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Why Being Formulaic Makes You More Creative

Calling someone's work formulaic is seen as an insult in many circles. The truth is that our most creative thinkers often use formulas in everything they do.

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Formulaic. The word sends shivers down the spines of artists, authors, inventors, and innovators everywhere. Creative types tend to want to do things differently than have ever been done before, and relying on tried-and-true formulas seems to be the complete opposite of that. When most people think “formulaic,” it conjures images of bad drugstore paperbacks, disposable pop songs, and second-rate businesses that spring up to make a quick buck and then fade away just as quickly.



However, this popular conception is far different than the reality of how the mechanics of creativity actually work. Many of the most original people in fields ranging from the arts to science to entrepreneurship actively strive to be formulaic. Not only do they use tried-and-true formulas in their work, they actively seek out new ones of which they may not have been aware.

 Here are a few reasons top innovators use formulas to inspire their most creative output, and why you should too.



Formulas Facilitate Quantity



There’s a reason mystery writers can churn out a book or more a year while more “literary” authors tend to produce the same amount over the course of a decade. Genre writers follow the same limited batch of plot formulas over and over again. Yet critics are finally beginning to admit what the rest of us knew all along-;the best writers of crime, sci-fi, or romance novels are every bit as good as their literary contemporaries. The only real difference is how much of their stuff they get into the hands of readers.



Sometimes old clichés stay alive for a reason--quality truly does come from quantity. But whether you’re writing a novel, coming up with content for your blog, or generating new product features, it’s tough to produce a lot of ideas when you constantly have to reinvent the structures to hang them on.



Take the time to find the formulas that are appropriate for your field, whether it’s a time tested management process or a plot structure that has sucked people in for eons. Then plug in your own specific ideas and see which ones stick.



Formulas Force Connections Between Unrelated Ideas



Creativity is not about coming up with new ideas from scratch, it’s about combining divergent concepts in ways that no one has thought of yet. When seeking solutions, the mind has a tendency to notice what’s obvious first. And if you don’t set boundaries, that’s exactly what yours will do.



By setting a rule in advance that anything you come up with has to fit a predetermined formula, you’ll have no choice but to make connections between whatever concepts, answers, and influences you throw into the mix. And it’s from those sorts of connections that real innovation springs.



Formulas Provide the Freedom to Innovate Where It Really Matters



William Shakespeare is as well-known for his sonnets as he is for his plays. The imagery, wordplay, and emotion of these poems have yet to be matched. And every single one of them follows a strict formula.



By working within a form that had a set number of lines, syllables, and rhythms, Shakespeare was free from having to concern himself with mundane structural matters. Instead, he could focus his attention on the beauty of his language and ideas. It’s why Steve Jobs chose to wear the same uniform of turtleneck and jeans everyday. By liberating yourself from unnecessary decisions in favor of what you already know works, you give yourself the headspace to innovate in the areas that count the most.

Last updated: Jan 7, 2014

MICHAEL SCHEIN | Columnist | Founder and principal of Michael Schein Communications

Michael Schein is the founder and principal of Michael Schein Communications, a digital marketing company. He has created or facilitated the production of content for companies such as eBay, LinkedIn, Avectra, Tesla, SEER Interactive, Interneer, Arise Virtual Solutions, and Citrix. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with honors and got his start at Spin the Bottle, the production company behind VH1 hit show Pop Up Video.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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