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There is a common misconception about creativity that many of us fall victim to: you’re either born with it or you’re not.

It’s a good excuse when you are having trouble generating new ideas. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your vantage point), it’s just not true.

A slew of scientific research has found that idea generation can actually be distilled down to a 5-step process. (Oh yeah, that whole “left-brained” or “right-brained” concept? Also not true.) Here’s what you really need to know.

Step 1. Gather Raw Material

You know that expression, “you are what you eat”? Turns out it applies to creativity as well. Except, with ideas, you are what you eat, what you see, what you hear, what you learn, what you observe. The inputs you consciously or subconsciously collect throughout daily life form the raw material, or building blocks, for your ideas. The richer and more inspiring the input, the richer and more inspiring the output.

Or, put another way, garbage in, garbage out.

Does this mean you need to spend your days at the Met to be creative? Fortunately, no (although that would be fun). But it does mean that, when faced with any problem or project that requires creative ideas, it’s worth taking a minute to ensure you are setting yourself up for success with the right inputs.

Step 2. Digest + Synthesize

Once you have all these inputs in your head, let them bounce around for a while. Think of these materials as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. What are the ways they might fit together? You aren’t necessarily looking for an answer just yet, but you are trying to experiment with various permutations.

Step 3. Unconscious Processing

This is the part that might feel uncomfortable, especially for those of us working under tight deadlines.

Science tells us to step away from the problem. Stop thinking about it. Do something else that excites or energizes you. Go for a walk. Grab a cup of coffee. Read an interesting article. Listen to music. If your schedule permits, now is a great time for that visit at the Met.

Step 4. The A-ha Moment

Ever wonder why you sometimes have your best ideas in the shower? Science has the answer. Turns out if you have followed the first three steps of the creative process, your idea will arrive when you are least expecting it – while taking a shower for example, or right before you fall asleep at night.

Why? It comes down to dopamine and distraction. Your brain is most likely to give you that a-ha moment when you are feeling calm and relaxed, happily not thinking about the problem you are trying to solve.

Once it comes to you, capture it quickly! Always have a way of documenting your thoughts. Evernote is a great free notetaking tool. Try Aquanotes for those magical shower moments.

Step 5. Idea Meets Reality

Now is the time to get your colleagues involved. This final step in the creativity process requires collaboration. Let your great idea out into the world and open yourself up to criticism, feedback and questions.

“When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.”

James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

What This Means for Marketers

Full disclosure: these five steps are simple to say, but harder to execute.

The creative process requires time and effort dedicated to idea production. That’s no easy ask for a busy marketer, already tasked with juggling multiple projects and responsibilities at the same time. Not to mention the added challenge of continuously learning new technologies and evolving strategies in a rapidly changing digital economy. It’s easy to get bogged down in all the data and different platforms.

But ideas are still a critical part of breakthrough marketing – and an important role for any marketing executive (especially in the age of diminished tenure).

Science shows us how to produce great ideas. Take the time to work these steps into your routine to make 2017 the year of your best ideas.

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