Hacking the Creative Brain

As tech professionals, what we need is a way to work better so that we can create more, right? In order to have more creative productivity, we need to hack how we use our brains on a daily basis in order to access more of its inherent processing and creative power.

Through exploring various concepts and approaches, including the neuroscience of creativity, productivity techniques, and emerging practices that spur innovation, we’ll discover not only the ways in which our brains work best, but also what’s behind the times when we feel on fire with creativity and when we don’t. We’ll translate this information into processes and techniques for dramatically enhanced creative productivity. Beware: this talk may change how you work…for the better.

Denise had an epiphany after writing “The CSS Detective Guide” – that creativity is a power we all have. A great moment of “criticism free creativity” where she went into the creative flow and really created something she loved. She decided to become a creativity evangelist and see if more people could reach this state, more often.

What is the state of the creative nation?

Our best tool for creativity is the brain… but our working lives are not set up to maximise this! We have difficult bosses, demanding clients, time pressures, distractions. We are mentally overwhelmed and oppressed – which stifles creativity.

When we are in the creative flow we feel happy, powerful! We can achieve anything when it is happening.

“Creativity is magical, but not magic.” – missed source

The process Denise will talk about:

  1. emancipate our creative brain
  2. adjust
  3. practice disciplines
  4. generate ideas & then execute them


We are under a mass hypnosis where we accept meetings, email, timesheets… distractions!

Habits to quit:

  • Distractions are not just the norm, they are increasing. Multitasking is multi taxing. Our brain basically turns off and resets every time we switch tasks. We know that feeling of trying to get back into flow after an interruption – the brain takes a few seconds to switch back to the task. Zeigarnik effect: when you start a task and it gets interrupted, the brain keeps processing the old task AND the new one. Repeat and layer that and you get tired.
  • Communication addiction is a real thing – we get a little dopamine from checking messages, so we constantly refresh…
  • Our inner critic – everyone has this. Everyone worries they aren’t good enough, not as good as other people, won’t achieve enough. If these thoughts dominate you when you try to work,
    • Identifying the inner critic: comparison with others; imposter syndrome (“they’ll find out I’m a fraud); perfectionism (it has to be flawless); procrastination… FEARS.
    • Fears translate to signals, electrical signals in the brain.
    • F.E.A.R.: False Evidence Appearing Real. (or… Fuck Everything And Run)
    • Distinguish danger from fear – danger is real but fear is a choice.

How to hack fear:

  • say no to comparisons – you cannot compare your insides to others outsides
  • the imposter syndrome paradox – you will only experience imposter syndrome when you are competent and skilled. Re-read this as many times as you need to.
  • Break the perfectionism→procrastination loop. People procrastinate because it’s not perfect…
  • reassign your inner critic to other duties – pay attention to your critical voice when you are editing ideas. Ignore during ideation, listen during editing.
  • Amp up empathy for your inner critic – your inner critic is trying to save you from harm.
  • Maintain perspective – “so what?” Just because you’re thinking something doesn’t mean it’s true.
  • Reframe failure and mistakes – Henry Ford’s saying “Failure is the only opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”
  • Body hack: change your body language, change your mind. See Amy Cuddy’s TED talk.


Adjust – train your brain to get into a creative state.

Is creativity really all about left vs right brain? It’s the combination: the left brain stacks up information but does not make connections, the right brain can do that but it needs the information to work with. Creativity is whole-brain.

Brain waves – if you are in beta state too long, you get into anxiety and stress. Alpha is alert but relaxed, creative state (kids spend most of their time in this state). Theta is very high creativity but we mostly only do it asleep (dreaming). Delta is really low, deep dreamless sleep. Gamma is the highest level – “aha moments”.

Alpha brain waves are the gateway to creativity. There’s an exercise to enter alpha… close your eyes, “look up” like you’re remembering something, put your tongue on the roof of your mouth, breath slowly. This takes you into alpha. It is also why you get amazing ideas right before you go to sleep, but can’t remember later…

Hacks to get into alpha:

  • breathe to refocus
  • be prone – literally, just lie down, that will put you into alpha
  • showers – yes, you really do get ideas in the shower
  • space out, daydream
  • get physical – exercise! “Cross channel movement” helps the brain hemispheres sync with each other. Brain scans have backed this up – the science is clear!

Practice disciplines

  • Focus on meaningful tasks
  • Show up every day – do something creative every day. Commit to it, give yourself a check-off chart to see if you’ve kept the streak going.
  • Delegate – free up your own brain
  • Clean up your habit fields – you have habits attached to places. (see Jack Cheng article on A List Apart)
  • Single-task – say no to distractions. Try something like rescuetime.com to give you a report on where you spent time. Or try heyfocus.com (mac only) which will block sites you shouldn’t be reading at certain times.
  • Pomodoro technique – 30 minutes = 25 minutes uninterrupted time, 5 minutes off.

Generate & execute ideas

  • Start the flow of ideas – start with what’s already out there, steal like an artist! Copy, transform, combine. Everything is a remix.
  • Create constraints – they help you play within parameters, avoid analysis paralysis.
  • Capture ideas – embrace disruption, write things down when they happen. Gather and curate your ideas (eg. gimmebar.com).
  • Prototype, iterate.

This all sets the stage for flow state. There is also a “flow afterglow” where you remain creative for some time afterwards; and it’s easier to get back into flow.

Take this information and go be creative!

Denise’s upcoming book: Banish Your Inner Critic