Do the Opposite

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Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

Whatever your routine is, flip it.

A friend once told me, “If you keep doing what you’ve done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve gotten.” I wrote this down, though I probably didn’t need to; it has continued boomeranging back into my brain throughout the years. Sometimes, in order to make breakthroughs or to disrupt our patterns, we need to flip our habits, routines, and rituals on their heads. Similar to rolling the dice, this is about opening the door to chaos to introduce new creative ideas.

Even if what you’re doing is getting you the results you want, it’s almost always worth trying something new in a small way (unless a process is in a critical stage of a project with high stakes—for example, you probably don’t want to change the way you fire up a kiln for a project you’d spent the past four months on). You’re creating an opportunity to get better results, or different ones. I discovered this saying through author Neal Pasricha’s book You Are Awesome: “Different is better than better.” Author Laura Huang writes a different version in her book Edge: “Different isn’t always better, but better is always different.”

“If you get so good at drawing with your right hand that you can even make a beautiful sketch with your eyes closed, you should immediately change to your left hand to avoid repeating yourself,” Marina Abramović quotes artist Krsto Hegedušić in her memoir, Walk Through Walls. In this case, you could try drawing for a few minutes with your eyes closed as Abramović suggests, and as Richard Feynman did. You could also try drawing with your non-dominant hand. If you like what you see, you could expand the time to an entire work session. The writer’s equivalent might be working on a piece of fiction if you’ve only ever written essays.

If you do your creative work in the morning, try doing it for an hour or two at night. One of my high school teachers had actually recommended waking up in the middle of the night to write. Interrupting sleep is certainly not pleasant, though the creative work you produce by shaking up your routine might be worth it.

If you start your creative process with meticulous outlines and sketches (as I do!), try doing the final version as soon as possible—even in a single work session. I find the time compression equal parts stimulating and exciting. Even though I end the session dissatisfied with the so-called final draft, I often look back and realize that it wasn’t as bad as I had thought. Conversely, if you’re used to completing your work in a day, take a week, or a month, to do it.

In addition to experimenting with time, you can also find an opposing space for one work session. If you usually work in large, open spaces, try finding one that’s extremely small (channeling your inner Jackson Pollock, who worked in a relatively modest studio, or Roald Dahl’s backyard hut). Conversely, if you usually work in a small space, try working in a big place, like the foyer of a public library or even outdoors.

Creativity means walking a tightrope between consistency and chaos. Switch up your routines so that you naturally add more novelty and vitality to your work.

Or flip this prompt: Set a 10-Day Quota

Turn Problems Into Ideas

Many of these prompts have been akin to invention: making ideas and trying new things. In Let My People Go Surfing, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard writes about how his company doesn’t invent—it discovers. “There’s simply no time for inventing,” he writes. Instead, the company talks directly to customers and learns how they use its products. The company digitally renders new ideas, makes samples, and works to shorten the time it takes to implement these changes. From those situations, Patagonia finds guidance on how its products evolve. Of course, this involves developing an understanding of people and providing them with a solution.

Your idea can be a solution. For example, if you’ve heard a friend talk about how boring their new apartment or house is, you can paint something that gently alleviates some of that boredom or something so bold it completely shatters it. If you’re a programmer hearing someone talk about their problems with gardening, you can build a simple app to help solve them.

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