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How doing absolutely nothing can make you more creative

With many of you finishing up essays in the coming weeks, Taka, the head of our college and boarding school essay counseling department, has shared his tips for boosting creativity and overcoming writer’s block.

3 Tips for Boosting Your Creativity

1. Give yourself constraints. Any constraints would do. There’s a good reason why traditional poetry has always had certain constraints, like meter, rhyme, and number of syllables (like in haiku). The reason has been revealed by studies done by psychologists interested in creativity, and their finding has been pretty unanimous: constraints tend to promote creative problem solving by forcing experimental subjects to use their scarce resources (such as time and limited vocabulary) in unconventional ways.

Time pressure is a constraint (ever had the adrenaline rush of “OMG it’s due tomorrow, how in the holy molly world will I finish this????!!!!!” only to miraculously get it done?), and so is the number of words. If those aren’t enough, as the deadlines might already be looming and word counts are fixed by the schools you’re applying to, you can give yourself additional constraints, like setting an even TIGHTER timeframe (e.g., write it up in 1 hour and actually time yourself with a big timer display to increase the thrill) or a LOWER word limit (e.g., instead of the maximum 500 words, write it in 400 words). Fun constraints might include starting every other sentence with a random word from a random word generator online, not using the same word twice (other than articles, prepositions, and pronouns, of course), or having the first and last sentences of your essay contain an acrostic of your full name (so the first letter of each word will spell your full name—if your name is John, for example, then one sentence might be “Just ostracize him nastily”).

 2. Doodle. When you get stuck, don’t reach for your next dose of YouTube, Snapchat, or whatever it is you’re addicted to at the moment, but reach for old-fashioned pen and paper and doodle. Yes, seriously. Doodling has been shown to promote a brain state conducive to creative problem solving and, for an added bonus, boost your memory (when you’re listening to something that is not wholly engaging). So doodle until an idea comes to you, or until an impulse to write comes to you again, and keep going under the constraints you’ve set for yourself.

3. Don’t overthink. If both of these fail, go take a bath or go for a walk. Seriously. The point here is to NOT DO ANYTHING and let your unconscious mind work on your essay ideas. There’s a reason why many creative solutions pop up out of nowhere in the shower or when doing the dishes. More specifically, when you’re not engaged in any cognitive activity, your brain shifts into what is called the “default network,” when different, far-flung regions of your brain get activated, increasing the chances of making unlikely connections. This means no YouTube, no texting, no Snapchat, no talking, nothing. Be bored. That’s KEY. Or else this won’t work.


Good luck and happy writing! -Taka