according to our mood or activities we are engaged in. As a general rule, we can say that the higher the brainwaves frequency the higher our alertness.

When we are about to fall asleep, or you have a lovely daydream or a light meditation session than you will find yourself in an alpha wave state (8-12 Hz). The alpha frequency lies between the conscious thinking and the unconscious mind. It is the resting state of the brain and we generally feel as being totally absorbed in the moment. It is associated with mental coordination, calmness, and alertness, mind/body integration and an improved learning capability.

The other brainwave frequency that occurs when in a flow state is the theta brainwave length (3-8 Hz). This brainwave length is mostly associated with being asleep or in deep meditation. This is when the brain actually processes the learned material into our memory. Our conscious thinking is totally withdrawn from the external and we are completely focused on our inner world. This is when we dream most vividly when our imagination spikes and intuition and information access go beyond our normal capabilities. During the theta brainwave state, we connect with our deepest fears and nightmares. It is also the state in which we feel the deepest connection with our being, the state we feel most natural. It has been shown that flow state occurs right between the alpha and theta brain wave lengths around eight Hz, leading to a spike in our focus on the momentary thoughts. We feel calm which helps us not to be distracted by emotions and a heightened alertness helps us to spot details which can prove useful. We feel a greater connectedness to our unconscious mind, which allows us to access its potential and boost our imagination and potential for insights that normally lie out of our reach, buried in the unconscious. We have a greater access to information while new information is more easily stored in memory.

It has been shown that flow state occurs right between the alpha and theta brainwave lengths around eight Hz, leading to a spike in our focus on the momentary thoughts. We feel calm which helps us not to be distracted by emotions and a heightened alertness helps us to spot details which can prove useful. We feel a greater connectedness to our unconscious mind, which allows us to access its potential and boost our imagination and potential for insights that normally lie out of our reach, buried in the unconscious. We have a greater access to information while new information is more easily stored in memory.

Steven Kotler writes in an article in Psychology Today:

‘ [D]uring flow, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain charged with self-monitoring and impulse control—goes quiet. The DLPFC is our inner critic, that voice of doubt and disparagement. As a result, with this area deactivated, we’re far less critical and far more courageous, both augmenting our ability to imagine new possibilities and share those possibilities with the world.’- Steven Kotler

As we see, the flow state is very powerful for our creative thinking. The last brainwaves were just recently discovered and are called gamma waves. They are the highest brainwave frequency (above 30 Hz), but they only occur when the brain is in that zone between alpha and theta waves. We can measure these frequencies when we have that feeling of an ‘aha moment’, these moments of deep insight. It is associated with a heightened perception and consciousness and seems to bind wide ranging areas of the brain, unifying all the information there is and creating one clear image.  Even though the difference in frequency between the alpha/theta waves and the gamma waves is really high, the state of consciousness remains the same.

Another thought when considering the flow state is to go into your creative thinking phase right after waking up, while you are still in that dreamy state between sleeping and waking up, using your already present alpha and theta brainwaves to your advantage. I hope you see now, why it is so important to cultivate the ability to listen to your inner voice and to build your trigger that brings you into the optimal state of creative thinking.

Journal, note taking and documenting

There are many different types of journaling and note taking. Experiment, try things out until you find something you like. You could, for example, write down a couple of thoughts or questions at the end of your work day so that your unconscious mind can work while sleeping on it and then first thing next morning you brainstorm over the thoughts and questions from the day before. This would be a perfect example of how to make the most out of your unconscious creativity and your conscious thinking. Another thing which proves very useful is to carry around a notepad or something of that kind, so you can easily jot down thoughts, ideas, inspiring conversations, further points of research, etc. This is an important step for the overall record of your progress. It helps you go back in time when you are analyzing your thoughts in the feedback phase. This makes it easy to detect your mistakes or points where to start over again.  Documenting your creative process also has the bonus of relieving your memory and freeing up mental space, because once thoughts are written down, the brain does not have to remember them or deal with them anymore. Try it!

A great app to do this on your phone is called Evernote, which actually lets you take photos, notes, copy links, use screenshots and has a build in text recognition algorithm which transforms a book page into a scanned document. It is easy to build up libraries, use tags to create your own tag system which allows faster information access. You can also synchronize your phone app with the Pc version of Evernote. That allows you to access all your material everywhere and does not bind your documentation process to the phone.

Train being on and off

By this, I mean developing the ability to consciously put yourself into a hyper focused or super relaxed mental state. A good analogy is our muscles. When we, for example, are running, our leg muscles tense up when we push away from the ground. This can be compared to be turned on, the super focused flow state. While in the air, the muscle relaxes. This is the time off, the time to recover. This is a very important concept and it ties into what I have talked about before about giving room for the unconsciousness to work.

But I want to make another point here and that is the point of recovery. It should be obvious that we need some recovery periods not just throughout the year, but on a daily basis. That is to say, that the first thing we want to get is high-quality sleep, besides many other things it will improve our ability to store memories and cognitive functions throughout the day will be drastically improved.

Ever tried to solve hard math problems when being super tired? It is literally impossible. Not sleeping much also affects our mood negatively so which it is harder to be positive. So make sure you get adequate sleep in a 24-hour cycle. Drawing the cycle smaller I want to have a look at a normal nine to five work schedule, where the above-mentioned concept is key for making progress in any given area. When working, you should consciously take breaks, like disconnecting totally for 10 minutes from the work at hand.

Why should we do so? Science has shown that we can focus our attention on one thing for only 25 to 50 minutes. This being said, that all work we do after this time frame will be drastically less effective. That is not what we are looking for. Quality beats quantity. So in order to make sure we always perform at a peak mental state we need to fit recovery periods into our daily schedule. Easier said than done. I myself know how much time it takes to really concentrate on learning material for example. Until I am in a flow state it can take up to 20 minutes. And then? Am I left with 5 minutes of good work before my attention levels drop? Not, if I train myself to switch immediately from being relaxed to focus and the other way round. I bet you know that scene. You are driving home from work and you left with one or two tasks uncompleted. They will hunt you, even in your dreams. As hard as it is to turn on the focus, as difficult it is to turn it off. But it is crucial to learn how to control it. One way to do that is constantly switching between your trigger, meditation, some stretching etc. to relax body and mind and get you prepared for the next working session.

Another practice, Josh Waitzkin introduced to his clients was to engage them in high interval intensity training where he measured their heart rate. In between the workings sets, they were advised to consciously calm their breath. This seems to be very effective as my own experiments have shown. It basically trains your body to go all in and then bring it consciously back into a more relaxed state, and again into an all in mode, and a relaxed state.

Having small recovery windows throughout the day is important if you are interested in quality work. It helps us to manage our energy levels and we learn the important ability to consciously put ourselves into the state of best mental and physical performance.

The power of one thing

I just mentioned it briefly in the point above, the actual thing that brings you the most in terms of progress is to focus on just one thing a time. No multitasking. Even though it seems compelling to do more things at a time, it has actually a negative effect on our performance. Every time our brain switches from one task to another, it needs to switch its pathways. It just takes up milliseconds, but just driving while listening to music, is a constant switching between two pathways in the brain. This switching costs a lot of mental energy and we feel drained more quickly. It also creates little moments during which we are not fully present in the now. Listening to your favorite song on the radio while driving could cause missing the bicycle which crosses the street. Even though you are a confident driver, doing more than driving minimizes your driving performance. That is true for the creative process as well. Doing research while simultaneously thinking about a problem set, for instance, will decrease your research efficiency and your problem-solving ability, because the brain needs to switch between two things at the time.

Which problem needs to be assessed so that all the others become irrelevant

Another thing to speed up the process and boost your creative thinking is to ask the right question or to assess the central areas and problem sets. By this I mean that it is important to identify questions, problems, underlying principles, and system relevant areas, which when addressed, make most of the surrounding points irrelevant or less important. When looking at our very own economy, for instance, it becomes quite clear that a crucial element is a reliance on fossil energy. That is one of the key areas we need to address first if we want to change to a more sustainable economic model. For example to ask how we can replace fossil energy with another, maybe more sustainable energy source, would become irrelevant if you would come up with an economic model that is not reliant on energy at all. I do not want to undermine the importance of renewable energy here but the far better question to ask would be how we can create an economic model that is not reliant on energy in the first place? I know this is a quite utopian question, but it makes my point clear. Remove the dependency on any energy source, and you do not end up with the problem in the first place.

Always ask what areas you should address first so that other problems become irrelevant.

Schedule creativity time

The last piece I want to address is the scheduling of creative time. Many of us have busy days full of work and other liabilities, but until you do not schedule time to think creatively, you will not be able to perform at your best. Trying to be creative when you have ten minutes in between two lectures does nothing really; it is more a distraction from the lecture lying ahead of you. You actively need to make room in your schedule, optimally at the time you are most alert, most relaxed and the least interrupted. Early mornings or late evenings might beneficial. The creative thinking process is, as I have hopefully shown, a lot of work. Creative insights do not happen overnight or in between. They need constant work and that is best secured when saving time for creative thinking. It is like exercising. One time working out does not make you fit. In order to become fit, you need to work out on a constant basis. The same holds true for the creative process. Try to be creative for one to two hours a given period for at least three to four times a week.               

Action points:

  1.    How could you implement one of the above points into your daily    routine? 

  2.    What are you already doing but need to work on?


As we come to an end I want to finish with a couple of closing thoughts that emphasize some small points to keep in mind.

Sometimes going into the smallest detail can teach us a great deal about the general principles. Josh Waitzkin calls this approach ‘learning the macro from the micro’. Following this approach, we need to deconstruct a certain skill or information further and further until we reach its underlying principle. If you feel stuck or lost in too much information, I find this approach a real life safer. It helps to have breakthroughs and deepens the understanding in your field of interest.

Keep in mind that expertise is important to progress in a field, but not necessarily to be creative when solving problems. Creative solutions show up all over the world in everyday activities. As I said, changing a lot of small things can add up to an enormous amount of impact. It does not always have to be the one revolutionizing big idea. Even the smallest solution can have a big impact. Do not withdraw when you get overwhelmed because there is too much to learn or when the problems seem too big. Look for the small stuff, the small changes and you will succeed and have more impact than one big idea that needs 50 years to develop.

If you find yourself blocked, take a break. Move on to do something different and then you come back. Sometimes what blocks could be our are own standards. Therefore if you are not progressing in your thinking process, drop your standards. Let go of your principles. Nothing needs to be perfect at the beginning, nor can it. It is processed after all and process needs a starting point from which everything’s builds on. The same is true for the creative thinking process. And in the end you can always as Neil Strauss, a famous other said ‘Write ugly, edit pretty’.

Find a way to express yourself through the creative process, everybody is unique, embrace your individuality and build on your strengths. Find something you love and practice it over and over again. There lies truth in the saying that practice makes mastery. And once you obtain a level of mastery, it will be easier and easier to progress, to think creatively. As I said It is like building a house. Everything starts with the foundation, and the more houses you build that you better you get.

Assess not only all the data there is but although take into account the data which is not there. Sometimes were are literally blind because we are looking at the wrong places. Ask yourself what is not there? What is missing? Maybe you will find your answer there.

That is why creative thinking is an important skill to learn. Think outside the box, do not accept the norms of your time, always learn, always question. Be the thinker you want to see in the world. I hope I could provide you with the right mindset and tools to become a great creative thinker. It is a skill that needs a lot of work and sweat, but I think it is totally worth it.




Resources and further readings 

Fix mindset:

Carol Dweck:

Carol Dweck’s excellent book:

Cogniive dissonance theory:

Learning from mistakes:

Great book about mistakes and how to learn from them:

Matthew syed’s Website:

Learning type:

Find out what learning type you are at: ://

Multiple intelligences:

Simple quiz to find out what your dominat intelligences are:

Just a Wikipedia article:

Circadian Rhythm:



Find out which chronoype you are:

An explanaion of Chronoypes:

For everyone who wans to find ou more about chronotypes. This is an excellent book about the topic:



Discover your Flow profil and find super useful information on how to enter the flow state:

Classic book on Flow. A must read!

Wikipedia about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

For everyone who wants to dig deeper:

Brainwaves explained:

Steven Kotler about Flow in Psychology today:

Steven Kotler’s amazing book abou he topic and how to use flow for ultimate performance:

And his Website:

Learning in general:

Just a must read for everyone who wants to become a master learner:

Joshes Website with amazing book suggestions on learning, performance and meditation:


My favorie note keeping app Evernote:

The one thing:

Super important book, explaining the power of doing one thing at a time:


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