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We’ve all heard of that “one weird trick”, but can we feed our creativity by making small changes to daily habits? And how do we find meaning in our work? In this interview with Denise Jacobs, we discuss creativity as something developed, not gifted – and how we all have a positive impact on the people around us.

While we all wear multiple hats across our personal and professional lives, few of us can claim to be as versatile, prolific or as popular as Denise Jacobs. As the author of countless publications on CSS and web standards, a speaker, mentor and Creativity Evangelist, Denise is someone that many listen to. And not just because she communicates with both passion and experience, but because she has a deep empathy with creatives and web workers like us.

Denise Jacobs

Denise’s support and encouragement has not only shifted how I look at my work and career, but given many others license to explore new ideas, be bolder, and find their creative spark. I hope this discussion encourages the same in you.

Hi Denise, thank you so much for taking a moment to talk to us. I’ve heard you refer to BJ Fogg’s “Tiny Habits“, specifically in regards to enhancing your creativity. What is a tiny habit, and how can they be valuable to us?

First, why one should bother to create a tiny habit around enhancing creativity at all? Creativity and innovation are now becoming recognized in business settings as being the most valued qualities and skills to a person’s career. According to a survey conducted by Time Magazine, participants listed creativity as the quality that they valued most in their colleagues, and in an IBM study, CEO’s touted creativity as the most important leadership quality. Unfortunately, unless you work in a stereotypically creative area like design, writing, or music, feeding and nurturing creativity in our professional lives is most frequently discouraged, and the creative spark within us is stifled and frequently on the brink of being extinguished completely. It’s because of creativity’s central importance to enriching our own lives and that of others around us that I feel it’s important to instill a practice of developing habits the feed your creativity.

I love Fogg’s “Tiny Habits” because the practice makes change achievable through small incremental changes. The idea is to choose an action that you can easily do, do it, and when you are done, to congratulate yourself so that you reinforce the behavior on a neurological level.

Feeding your creativity can come in many forms: taking a one photograph per day, writing one page a day, playing one song on the guitar a day, allowing yourself 5-10 minutes a day to capture all ideas you have about a project you want to develop. So, taking the example of a playing one song on the guitar a day, the first tiny habit may be to sit down and pick up your guitar. Easy, right? That is totally something you can accomplish and which also has no pressure and stigma with it. Once you have that habit established, the next one may be to play a couple of chords. After that, it may be a song. In just a little time, you’ve created a habit of playing guitar regularly and giving yourself the space to reawaken part of your creative brain.

So, as a Creativity Evangelist, which habits work best for you?

It’s almost more important to manage time, attention, and focusThe creative part of myself was starved during the early half of my professional life, when I was absolutely miserable doing project management – and so one of the reasons of why I am so passionate about this is because habits played a part in coming into my own creatively.

Some of the habits that have worked best for me have been focused on enhancing “white space creativity”: the time between when I am actively doing and consciously creating space in my schedule and brain to allow ideas to develop and come the fore. Some of my most creative periods have been when I allocated time in my schedule to take walks in the morning before starting work, blocked out time to meditate, exercised regularly, incubated ideas before going to sleep and captured whatever was in my head when I woke up.

But coming up with ideas is only part of the process: it’s almost more important to figure out how to manage time, attention, and focus. My favorite trick to get my brain in the game and on track is to use the Pomodoro Technique, where I do distraction-free (ie, no email, phone, or notifications) 25 minute sprints with 5 minute breaks. This practice has been invaluable in helping me get tasks – especially the ones I’m resisting – done.

You’ve always been an advocate for social change through design. Considering that many designers are hungry to do “meaningful” work, what is your advice to those wanting to make a difference?

It’s true that doing creative work that is meaningful and that causes ripples of positivity to spread throughout the world is very near and dear to me. Because the work we do as designers and developers do touches so many people, I feel that it is critical to imbue our work with the concept that economist Umair Haque coined as “Betterness”, or creating value that makes people, communities, and society as better off as possible.

I have two suggestions for getting started on the path of doing work that feeds you on multiple levels and makes a difference by blending creativity and betterness together. The first suggestion is to be your brilliance. One of the most detrimental mythologies that we are taught is that it’s harder to make money at the thing that you enjoy and are good at. We’re thus taught to do that which is “sensible”, which suppresses our unique and quirky creative genius.

However, even if you initially get pushback or criticism from “doing you”, it’s one of the best ways you can bring awesomeness into the world, while implicitly give others around you permission to do the same. This process will create meaning on personal levels, which will be infused into the work that you do.

Cultivate a culture of creative collaboration around youAnother suggestion is to cultivate a culture of creative collaboration around you. Creativity is superlinear: in other words, the more people you get together to share ideas, the more ideas get created. Magical things happen when people join together to playfully share ideas and synergistically collaborate: think about musical jam sessions and improvisational comedy sketches. One way you can play a part in getting this magic to happen is to start a gathering to give people a venue for coming together to share ideas and get to express their own creativity. Draw by Night and the 4am Project are two great examples of events that provide a forum for creative expression, while simultaneously building meaningful communities.

Actually, I’m such a strong proponent of this process of feeding one’s own creative spark in order to not only feed one’s own soul but to also nurture the creative spark of others, that I have started a movement called the Creativity (R)Evolution to facilitate the spread of the contagion of creative betterness around the world.

Many thanks to Denise for not only sharing her ideas with us, but for her continued support of designers, creatives and everyday people in being their brilliance – through talks, Twitter and advocacy everywhere. To find out more about the movement to share both creativity and betterness, check out the Creativity (R)evolution and be sure to see her at an event near you.

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