The cure for stale creativity

The Creative Nudge reveals how to turbo-charge creativity. In this extract Mick Mahoney and Kevin Chesters look at the numbing effect of habituation
Mick Mahoney and Kevin Chesters

It’s comforting to place yourself in familiar surroundings, think familiar thoughts and do familiar things. You often hear the phrase, ‘I know what I like, and I like what I know’. And in such a fast-moving and changing world, it’s understandable to feel this way; you are constantly under threat from change and it can be tough to keep facing into it. But when it comes to creativity, avoiding change is a cardinal sin. It’s the worst of the worst. It’s Chapter 1 in the book of how not to be creative. Fight that urge to stay within your comfort zone with everything you have. It’s an ever-decreasing creative circle. It stunts your creative faculties. It makes you resistant to new thoughts and ideas. It holds you back, like a pernicious and clingy boy/girlfriend who doesn’t want you to change because they are worried that you’ll outgrow them and leave them behind in their familiar little world.

The very essence of creativity is to embrace the new. New ideas. New concepts. New people. New ways of approaching familiar things. Open your eyes and your mind to new possibilities. Try it. No, really. Try it. Pursue new for all you are worth. Sticking with what you know is never going to lead to a new outcome or fresh thinking. You aren’t going to surprise yourself or anyone else. So, it’s time to stop. It’s not going to be easy. But it will be worth your while.

The science bit

A funny thing happens when we stick to what we know. While we might become faster and more efficient, we actually get lazy. Dangerously lazy. In fact, a third of all car accidents happen within a mile of home – the area that we know best. When we’re most comfortable, our brains think that they can switch off, so they do, turning us instantly into creative wet blankets. Familiar territory is dangerous territory.

Try counting the F’s in this sentence:

Finished files are the
result of years of scientific
study combined with the
experience of years

3? 4? NO. 6!

Well done if you got them all. But chances are you didn’t. That’s because we’re all so familiar and comfortable with reading that we often miss words like ‘of’. So, what else have you been missing?

The science behind this is known as ‘inattentional blindness’, or ‘perceptual blindness’. It’s nothing to do with your eyes and everything to do with your brain. Our attention is only ever directed at a small number of things, and we miss the rest. Inattentional blindness is a psychological lack of attention. Simply put, we don’t see what we don’t expect to see.

So why do we stick to what we know? Nature can explain. Our brains love conserving energy. It takes a lot of juice to run a brain (enough to run a light bulb, in fact), so we have evolved to default to ‘low power mode’ when we can. This effect is called ‘habituation’, and the brain uses it to drown out the ordinary and expected in order to prioritize new stimuli coming in. We have essentially evolved to turn off our unnecessary notifications. If we’ve heard it, seen it, felt it or smelt it before, it’ll be edited out. Think about when you first sit down on a chair in a coffee shop. Let’s say it’s soft but keeps its shape. In the beginning your brain registers that feeling … but it soon stops doing that because you no longer need an update – you now need to focus on something else. The same is true for the effectiveness of many drugs; they become less effective with repeated use.

For those of you who have moved house to a busy road, you’ll notice that the sound of traffic outside disappears from your attention after only a few weeks. We don’t consciously process things that happen repetitively and predictably because

we don’t need to. We have evolved an auto-mode that takes hints from what we expect to happen rather than having to process everything fresh, and we can operate largely on expectations over reality. If we had to consciously process all of the world all of the time, life would be exhausting. 

This is a black-and-white photo. Look again. See it now? Your brain expects to see colours thanks to the hints from the lines superimposed on the photo, and so you see them. We see a lot more with our brains than we do with our eyes. So, we’ll say it again, if you think you know what you’re doing, stop doing it. However, this auto-mode is not helpful when we’re thinking about being creative. We don’t want to recycle old thoughts from well-trodden paths. We want to form new ideas. Now, people naturally gravitate to and like what is familiar – if we’ve been exposed to it in the past and it hasn’t killed us, then that’s a good thing. This is true almost everywhere. The colour in our bathroom grows on us over time, we begin to love that ugly chair or child, and the more familiar our environment becomes, the more our brain feels comfortable with switching into automatic. We’re programmed to save power, but creative thinking is not a low-power task. Our society and environment can also hold us back creatively; the world is designed with our auto-mode in mind. Modern technology perpetuates the familiar. Our GPS systems and public transport apps help us set consistent routes home; we create consistent ‘morning playlists’ and programme our coffee machines to kick into gear at 7:05. In standardizing and micro-managing our experience of the world, we risk also creating an environment that’s less stimulating or challenging, yet more often than not, creativity lies in friction. So, how might we break the shackles of comfort and familiarity to engage our brain and benefit from a little more friction?


Do familiar things in unfamiliar ways. Are you starting to see just how damaging familiarity is to creativity? In fact, it’s pretty dangerous all round. Now, don’t get us wrong – we like a little familiarity as much as the next person. A cup of tea. A pair of old Blundstone boots. A roast on a rainy Sunday. But all in moderation. So, what’s it going to be, comfy cosy or scary new? Are you ready to unleash your creative beast, or at least let him poke his beautiful head out into the sunlight for the first time in a very long while? Yes. Of course you are. You’ve got this. We’ve created a bunch of nudges that are specifically designed to stop you and your brain from defaulting automatically to what you know. Simple, familiar actions done differently that will shunt your brain off the tarmac and onto the off-road tracks. These nudges will make you crave the new. Open your mind to new stimuli and challenges, and over time encourage yourself to run a mile from the unoriginal. You only need to incorporate one of them into your day for things to trigger change. Start with the one that you think you’ll find easiest. Then, when you’re ready, add a second.

The Creative Nudge is available from bookstores and Amazon, including Kindle

Written by
Mick Mahoney and Kevin Chesters
December 14, 2021
Written by
December 14, 2021