How Micro Stretch Targets Push Your Creativity
The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.
Revising my opening chapters of a middle grade novel recently, I realized too many sentences started with “I” in the first-person manuscript. It felt repetitive and a bit tedious.
Afraid I’d spend a lot of time futzing around, tweaking here and tweaking there, I decided on a straightforward challenge. I counted the number of sentences involved and set a stretch target of reducing the uses of “I” by at least 50 percent.
As I read back through with that goal, I quickly found ways to improve the story and reduce occurrences by 53 percent.
Boom. I will keep this going while revising the rest of the story.
The “at least 50 percent” target is inspired by my past work in healthcare improvement. We often set what we called stretch, or radical, targets when focused on how to make a process or service better for our patients or staff.
In this case, I’m not focused on big life goals that make it onto a bucket list. I’m talking about smaller everyday things.
The benefit of micro stretch targets? They push you out of the usual ways of thinking and increase your chance of finding creative solutions. They can help you get unstuck.
How to Set Stretch Targets
Sometimes life forces us to respond to a stretch target that crashes uninvited into our world. An impossible deadline. Scarcity of a supply (think of the pandemic). A need to find a more affordable option. And so on. We rally and deal with it because we have no choice. Sometimes the solution feels satisfying in its creativity.
Other times, we need to recognize the opportunity to provoke our own thinking. I enjoy watching reality shows like Chopped and Project Runway because they’re great examples of using constraints about time and materials to push the participants’ creativity.
Depending on the situation, setting stretch targets to increase or decrease one or more of these elements can help your creative problem-solving:
- Number of people involved
- Number of steps in a process
It can help to put your elements into what if? questions.
Three writing examples:
- An activity with both a time and quantity stretch target is the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where participants strive to finish a first rough draft of a novel (at least 50,000 words) within a month.
- The stretch target: What if you compress the usual time needed to draft a full novel into one month?
- The annual Storystorm event organized by author Tara Lazar involves coming up with at least 30 picture book ideas in 30 days. These don’t have to be well-constructed ideas. Just seedlings and inspirations. (And the daily blog posts, camaraderie with fellow authors, and chances to win prizes make it super fun.)
- The stretch target: What if you jumpstart your quantity of story ideas within a compressed timeframe?
- On the flip side, doing just five-minute micro writing sprints is a great way to get unstuck if you keep putting off writing until you magically have more time.
- The stretch target: What if you have to write as much as you can in just a few minutes?
I used this approach in my work life recently:
- A coworker was stuck preparing a presentation. She’d bogged herself down with way too many slides, trying to pack in every little piece of information she could. The volume of information and number of slides made it difficult to follow and decreased the chance for interactivity and retention (quality). I tossed out a challenge, this time through an invented scenario: “There’s a new rule that presentations can’t use more than three slides. Which ones are you keeping?” While she didn’t get it down that far, the process did help her rethink her approach, move a bunch of content into a reference handout, and create more time for meaningful discussion.
- I took this idea even further with a training I’ve been preparing: “What if I had zero slides? How would I design this session to still build the group’s understanding of the content?” I’m delivering this PowerPoint-free session soon and I’m excited to see how the experience feels for participants!
Make it a Habit
As with many skills, recognizing the opportunity for micro stretch targets can take practice.
Pay attention to impossible situations and how you’re dealing with them. You might find you’re doing some creative problem-solving already. That can be a confidence booster.
And look for times you’re feeling bogged down, not getting the results you need, or dealing with a problem that seems impossible to solve. Which of the elements I listed could you stretch in some way?
Find the what if? questions lurking and lead your brain to some promising ideas.
I’d love to hear how micro stretch targets help you. Drop me a line to share or if you need to brainstorm!