Creativity Boosters

Want to Be More Creative? Ask for a Sign

Maybe you’re struggling with a decision or problem. You could be hoping for an inspiration to take a creative project to a new level. Or perhaps a loved one has died, and you long for some suggestion you still have a connection.

You don’t have to wait passively for an idea or answer. Try the approach I’ve used in these situations: Take proactive steps to unlock your conscious mind so something you’d consider a sign can squeeze through.


Step one

Change your surroundings. I always head into nature, even if what’s convenient is only a local park or my own yard. I need to engage my restless body, whether in walking or weeding. Such rhythmic motion is ideal for inducing a receptive state. 

I hold my decision or question uppermost in my mind, and when my attention wanders, I reclaim it. To me this feels like the opposite of meditation (another good way to solicit a sign, but one I find challenging).

Our subconscious minds are more powerful, and often wiser, than our day-to-day awareness.

Step two

Look around. Pay attention. What do you notice? I focus on images, my emotional responses, and what appear to be random, unprovoked thoughts. Can any be interpreted, even wildly, as applying to the situation I’m struggling with?

When I go at this with an open mind, an image or idea will usually resonate as a tip from Beyond.

From beyond what? That’s up to you.

How it works, even for rationalists

You needn’t believe in a divinity that sends personal notes. (Though my experiences suggest there’s a lot here we don’t understand.) Signs we notice in nature may also reflect insights bubbling up from beyond the narrow walls of our conscious minds. A few that have stood out for me: A seething ant pile suggesting I get busy on a potential project in mind. The persistence of moss growing on concrete, telling me to be patient and keep trying even when it’s hard. A butterfly abruptly landing on my head to remind me of beauty and grace. And my all-time best: graffiti on a fence that read, “You already know what to do.”

Scientists today acknowledge that our subconscious minds are more powerful, and often wiser, than the waking awareness seated in our frontal lobes. Engaging in motion outdoors can relax our minds into the dreamy state characterized by theta brainwaves and conducive to creativity.

As I become less focused on my to-do list and more aware of my surroundings, an even more useful question I ask myself is, “What don’t I notice?” For instance, I tend to focus on details on the path, so I need the reminder to look up. I might miss intrigue at eye-level or above. The reverse may be true for you.

Plus we’re constantly surrounded by scents, sounds, and tactile sensations that don’t rate conscious attention. Can you hear the breeze, nearby birds, your own footsteps or pulse? Our nerve endings are reporting the texture of our clothes or pockets of warm air. Our brains are just electing not to pass on that information.

Shutting down that pesky filter

Our brains filter out most of the sensations and information bombarding us. This filtering, handled by the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for common phenomena such as never noticing, say, Volkswagens until you buy one. Suddenly they seem to be everywhere.

There’s no change in the Volkswagen volume. Your brain has simply declared that information relevant now and allowed it to slip through.

Opening our minds to random signs can help shut down this filter and allow insights through.

This filter is helpful, but it can also be wrong, screening out information that could be useful. In particular, it eliminates potentially challenging information that might threaten our status quo or beliefs. (Thus it supports political polarization, one of several situations in which it is harmful.)

Besides facts or politics we don’t like, our brain can “help” us avoid solutions to problems that could benefit us in the long run. It allows us to hide from decisions or actions our subconscious knows may be long overdue — from the need to end a lousy relationship to a creative solution for a problem at work that might involve risk or confrontation.

Getting out of our usual settings and opening our minds to random signs can help shut down this filter so insights can come through. It also supports the unexpected connections between usually separate concepts that lie at the heart of creativity.

Extra credit

I’ve found it handy to note images and thoughts with my phone or on paper as they occur. Sometimes “signs” encountered in one frame of mind resonate differently later or when seen from a symbolic perspective.

Suppose you notice a snake in the woods. (Don’t scream.) Or even a vine that looks like a snake. You needn’t know that snakes are classic symbols of transformation and growth, thanks to the shedding of their skin. You can discover that online later. When you do, that symbolism might reverberate if you’re facing a change or related decision. Snake suggests you should go for it.

Snake (or Vine) was not there for your benefit, of course. She was going about her snakely business. But your noticing suggests your subconscious finds Snake relevant now. It’s trying to tell you something in its primary language — imagery. You’d be wise to heed it.

Don’t take my word for it; go hunting for a sign. At worst, you’ll relax so creative thoughts can arise. Either way, all signs show it’ll be time well spent.


  • Wendy Wahman

    Thank you, dear Joni. I’m going to apply these to one particular, stubborn story I’ve completely re-written and re-drawn five times. What is missing? Maybe I can find it when I notice what I’m not noticing.

  • Sandra Johnson Rayburn

    Thanks, Joni,

    There certainly is much to ponder when one takes the time, and I agree with you–my favorite place is outdoors somewhere. Ant hills have always been a fascination, probably genetic in my case. Brother Alvie tells a story about our dad. One day when driving home, Alvie looked up on the hill where he saw Dad lying on the ground near the tractor where he was working the field. Alvie immediately thought, “Oh, no, Dad’s been hurt.” So Alvie stopped and ran up the hill, only to find Dad lying there intensely studying an ant hill and all its busyness. Ah, yes, we have so much to learn.

    Love, Sandy

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