How To Measure and Maximize Creative Thoughts

Do you want to be more creative? Justin Wehr does, and he sent in this question for the QS advisory board.


Name: Justin Wehrjustinwehr.jpg

Purpose: My objective is to measure creative thoughts so I can figure out how to
maximize them.

Variables tracked: I have some variables related to this, but not enough. For example,
I have a notebook I carry around with me so I can write something down
every time I think of/hear something interesting that I want to
remember. So I think I could crudely measure creative thoughts with
something like “number of lines written in notebook per unit time”.
However, I do not track time spent reading or which lines written in
the notebook occurred during reading. But my hope is that I could set
up an experiment that would not be too complicated — that is the
advice I would like from the QS advisors.

How do I set up an experiment to determine when I have have the most
creative thoughts … when I am reading, when I am thinking, or when I do
intermittent periods of reading and thinking? What should I measure,
how should I measure it, is it practical, and how do I analyze the

See what Gary Wolf of Quantified Self and Gary King of Harvard had to say…


Gary Wolf’s comments:

have one simple suggestion that might make an answer
more valuable.

That is that Justin should line his notebook with three
narrow columns at the right hand margin of each page. The columns
should be labeled: reading, thinking, mixed. When he writes down an
interesting thought, he would put a check in one of the columns. After
three days, he would see which column had the most checks. This will
give him a crude measure of what he is doing when he decides to write
something down in his notebook.

Then he should think about what this
evidence suggests, and what the NEXT stage of the experiment should be.
That is a good moment to describe it and ask the question. So he asks
the question as somebody already embarked on a self-experiment, which
makes it more interesting and suggestive.


Justin’s reply:

I am thinking about taking the experiment in a different
direction. I know Seth Roberts always says to keep it simple and
advises against testing too many variables, but what can I say, I am a
rebel. Instead of just testing which combination of reading/thinking
optimizes how many lines I write in my notebook (which I have decided
is a poor proxy for creativity anyway) I am thinking of creating a
spreadsheet with a list of variables and filling it out every time (or
most times) I feel like I have a steady stream of interesting thoughts.
This way instead of testing one variable I can test many and compare
effect sizes.
I do not know if the advisory board is still
available for advice, but if so, I would love to receive feedback on
the following rough plan:
The dependent variable would be a subjective 1-10 rating of how creative I feel.
Some other subjective 1-10 ratings I propose to collect are the following:
How awake/alert I feel.
How bored I felt immediately before stream of thoughts.
Day’s food quality.
Day’s food quantity.
Along with the following controls:
Time of day.
Concurrent activities (reading, writing, web browsing, eating, conversating, driving, listening to music, etc.).
Exercise minutes today.
Hours sleep last night.
Presence of other people (# and whom (friends, coworkers, family, etc.))


Gary King’s answer:

garyking.png1.  You shouldn’t get the idea that you should collect fewer variables.  The more outcome (dependent) variables you have time to collect the better.  The problem comes when designing an experiment with more treatment arms, since each of these requires more

2.  the more measurement error in your outcome variable, the more observations you’ll need to collect.  So subjective 1-10 measures tend to be pretty variable; that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t collect them, especially if you don’t have an alternative, but looking for more
objective measures is also useful.

3. as long as you’re collecting your own data, its a good idea to design a randomized experiment if that’s feasible.

Gary King is the Albert
J. Weatherhead III University Professor
at Harvard University,
presently based in the Department of Government (in the Faculty of Arts and
). He also serves as Director of the Institute for
Quantitative Social Science
. King and his research group develop and apply empirical
methods in many areas of social science research, focusing on
innovations that span the range from statistical theory to practical
application. For more information, see his short bio and curriculum vitae.


Thanks to Justin for the question and to Gary and Gary for their answers! If you have a burning QS-related question, please send it in and we’ll do our best to find answers for you.

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6 Responses to How To Measure and Maximize Creative Thoughts

  1. Ra says:

    It´s an interesting idea to measure one´s creativity. But before I can do that, shouldn´t I first have an idea of what creativity is anyway?
    Am I creative if I write something in my notebook? Hm… I kinda doubt it. It´s not that easy. So maybe counting is not enough.

  2. Sam says:

    I have been doing this since 2008, but have less than a 100 observations (I promised myself to become more disciplined at this project). My goal is to determine when I am most productive during the day and the month. I want to uncover any systematic relationships between my mood, productivity, attitudes towards my life, and my daily habits. I really think that there is a time during the month where I am naturally more optimistic towards life and more productive. Your creativity idea will now be added to my data collection if that is okay.
    Variables I collect:
    Time to bed
    Time awake
    Breakfast, lunch, and dinner time and content
    Number of tasks performed (a day)
    Hours spent reading, researching, working (for a productivity index)
    Then I have various likhert-type variables to measure how I feel: happiness, ethics, love, sin, depression, health, etc.
    Time on internet etc.
    Anyway, I came across this project by complete chance and was astonished that another methodologist was interested in quantifying life.

  3. Dorian Taylor says:

    I think your objective might benefit from a definition of creative thought, so I offer this one, which I will use below. Creative thinking is that which synthesizes symbols from an existing repertoire of symbols which may be acquired directly or synthesized themselves. This behaviour generates the associative trails characteristic of invention and discovery.
    There is the question of whether or not you even ought to maximize creative thoughts. Recent simulations suggest that an agent ought not to spend more than half its time synthesizing information. However, you can say that thinking takes time, and your capacity to do so is mediated, as you point out, by your physical condition.
    Moreover, any synthesis can be decomposed into simple Boolean (NOT OR AND) operations, which require inputs — creativity does not occur ex nihilo (in my opinion). As such, it seems to make more sense to aim to make what creative thought you do have more effective by getting adequate sleep, exercise and nutrition, and seeking out higher-quality inputs (i.e. turn off the TV) to work with.
    There is also the practical issue of the overhead associated with recording a thought, because it must be reduced to language. I will refrain here from opening the Pandora’s box of the language-thought debate, but there should not be much contest about the observation that it takes longer to commute a thought to a language that can be recorded somehow and replayed without losing important information. Given that many thoughts may indeed be creative, it is reasonable to expect that only relatively few are worth recording unless doing so can be made a byproduct of the creative process.
    As I noted above, maximizing creative thought may not even be desirable. I submit as well that an endeavour to optimize the potency of creative thoughts on its own is not especially useful unless they are executed or disseminated in some form. What does make sense, to me at least, is to create a space in which you can be profligate in your idea generation, and that which can keep precursor material close at hand and associations connected to one another. The purpose would be to eliminate the aforementioned overhead of recording ideas and connecting them to their sources of inspiration.
    This in fact describes with great precision the work of Douglas Engelbart, who has devoted his career to augmenting human intellect. I highly recommend reading his original 1962 paper and viewing the results, if you have not already.

  4. seth says:

    I have been documenting my ideas for a decade or so. I used to do this in many many notebooks, but I upgraded my technology a couple years ago and now it is much more easily trackable. The system that I now use automatically shows what date I enter the idea but not time. I suppose this wouldn’t be a hard tweak to make. This is the system that I currently use:
    I have a Tumblr blog where I post my ideas ( The blogging platform allows me to email or text an entry, so that whenever I have the idea, regardless of where I am I can use my smartphone to email it and it immediately posts to the blog (which is dated). If I am at my computer, I can also log in the idea that way. The blog platform allows you to see my postings in a calendar form (called Archive) and it also allows me to tag my entries so that if you logged it in from your computer, you could tag an idea “shower” or whatever.
    I haven’t ever tried to go through my history to see when my ideas come, but it might be telling…

  5. Jeremy says:

    I think your method as described doesn’t quite measure what you need it to. You write:
    “… I am thinking of creating a spreadsheet with a list of variables and filling it out every time (or most times) I feel like I have a steady stream of interesting thoughts.”
    This is going to show, given an interesting thought, what was going on. It isn’t going to show you what relationship any of those variables has to your intellectual output. You need data for when you *aren’t* having interesting thoughts, too.
    You might resolve this with an ESM setup: the prompt would ask you at random times throughout the day whether or not you are having the kind of interesting thought you want to have more often, followed by any variables you’re investigating. I’ve had some success with this in a very Google-centric setup where Google calendar events sent me text messages with a shortened link to a Google Docs form with all the questions, which fed into a spreadsheet I could manipulate however I needed to for analysis.

  6. Justin Wehr says:

    Great advice, all. Thank you!
    I will try out the spreadsheet idea and concentrate on keeping variables as objective as possible. (Will send Alexandra an update once I have my variables determined and have been going for a few weeks.) Once I feel I have an idea of which variables are likely to have the largest effects, I will do some randomized experiments.
    Jeremy, thank you also for the excellent input. I agree that your advice would enhance the integrity of the results, but I am trying to minimize the time burden this has on me, so am hoping I only need to fill in a handful of variables on the rare occasions when I have a steady stream of interesting thoughts.
    Thanks again!

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