You’ve likely heard of cross-training. It originated as a practice meant to help athletes broaden their skills and elevate their performance, helping them achieve more in their chosen discipline. It’s designed to push athletes beyond their comfort zone and get underused muscle groups working harder.
But did you know that you can also apply this strategy to your creative practice? Welcome to the world of creative cross-training (or CCT).
Let’s explore what sets CCT apart from ad-hoc creative explorations, the benefits for your creativity, and how to pick a regime (yes, it is a workout!) that suits you.
What is Creative Cross-Training?
Cross-training typically involves doing activities outside of your main sport – a tennis player might swim laps or do 100 burpees every morning for example. Creative cross-training is the same.
CCT requires you to pursue a creative activity that’s different from your primary focus. The goal is to diversify your creative skillset, stretch yourself, and build your resilience. In other words, to develop your creative fitness.
As Srinivas Rao describes it for Behance: “The point of creative cross-training is to immerse yourself for a short period in an art form that is not your primary one.” He goes on to explain that it “allows new muscles to develop and nascent ideas to germinate.”
It could take many different forms – either you could try an entirely new creative medium (for example, a musician enrolling in pottery classes) or investigate a subsection of your main medium that’s very different from yours (for example, a landscape painter working on some portraits). For example, Rao, a blogger and podcaster, cross-trained with a 30-day drawing challenge.
A CCT exercise isn’t the same as spending time on a hobby though. While CCT should be enjoyable, it should also be intentional. Like an athlete targeting an underdeveloped muscle, you should pick an activity that actively challenges you. Try to find something that addresses gaps in your creative skillset, giving you new insights and techniques to apply to your main medium.
Srinivas Rao found his powers of observation vastly increased after spending time learning to draw: “I learned how to see all the things that I had never noticed before when I looked at everyday objects.”
Nature photographer Len Metcalf had a similar experience when cross-training in street photography. On the podcast A Creative Affair he explains how the street photography technique of picking the frame first and waiting for something photo-worthy to happen in it transformed his approach: “Instead of looking just for that one beautiful flower I’m going to photograph, I look for both the background and the flower.”
The Benefits of Creative Cross-training
The advantages of creative cross-training don’t stop at insight and inspiration. In fact, it can help to boost your creative thinking and address several common creative pitfalls.
Avoiding the Plateau Effect
It’s been observed that if someone focuses on one exercise regime for an extended period, at some point their gains will level off or “plateau”. Cross-training is vital for athletes as it helps them avoid hitting this plateau. Interestingly, plateaus have also been observed with intellectual pursuits.
When academic Adam Alter spoke to the Hidden Brain podcast, he shared the stories of two people who had responded to a survey he’d conducted into creative goals. Both respondents, a pianist and an artist, had made steady progress early on but then reached a point beyond which they couldn’t improve.
They were trying to overcome the plateau by continuing to do what they’d always done but Alter believes this was counterproductive. Their brains, he concluded, had become habituated to the activities. “By doing the same thing over and over and over again, responsiveness declines,” he explains, pointing to the same phenomena in athletes. “By changing things, you reintroduce some stress into the situation and that leads to greater improvement.”
Creative cross-training is a fun and simple way to introduce some of that healthy neurological stress. It can help to keep things novel, fresh, and challenging while providing the structure and purpose you need to maintain it long enough for it to be beneficial.
Getting Comfortable with Discomfort
A closely connected issue is that doing the same thing for a prolonged period can lead you to become too emotionally at ease. When you “know what works” and can reliably create high-quality work, you’re not as motivated to take risks. And you lose out on learning from instructional mistakes.
Jay Dixit, writing for the Neuro Leadership Institute, explains why this can be a problem: “We work best in a mild threat state called “optimal arousal,” also known as eustress or a Level 1 threat. When we’re either too comfortable or not comfortable enough, we’re not productive.” This is particularly important for creative work as creativity and innovation require you to try things out with no guarantee of success.
CCT can help you rediscover the value of discomfort. It puts you back in the beginner’s mindset, where you have no choice but to try new things. Additionally, it exposes you to the inevitability of failure, reminding you that taking risks, that don’t always pan out, is part of creativity.
Dixit says that the first step toward embracing “productive discomfort” is to reframe how you feel about it, in a process known as reappraisal. Creative cross-training gives you a ready-made psychological framework to use. You know that you need to “feel the burn” when exercising, so treating discomfort as an intellectual exercise regime helps to turn it from a threat into part of the process.
Just as physical cross-training can make you fitter overall, CCT can help you boost your creative thinking.
Working in a new creative medium gives you fresh experiences to draw from, increasing your ability to make novel connections between previously unrelated pieces of information. It also introduces you to new ways of approaching problems, encouraging you to adopt a more adaptable and flexible mindset overall.
There’s also a growing body of evidence that developing a new skill, particularly one you find complex or challenging, can improve your memory. Strengthening your recall will improve your creative ideation and help you to maintain and develop your skills.
Picking a Cross-training Activity
Which activity should you choose for your cross-training? There are many possibilities – as Srinivas Rao puts it: “It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it’s not something you’re already extremely proficient at.”
When picking an activity that will stretch your brain in a healthy way, Dr. John N. Morris from the Institute for Aging Research recommends focusing on these 3 criteria:
- Challenge – It should represent a challenge for you to overcome. A study found that the more challenging the skill, the greater the cognitive benefit.
- Complex – It should require your brain to engage several different processes, like problem-solving, creative ideation, or motor skills.
- Practice – It should be something you can do consistently.
You could choose something that involves an aspect of your main practice that you find challenging. Alternatively, you could chase that “productive discomfort” by focusing on something that makes you nervous. More pain more gain?
You could also choose an activity because you’re curious about it or because it’s the opposite of what you usually do. Providing it represents a new challenge, it’s still worthwhile.
Here are some suggestions to consider:
- If you’re a writer who struggles with dialogue, you could try joining a stage production to give you a deeper understanding of narrative and the spoken word.
- If you’re a photographer, you could try working with acrylics to help you slow down and really pay attention to color theory, detail, and composition.
- If the uncertainty inherent in the creative process makes you uncomfortable, you could try abstract painting or drawing to become more at ease with just seeing where your ideas take you.
- If you struggle to find inspiration, you could try creating found poetry to help you see the possibility in unlikely things.
- If you feel nervous about sharing your creative work, you could try a performative activity like improv or dance.
- If you struggle to refine your work, you could take up embroidery to help you develop your patience and accuracy.
While you could pursue these activities alone and at your own pace, you could also take part in classes or an online creative challenge. Joining a sports club or exercise class gives you structure, solidarity and accountability when working on your fitness – the same principles apply here.
If you feel strapped for time, there are ways to introduce an element of creative cross-training by being more intentional about activities you’re probably already doing, like cooking. There are so many everyday activities that can be more creative with the slightest tweaks.
Once you’ve chosen your activity, remember to put the reps in. Just like with exercise, you need to be consistent to reap the long-term benefits.
Uncover Your Best Creative Work
Creative cross-training can benefit your main creative medium by helping you discover fresh insights, skills, and motivation.
Using the familiar metaphor of exercise gives you a framework for experimenting with different creative mediums in a way that’s useful, sustainable, and enjoyable.