By Keith Shields, CEO at Designli

Creativity is the fuel of startups. Without innovation, your product won’t stand out, and your startup will look and act like all the other companies in your category. Founders and product teams know this, but sometimes it can be challenging to come up with new ideas. When you’re stuck, it can seem like fresh ideas are elusive. 

While we can’t conjure up creativity magically, we can set up the conditions for creativity to flourish. Our team at Designli relies on new ideas to help our clients think through their product design and differentiate their products. But in order to do this, we have to continually be creating conditions that are conducive to idea generation. Here’s how we do it. 

1. Get enough sleep.

The entrepreneurial stereotype burns the candle at both ends, but getting insufficient sleep is one of the worst things you can do for creativity. A creative brain is a rested brain. Sleep does more than make the brain healthy, though -- it also plays a key role in subconscious idea generation and problem solving. The REM and non-REM sleep stages work together to form links between various bits of stored knowledge, which allows us to come up with new ideas and previously unrecognized ways to solve problems.

2. Prime your brain, then let it sit.

Continuing to rack your brain when it isn’t producing ideas isn’t a successful strategy. While various regions of the brain are involved in creativity and problem solving, new ideas rely on the default mode network of the brain -- the “idle” state that happens when you’re not consciously thinking or focusing on anything. As with sleep, this brain state generates creativity by forming links between bits of knowledge you’ve previously stored. The more plentiful and diverse your bits of knowledge, the more creative you’ll be able to be. For this reason, it’s a good idea to prime your brain by continually taking in new information -- reading widely, observing nature, delving into science and history and engaging in new experiences -- then resting without consciously trying to come up with ideas.  

3. Engage in a creative activity.

One great way to prime your brain is to do a creative activity, like participating in an art class or learning how to cook. Taking in other people’s creative work can also stimulate ideas -- visit a museum or go to a theater performance. Sometimes, just watching a thought-provoking movie can stimulate your creativity. 

4. Get outside.

Nature is a uniquely ideal environment for producing creativity. It relaxes the prefrontal cortex, freeing our minds from the “rules” that our brains routinely follow. Simultaneously, it helps us get in touch with a sense of wonder and awe, shifting our perspective. Nature can also help us enter a state similar to meditation -- in this state, we’re in “flow” and can more easily connect with our creativity. You don’t have to hike a mountain or go kayaking on an alpine lake to reap the benefits of nature. Simply step outside the office for a walk to the city park or hop on your bike and head down a tree-lined trail.

5. Embrace boredom.

In today’s “always on” culture, our smartphones are never more than a few inches away. Constantly checking our phones keeps our brains continually occupied, however. Without a chance to wander, our minds are unable to come up with new ideas. Have you ever noticed that many of your ideas come to you when your mind isn’t actively focused on processing information -- in the shower, as you’re driving, on a walk? The more opportunities you can create for mind-wandering, the more opportunities you’ll have for idea generation.

Once you’re regularly creating the conditions for new ideas to appear, patience is key. The creative mind works on its own schedule and can’t be rushed by spending more hours in front of your computer. As Steve Jobs said: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things.” Following this path to creativity will lead you to the insights and ideas you’re looking for.

Keith Shields is CEO at Designli, a digital product studio that helps entrepreneurs and startup-minded enterprises launch transformative apps and web-apps.