Have you ever had one of those moments where you’re creating something (painting, music, writing a letter, designing a website, coming up with a new idea, looking for a new sales angle) and you freeze half way through because you’ve transported yourself into the future and begun to wonder what people might say about your finished product?

I’ve had thousands of those moments. Sadly I often don’t seem to work through the ‘freeze’. I abandon the direction I’m taking and start again. Of course the most horrible part is that I find myself creating for an audience and not for myself or for the adventure of coming up with something for it’s own sake. The play is gone, and has been replaced by a cautious, delivery focussed mindset. Very little that is truly beautiful comes from that place.

Tim Brown, in his TED Talk Tales of Creativity and Play (the video is embedded below), points out that children don’t really suffer from this at all. Censoring our creativity is largely an adult thing. All is not lost. Not only is there an engaging exercise to help you out in the moment, but it will also start you on a training programme towards less self-censorship and more free and open thinking.

Creative Quantity v Creative Quality

The exercise is called the 30 Circle Challenge. It was invented by Robert McKim, Professor Emeritus of Stanford’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. What is does is to assist with Fluency and Flexibility.

Fluency: Describes thinking of many, many ideas. These ideas do not have to be unusual or very different to each other. When we use fluency, we try to generate as many ideas as we can in a few minutes.

Flexibility: Means thinking of different kinds of ideas. When we think flexibly, our minds easily hop or jump from one category of ideas to another. This way of thinking is commonly called, ‘divergent thinking’.

30 Circle Challenge


  1. Download and print this blank 30 Circles Challenge page. Print off several copies if you’re going to involve others. It does make for a fun group exercise, and adds a layer of being able to compare your results with friends, family or colleagues.
  2. Use the blank circles to draw as many recognisable objects as you can in three minutes. While you can just start the clock and begin drawing, it can also be very useful to have something in mind. A logo you need to draw, a piece of writing you need to do, a problem you need to solve. A sales challenge you have. Once you’ve completed the exercise, ask some of these questions about your results:
  • How did you do with regards to the quantity (Fluency) of ideas? Most people don’t complete all 30 circles in 3 minutes.
  • How did you do with regards to the diversity or (Flexibility) in your ideas? Are the ideas a derivative of each other, (a tennis ball, a netball, a golf ball) or distinct from each other, (a wheel, a coin, a smiley face)?
  • How did you do with regards to the ‘rules’? Did you draw outside of the circles, or combine circles? If you did the 30 Circle Challenge with others, how different or unusual were your ideas compared to them?

Of course there are no right or wrong results in this challenge. It’s supposed to be playful, even though it has the ability to unlock some thoughts and ideas you may not have had because of a quality focus. You also get some insight into how your own creativity works. Don’t see the 30 Circle Challenge as a one-off exercise. It’s far better to see it as a tool to use for problem solving, as well as for evolving your own fluency and flexibility.

Download a blank 30 Circles sheet (PDF)

Header Photo by Mel Poole on Unsplash