Building a System that Nurtures Creativity in Non-Creatives

One of my biggest challenges is creativity. As a left-brain person I’m pretty good at evaluation, problem solving and pattern recognition. But give me a blank piece of paper and I struggle.

For several years I’ve been watching videos and reading books in a quest to improve my creativity. Today I realised I just need to take the plunge.

Over the last few months I’ve been working on building a system to help me create. This article will summarise the system I use. It’s not perfect. It’s not even finished. But I’m using it and it’s helping, so it’s worth writing about. I used to think creativity meant you had to be original but I now realise that’s a myth.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.

Steve Jobs

Paul Simon’s account of how he wrote Bridge Over Troubled Water tells a similar story.

I designed my system to help me discover things that interest me. I then need to queue the things I discover to allow me to read, watch or listen to them when I have time. Whilst consuming the content I may wish to make notes or highlight things that resonate with me. These notes and highlights should be accessible in one place for future use. Finally, all my notes should be organised to support me in creating something from what I’ve learned. I summarise my system like this:

  • Discover
  • Queue
  • Consume
  • Capture
  • Catalogue
  • Plan
  • Create
  • Publish

I haven’t got a fancy name or a cool acronym for it, that might come later. But I am convinced it will help me to create.


The discover stage is all about finding things that interest me. There are many sources of information and this is the part of the system that is often tweaked. Today my sources are as follows:

  • Recommendations from other people
  • RSS feeds (yes RSS is still a thing!)
  • Streaming services
  • Reddit
  • Social media, specifically Twitter and LinkedIn
  • News


My queue is where I save interesting things that I can’t consume there and then. There isn’t a single queue. Instead I save books in an Amazon wish list. Articles and YouTube videos are saved in Pocket. Overcast is where I save podcasts I want to listen to. Movies are saved in the watchlist of each of the streaming services to which I subscribe. Music is saved in a playlist for tracks I stumble across.


Reading, listening to or watching the content in my queues is the consume stage of the process. With so much available it can be difficult to know what to look at, read or listen to next. Often a current topic of interest will have multiple pieces of content saved and I’ll work through these in turn. I’ll read a couple of articles then watch videos and perhaps listen to a podcast.


It’s very easy to consume content mindlessly. But I’ve realised there is little value in this. Recently I’ve been trying to be more mindful with everything I consume. At the very least I want to capture one or two notes of things that resonate with me.


It’s only in the last few months that I’ve really started to think about storage of notes. I’ve been an Evernote user since 2008 and it has been a catch-all for much of my note-taking. However it’s never felt well structured since I use it for so many things. I realised I need a system dedicated to holding notes and ideas on everything I’ve consumed.

Much has been written about Zettelkasten and I’m not sure I’ve got much to add. I’m building my own Zettelkasten using Notion as my reference system and Evernote for my notes. I hope this will be a rich source of future content.


Notion is the application I use for planning. I review my notes regularly and look for ideas. I capture these when they arise and take them through stages – idea, outline, researching, draft, published.


For a non-creative trying to be creative this is, of course, the hard part. I find that scheduling time helps. Removing myself from distractions is also useful. Often I play soundtrack music to help me concentrate. Ultimately though I just need to create. There is only so much planning that can be done before you have to do!


The final stage is both the easiest and the most difficult. Easy because the tools we have at our fingertips make it simple to put content out in many channels. Difficult because I’m never satisfied with the final product and I want to revise and revise.

So this is my system to find creativity for non-creatives. It’s still rough around the edges, but it will get better. And as it does I’ll post updates on here.

Paul McCafferty @paulmccafferty