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How to make better creative decisions

January 15, 2023
A brain with rainbow colors streaming out of it

Being creative is hard. Creativity relies on thorough preparation but requires breaking rules. To be creative, you have to be able to challenge norms while respecting real boundaries. 

Our book Make Better Decisions has a whole section on how to enhance your creativity in decision making. In this highlight reel we show you how to tackle some of the major roadblocks to creativity with nudges to help you make better creative decisions.

What is creativity? We like to use Margaret Boden’s definitions for different types of creativity. Now in her eighties, she was one of the first academics to integrate thinking across the cognitive sciences and artificial intelligence. She identified three types of human creativity. 

Exploratory creativity works with what is already there but pushes it to its limits. She estimates that 97 percent of human creativity falls into this category. For example, when scientists run experiments or when an artist paints a new scene.

True creativity usually implies something unexpected. Boden’s terms this combinatorial creativity. This involves taking two completely different constructs and finding a way to use the framework or structure of one with the other. Chefs use this style of creativity when they come up with fusion food—think, sushi burrito. Entrepreneurs see ideas work in one industry and apply it to another—think how you could use an “Uber of babysitting.” 

Boden’s third style is—quite literally—a game changer. Transformational creativity is far more mysterious and elusive. University of Oxford professor Marcus Du Sautoy describes how these transformational moments hinge on changing the rules or dropping long-held assumptions about the way the world works. The meta rule for transformational creativity is to start dropping constraints and see what happens. “The creative act is to choose what to drop—or what new constraint to introduce—such that you end up with a new thing of value,” he writes. 

If you want to be more creative, you have to be able to explore new territory as well as exploit what you already know. We have nudges that help you have more insight and curiosity, to think beyond your own mind, and to face your fear of failure.

So we’ve assembled our favorite nudges from our book Make Better Decisions and paired them with some of the trickiest situations you face as a creative:

Creative Decision #1: Having More Insight

  • Nudge: Aha!
  • Nudge: Be More Curious

Creative Decision #2: Thinking Outside Your Head

  • Nudge: Be Less Brainbound
  • Nudge: Sketch

Creative Decision #3: Facing Your Fears

  • Nudge: Flow
  • Nudge: Have a Coach

Practice these nudges and we promise you’ll make better creative decisions.

Creative Decision #1: Having More Insight

Insight, as defined by experimental psychologists, is a sudden realization. Things snap into place and you see things in a new light. These aha! moments tend to lead to more correct information.

Insight generation is a mechanism the brain has for making the nonobvious obvious. An insight, just like creativity, is emotionally satisfying. Having an insight gives people a buzz. But insight can’t be forced; you can’t control it consciously like other thoughts.

Use these two nudges to help your insight flourish.

Nudge: Aha!

Insight isn’t analysis with an emotional flourish at the end. As a neurologically distinct process, there are strategies for making insights more likely.

Here are the three best strategies for achieving a moment of insight: a good mood, having broad attention, and getting a good night’s sleep.

We need to be in a good mood to have an aha! moment. When we are in a state of anxiety, our brains restrict our attention to the facts only. We are more likely to be analytical thinkers.

Second, our attention needs to be broad rather than narrow. Attention can be manipulated by our choice of physical surroundings. 

Seek out a larger space—high ceilings and larger rooms can help us expand our attention. Look away from faces, which are very distracting, to a blank wall or view. This can help our brains surface weakly activated thoughts. Remove striking, attention-grabbing objects so that you don’t focus your attention on small things.

Finally, sleep is imperative for priming our brains for insight. Sleep cements implicit hidden and nonobvious details, allowing us to form associations from memory.

When you feel you’ve gone as far as you can with an idea but it’s still not working, take a break and let your subconscious mind do the thinking.

When you want to shift your perspective, change your physical environment and allow the outside shift to come inside.

Aha! moments help us get unstuck but they also propel us far from our original perspective. Creativity is easier if something that has eluded us suddenly becomes obvious.

  • NUDGE: Increase insight by having more aha! moments.
  • WHEN: When it’s time to get unstuck or create something new.
  • WHY: We can be more creative if we can make the nonobvious obvious.
  • HOW: Let loose associations rise by reducing distractions, promoting broad attention, and relaxing the mind.
  • INSPIRED BY: John Kounios

Nudge: Be More Curious

Curiosity is the innate human drive to discover new information about the world. When we sense we can learn something new, we become curious and this motivates us to explore new intellectual territory. Curiosity feels good because we anticipate the reward of fresh knowledge.

Curiosity resides in a sweet spot. If we think we have too little to learn, we are bored and have no motivation. But with too much complexity, we will be put off by how long learning will take. Curiosity may be piqued by an anomaly or a pattern we don’t understand.

More knowledge leads to more curiosity. A person who knows 31 of the 33 sports in the summer Olympics will be more curious about what they are missing than someone who only knows a few.

Curiosity is loaded with emotion. Human motivation, learning, and reward-seeking tie into how we set and achieve goals. Curiosity gives us access to intrinsic motivations that help us seek long-term goals. Much of human learning is long term. It takes time to gather information about the world and act on it. Curiosity “provides little motivations along the way,” according to Jacqueline Gottlieb of Columbia University.

Curiosity gives humans intrinsic motivation—an incentive to engage in activities that are pleasurable in themselves, regardless of an external benefit. Curiosity is what drives us to learn things because we can’t afford not to learn things about the world and it feels good when we do.

We can practice staying curious. Beyond wallowing in the problem, the best way to stay curious is to learn how to ask better questions, which means knowing more about the problem. 

An effective strategy is to reframe what we are learning in terms of a key mystery. What are the big questions that would keep others up at night? What are we trying to decode? What’s truly strange about this problem?

Being more curious needs to feel good—it needs to feel like a drive more than a choice. We need to feel determined. This only comes with inviting the spirit of discovery and puzzling over something that burns to be answered.

  • NUDGE: Ask better questions and puzzle over the answers.
  • WHEN: When you need to wallow in the problem. When you need to ask questions. When you need an explanation. When you need to stay open to new information. When something seems weird, unexpected, or conflicting.
  • WHY: More knowledge leads to more curiosity. Curiosity gives humans intrinsic motivation—an incentive to engage in activities that are pleasurable in themselves, regardless of an external benefit.
  • HOW: Reframe learning in terms of a key mystery. Identify the big, burning questions. Invite the spirit of discovery into the problem. As our knowledge grows, our questions get better and we become more curious.
  • INSPIRED BY: Jacqueline Gottlieb, Michael Bungay Stanier

Creative Decision #2: Thinking Outside Your Head

All our knowledge comes from our community yet we idolize the individual creative genius. This is no less true in business than in art, science, or any creative domain.

Co-creation has been a feature of human creativity since people first started making art with their handprints on cave walls. But how can we think about making better co-creative decisions in the age of machines, when so much of our creativity involves sitting at a computer, working with data, and reasoning in our heads.

Modern neuroscience confirms many of our intuitions but with a new twist.

Use these two nudges to help you engage your extended mind.

Nudge: Be Less Brainbound

Your brain has quite constrained capabilities. The primary job of your brain is to provide just-in-time resources to your body in just the right quantities. 

Evolution makes brains good at sensing other humans, moving the body, and navigating the physical world. With the complexity of the modern world, our brains are not up to the task in some key areas: maintaining focused attention, having reliable memory, staying motivated and on task, and demonstrating skilled reasoning and abstract thinking.

Most people respond by trying to think harder, to double down on what the philosopher Andy Clark calls “brainbound” thinking. But increasingly there is evidence that this response is the wrong way to think about the problem. 

Instead, we need to access “extra-neural” resources. In The Extended Mind, Anne Murphy Paul makes the case that we can learn to think with and through our bodies, our spaces, and our relationships.

When you feel stuck, think outside your own head. We can think better when we think spatially—when we get outside, into different spaces, when we move, when we think with other people.

  • NUDGE: Engage extra-neural resources—different spaces, people, and places.
  • WHEN: Whenever you feel stuck, as often as you can to get unstuck.
  • WHY: The body is not subject to cognitive biases that often distort thinking. Much of our cognition comes from being embodied and able to move.
  • HOW: Move to think. Learn to listen to signals from your body. Get outside. Talk with a friend about it. Change from one room in the house to another.
  • INSPIRED BY: Annie Murphy-Paul, Barbara Tversky

Nudge: Sketch

“Thinking quickly overwhelms the mind, and the mind expands into the world,” writes Barbara Tversky. Our minds create many cognitive tools to represent thought. One of the most productive ways to make thought visible to yourself and others is to sketch it out. These sketches can map elements and relationships within ideas and put them on a page.

Because sketches are often ambiguous, they allow for creativity, discovery, exploration, and recombination. Sketches provide the opportunity for visual feedback. They make the invisible visible.

Creative thinking quickly exhausts our mental space. The solution is to put our thinking “in front of the eyes instead of behind them.” Pencils lengthen our arms and sketching expands the mind. When we put ideas on paper we allow for spatial reasoning to help us make sense of abstract concepts.

But sketches are sketchy. They are incomplete and inexact, so it’s important to revise and keep exploring ideas. In this way, sketches need to be thought of as part of both design and redesign.

When you want to be creative with others, work on a whiteboard, use Post-it Notes on a window, or work on an online board, such as Miro. Thinking in sketches helps other people understand your thinking and gives them a place to put their own knowledge.

When you want others to riff on your ideas, showing (as well as telling) your thinking makes it easier for other people to contribute. Drawing the links between various elements in a physical or online space helps people resolve clashing causal forces and conflicts and find new paths forward.

When you want to begin, sketch early on in a creative process, when thoughts are assembled and people need to come together to understand the basic parameters.

  • NUDGE: When your mind is full, sketch.
  • WHEN: When the factors in a decision or solution feel too complex, sketching can help you think more clearly. Sketch early on in a decision process, when thoughts are assembled and people need to come together to understand the basic parameters of the decision.
  • WHY: One of the most productive ways to visualize thought is to sketch it out.
  • HOW: Embrace spatial reasoning and draw the concepts as they arise. Remember that these sketches are only partial and will need to be refined, revised, and redesigned. Using your hands is a powerful way to process thought.
  • INSPIRED BY: Barbara Tversky

Creative Decision #3: Facing Your Fears

The biggest barrier to creativity is fear, anxiety, and self-doubt. You may not always be aware of how much fear can box you in: physically, emotionally, and intellectually. 

Self-doubt creates a feedback loop because it stops us learning and automatizing what we learn. We have to consciously work to override our fear. We cut ourselves off from the creative process because we can’t access the functions of the right brain necessary for flow. 

The solution is to use our natural drive to be curious and look for the new, but to be productively curious we have to know ourselves better.

It’s human to know ourselves. We can self-monitor, understand our cognition, and recognize gaps in our knowledge. This is called metacognition—we think about how we think. We think of it as self-awareness and it powers learning. We can consciously direct our attention and curiosity.

Conscious focus and awareness is required for learning. But to make room in our brains for something new, we have to be able to automate our learning. We need to transfer what we learn to brain circuits that operate outside our conscious awareness or we cannot move on to master new skills.

How do you decide to tackle fear and be more creative? Here’s two decision nudges that can help.

Nudge: Flow

Flow state describes a feeling where you become fully immersed in whatever you are doing. Flow feels good. We experience a deep sense of concentration and clarity, and obstacles tend to fall away.

The concept was popularized by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura. According to Csikszentmihalyi, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times...the best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Flow is when our minds are at full capacity.

During flow we may switch off our metacognition entirely. It’s possible that’s why flow states feel good—we lose all self-consciousness. This also helps explain why our performance is often highest in flow. Conscious awareness and analytical thinking often reduces our performance.

We might imagine that the opposite of flow is distraction. The human brain can’t do more than one thing or two things at once. When we try to multitask we end up doing those things less well.

When you are interrupted, it takes 23 minutes on average to get back to the level of focus you had before you were interrupted. When was the last time you had 23 minutes to spare? Constant distraction from email, text, and social media means we constantly operate at a diminished level of brainpower—about 30% reduced every time you interrupt your current task to check your phone.

Flow is a bigger concept than focus but by protecting ourselves from constant distraction and switching between tasks we can allow more opportunities for flow.

When you are tempted to multitask, resist the urge. Commit to one task and remove distractions by turning off alerts and notifications. Progressively build more focus by aiming for longer intervals before you succumb to a tempting distraction.

When you struggle to pay attention, reduce distractions. No one can be creative when distracted. In flow states creative choices are automatized. Creating is the same as being. Allow yourself to find your flow and experience creativity as an automatic and joyful process.

  • NUDGE: Embrace your flow state.
  • WHEN: Whenever you want your mind working at full capacity and for your decision-making to be an automatic and joyful process.
  • WHY: Getting into the flow state feels good and we often do our most productive and high-performing work when in flow. Reducing distraction and training your mind to focus and pay attention will improve your decision-making abilities.
  • HOW: Know your flow state. Automate learning and allow time for practice.
  • INSPIRED BY: Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Nudge: Have a Coach

One very effective way to prompt personal growth is to have a coach. A coach doesn’t even have to be a coach in a formal sense, they can simply be someone you trust who is prepared to spend time alongside you as you take more creative risks.

Here’s how this works. 

Coaches can do some of your thinking for you. This means that you can outsource some of your thinking to a coach. Why would you want to do that? Because thinking about something and being self-aware in the moment can decrease your performance and make you less creative.

We use coaches to help us in sports all the time but they remain undervalued in creative activities. When someone else can nudge us to reflect on the state of our knowledge and mental models, we can take the next step which is to drop old habits and try a new way to do things.

When you feel that others are more creative than you, have your coach reflect on how they think you can take more risk with your ideas.

When you worry that people will see you as a fraud, have your coach help you understand the state of your own knowledge. Are there areas where you can brush up on your understanding of the basics? What do you know that might make others feel like frauds themselves?

When you want to try something new but are afraid of failure, have your coach help you think through how you’d deal with the consequences.

Coaches, advisors, friends, or coworkers can help us by reflecting what we think we know for ourselves.

A good coach knows you. They can’t tell you what decisions to make, but they can help you figure out a decision.

  • NUDGE: Outsource metacognition as a way to enhance self-reflection.
  • WHEN: Whenever you need help finding the real problem.
  • WHY: When we know the state of our own knowledge, we know when to ask for help.
  • HOW: Seek coaches, trusted advisors, and friends who can reflect what you know back to you.
  • INSPIRED BY: Stephen Fleming

How We Can Help You Make Better Decisions 

  • Workshops: We design highly interactive learning programs where people experience decision-making in a system of humans and machines. This prepares people for practicing data-driven decision-making in the real world. Contact us about our Learning Journeys and Workshops.
  • Coaching: We coach leaders to be better decision makers in a workplace where both human and machine employees matter. Contact us about our Leadership Programs and Executive Coaching.
  • Book: We’ve written the book on how to improve your decision-making in the digital age! Learn about our book at

What Leaders Need to Know

  1. Discover what prevents most companies getting value from their investment in AI and analytics and what you can do
    about it.
  2. Understand how humans make decisions—how we make good decisions and how we make bad decisions and how to optimize for the best decisions as a team.
  3. Know how to productively manage the natural tensions in decision-making. You will learn how to find sweet spots in decision-making such as those between intuition and data, experience and analysis.
  4. Be an expert at approaching data—knowing how to ask questions of big data and data scientists, how to bust myths and
    how to guide the process of discovering meaning in novel data sets.
  5. Be able to guide a culture where humans and machines work together. How to have culture that delivers the best of both worlds, where humans and machines work to amplify human strengths, avoid human downgrading, and drive business value.