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If you've made it through an economics class or two (or even if you haven’t), you may be familiar with the age-old law of diminishing returns. It's a fundamental economic principle that says when you increase one factor of production while keeping all other factors constant, you'll eventually produce lower output.
While this theory is usually applied to farms and factories, on an individual level, it roughly translates to the more you take on, the less you can do and do well. This is a concept most busy people in marketing are all too familiar with.
Though some of us may be tempted to believe we work best under pressure, the truth is that we merely work faster. Our best work and our most creative thoughts tend to come around when we have time to ideate, ruminate, and extrapolate. The key, then, is to find a way to work around the law of diminishing returns and boost creative thinking amid our multiple projects and ever-tightening timelines.
Here are three creative thinking techniques everyone can find time for:
Don’t worry, this creative thinking technique isn’t about procrastination. It’s about harnessing the power of circadian rhythms, your natural cycles of attention. When it comes to productivity at work, we’re all either morning people or evening people. Most of us might assume we’re at our most creative when we’re at our most productive, but that’s where we’d be wrong.
As an evening person myself, I tend to produce my best efforts (including, naturally, this very blog post) late in the day: my optimal time. But, as it turns out, I’m most open to problem-solving, new ideas, and creative thoughts in the morning: my non-optimal time. The same is likely true of you, whether you’re a morning or evening person.
That’s why, if you can give a problem or a task at least 24 hours, you’re bound to have enough time to unwind from a state of maximum productivity (during your optimal time) and boost your creative thinking (during your non-optimal time).
If you’re not sure whether you’re a morning or evening person, try to spend a few days tracking your focus and attention. Once you find out when you’re most productive, you’ll know you’re most creative at the opposite time of day.
Note-taking is not an inherently creative act. When it comes to recording insights and ideas during a meeting, it hardly feels as though writing is any more “creative” than typing. What can boost creativity, though, are the thought processes inspired by different styles of note-taking. And this is where handwritten notes win out.
Most of us type faster than we write. When we type our notes, we try to capture all the details we can. Whereas when we write our notes, we’re forced to be more selective, and focus on the core concepts we’re recording. This extra processing time works as a creative thinking technique that can deliver benefits later on, as it improves our ability to apply concepts we’ve learned. For those of us tasked with finding creative solutions to clients’ problems, this can be a major boon.
In meetings where you need to record what happened in as much detail as possible, typing notes or using transcription software might make more sense. But the next time you’re in a meeting where you’ll need to develop creative ideas based on your notes, try pulling out a pen and some paper. Your handwritten notes may boost your creative thinking and lead to a unique stroke of inspiration.
In the leadership-lit classic The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, the protagonist is a manager who works hard and long on many different projects. At first, this brought his department success, but now he’s so busy he barely ever goes home. The problem is that he’s been hesitant to delegate tasks and help others succeed, instead taking on everyone else’s work because he believes he’s the only one who can solve the problems at hand.
In the book, monkeys are metaphors for projects and tasks. By taking on too much work, the manager has everyone else’s monkeys on his back, when he should really help others care for their own monkeys.
In terms of creative thinking techniques, the lessons to be learned from all this monkey business are twofold:
By sharing the right tasks with other members of your team, you’ll eventually free up more time to boost creative thinking and focus on your own tasks.
Collaboration boosts creativity, and by working with others to help them succeed, together you may have more creative ideas than you would alone.
Think of all your monkeys — whether they’re on your back, in your email inbox, or wreaking havoc across your home office. Consider whether they really belong to you, or if there’s someone else on your team who could provide a better home for them. Then, work with them to give every monkey the care and attention it deserves. The better you can manage monkeys, the more creativity you’ll have time to cook up.
Whether you’re an account manager managing accounts, a designer designing designs, a copywriter writing copy, or any other kind of marketer making marketing, we’re all tasked with delivering creative solutions while juggling all our different projects (or should I say, monkeys?) and timelines.
The returns may be fated to diminish when we take on too much, but there are effective techniques for working around the law of diminishing returns to boost creative thinking and spark fresh ideas when we might least expect them.
For more thoughts on creativity in marketing, read our other blogs: How to Stay Creative and Schedule Time to Think.