My Top 7 Tools for Creativity

by | Jun 26, 2017

This year I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity, and I’m getting ready to publish a small book on this subject, something that has occupied me for many years.

It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I realized I was working as a creative professional. Even though I’ve often made a living designing, writing, and managing the production of other creative artists, for some reason I still thought that that life was an aspiration, even while I was living it.

These days my creative output is based around my writing, but also includes book design, product development, business strategies, as well as my explorations of more visceral creative output—in the kitchen.

That’s why I’ve come to appreciate and rely on tools that help me in my creative pursuits. We live is such a great time to be a creative artist because of two huge changes that are still underway in our culture:

  • The gradual democratization—by way of digitization—of the tools of production from large, capital-rich companies, to the individual. In our own field, just think about the evolution of typesetting. 15 years ago, most typesetting was done by typesetters on dedicated typesetting equipment. Now, anyone can do it on a laptop, and that’s just one example.
  • The rise of the social web, allowing any creator to identify and aggregate a community of like-minded people. Whether you think of this as “aggregating a community” or “creating a market” or “building your platform” the real power here is the ability to come in direct, large-scale contact with your own audience.

Both of these historic shifts in society have created the opportunity for individual actors—like self-publishers—to take control of their own creative destinies, and some have gone on to achieve wealth, fame, and even publishing contracts.

As these changes have been occurring, clever companies have provided better and more flexible tools, often free or at a low price, further empowering the individual artist. The last typesetting system I purchased before the advent of PCs cost over $30,000 and nearly bankrupted my small company.

Now you can get a world-class computer for $1,000 and a subscription to Adobe InDesign for $19.95 a month. Different world, indeed.

Here are the tools I’ve been using most often for my own creative work. Some are free, some will cost you a few dollars, and there are probably free alternatives for those, too.

My Top 7 Tools for Creativity

  1. Evernote—This has to be one of the all time best applications ever made available for free (there are also paid versions, but you won’t need them for a long time). Evernote makes it easy to retain things like half-formed ideas, a photo of a flower that has a special color, a blog post you need to refer back to, or just about anything else you can throw at it. Then it makes all this miscellaneous stuff available to you by keyword or whole document searches. You can clip things from the web with a browser plugin, email notes, attachments, or photos to your own Evernote address, and do screenshots, too. Evernote helps for creative work because it makes it easy to capture and retreive things that are usually hard to keep track of. The possibilities of this program seem almost endless, and I note that Michael Hyatt is a big fan, too.
  2. Scrivener—It’s funny how much Scrivener resembles Evernote with in ability to capture and store both text and multimedia files. But Scrivener then goes on to add a very powerful word processing editor, project tracking, ebook output, and a host of other organizational and writing tools you won’t find anywhere else. I do almost all my writing in Scrivener now because of its unique ability to organize text elements and track my progress at the same time. If this program is new to you, I highly recommend Joseph Michael’s top-quality training program, Learn Scrivener Fast. It will save you many hours of confusion and frustration.
  3. Mind Jet Mind Manager—This mind mapping program has been around for almost 20 years and is used by people in “83% of the Fortune 100″ according to them. While there are excellent free mind mapping software applications like Freemind, I bought this program years ago and have never regretted it. Mind mapping allows you to get ideas out even when they are barely comprehensible, then allows you to add structure and connections to those ideas. It is a fluid and easy to use program, and the place I usually start projects like creating new presentations, working out concepts for a written piece, and other work that needs the ability to provide an overview of complex ideas. You can also add media to your mind maps, and I once taught an entire 6-week course by simple walking through a polished, highly graphic mind map with my students.
  4. Canva—This one is an exception because I don’t use it. However, Canva has succeeded in making basic promotional graphic design available to anyone, regardless of their design skills. Most of my friends and colleagues use and enjoy it, so who am I to argue? If I wasn’t a designer myself, I’d probably use it too. It’s fun, free, and effective for creating report covers, web ads, internet “memes” and other incidental graphics.
  5. CreateSpace—Yes, I know you all know CreateSpace already, Amazon’s print on demand service for authors. I include it because CreateSpace makes the publishing process about as easy and user-friendly as it’s ever likely to get. It costs nothing to set up your account, and just the production cost of a single copy of your book plus postage and handling to get a proof mailed to you. This gives writers an unparalleled way to experiment with book concepts with virtually no risk. You can create one-off books, try out different sizes, change covers, and have the actual end product in your hands in a few days.
  6. iPhone—Like you, my phone is my constant companion, and has been a great addition to the creativity tools I use. With instant access to a camera, video recorder, audio recorder, my Evernote archives, search tools, as well as all the other accessories the phone has “eaten” in its conquest of the small appliance world, it is a marvel, packed with more technology and processing power than the computers that sent the first astronauts to the moon. With my iPhone in my pocket, I feel that my spontaneity is unleashed, and I can come back from explorations with tons of first-person accounts of my journeys. In fact, I wrote the outline for this article a couple of days ago on my phone.
  7. Writer’s journal—Do you use a journal? Some writers journal daily as a practice, others use them for project notes and drafts. I’m not a daily journal writer, but I’ve got a stack of journals anyway. They have pen-and-ink free-writes, notes on products I’m working on, notes from calls with partners, colleagues, and clients, just about anything I need to remember. Unlike Post-It notes, backs of envelopes, or scraps of paper, journals are more difficult to lose or misplace. Once you write it, it’s going to stay in there. My journals also contain hand-drawn mind maps, scraps of information that will make it into my writing somewhere, and much more. I’ve gotten so attached to my journals, that this year I’ve decided to create my own version of the perfect writer’s journal, one I think is better than Moleskine, better than Shinola, something that hasn’t existed before. I call them WriteWell™ Writers’ Journals. This is pretty exciting. I’ll be announcing this very soon, but if you want to get a headstart on seeing exactly how awesome this new journal will be, head over to this page and sign up for the early notification list: Joel’s Journals.

What about you, what tools have you been using for your own creative work, ones that have really made a difference for you? Let me know in the comments.

Photo credit: Rusty Russ Twisted Colorful Trees with Face via photopin (license) This post contains affiliate links to products I know and use myself.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Mbithi

    Good tips for creativity. Thank you.

  2. Gurbir Singh

    I have seen many lists like this. Great to see something new, fresh and unexpected.

    Do you have suggestions for tools/apps to help create a non-fiction back of the book index?

  3. abby

    That’s what I needed. Never heard of canva, but looking forward to giving it a try. Very helpful, thanks for sharing.

  4. Michael W. Perry

    For those doing non-fiction research, the text databases from Devon Technologies can be helpful.

    And Instapaper is a great (and free) place to store webpages you discover online. You can sort them into folders and search what you’ve saved.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for the tips, Michael.

  5. Michael N. Marcus

    Maximize your exposure to media: websites, blogs, newspapers, magazines, movies, TV shows—even things that are completely unrelated to fields you are involved in. I’ve been inspired by magazines published for casino operators, tool distributors, alarm installers, pizza makers, drug store owners and more.

    See lots of movies, too, and attend trade shows, read ads and study commercials.

    Don’t forget to deduct media expenses on your tax returns.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Great tips, thanks Michael.

  6. Ernie Zelinski

    My tools for being more creative are words of wisdom from truly creative people. These words of wisdom have inspired me to write and publish 15 books, make a profit on each one, and have them sell over 950,000 copies worldwide.

    Here are a few of those words of wisdom:

    “The great creative individual . . . is capable of more wisdom and virtue than collective man ever can be.”
    — John Stuart Mill

    “We know that the nature of genius is to provide idiots with ideas twenty years later.”
    — Louis Aragon

    “The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.”
    — Mark Twain

    “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
    — Albert Einstein

    “Ideas can be brilliant; they can be inventive, imaginative, and ingenious. They can also be magical when supported by inspired action. Ideas can change the world. Ideas can also be too idealistic or just plain idiotic, however. All remarkable and successful ideas, in the long run, are applied commonsense put to great use for the betterment of humanity.”
    — from “Life’s Secret Handbook”

    “There is no great genius without a mixture of madness.”
    — Aristotle

    “When starting out, don’t worry about not having enough money. Limited funds are a blessing, not a curse. Nothing encourages creative thinking in quite the same way.”
    — H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

    “When a true genius appears in the world, you will know him by this sign, that all the dunces are in confederacy against him.”
    — Jonathan Swift

    “Creativity varies inversely with the number of cooks involved in the broth.”
    — Bernice Fitz-Gibbon

    “The good ideas are all hammered out in agony by individuals, not spewed out by groups.”
    — Charles Bower

    “Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity.”
    — Christopher Morley

    “He who joyfully marches in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would have been enough.”
    — Albert Einstein

    “If you follow the crowd, you will likely get no further than the crowd. If you walk alone, you’re likely to end up in places no one has ever been before. Being an achiever is not without its difficulties, for peculiarity breeds contempt. The unfortunate thing about being ahead of your time is that when people finally realize you were right, they’ll simply say it was obvious to everyone all along. You have two choices in life. You can dissolve into the main stream, or you can choose to become an achiever and be distinct. To be distinct, you must be different. To be different, you must strive to be what no else but you can be.”
    — Alan Ashley-Pitt

    Incidentally, the two quotations by Albert Einstein and the one by Alan Ashley-Pitt are my favorites.

    • Joel Friedlander

      That Einstein quote is pretty brutal, Ernie, but I get what he means. I’ve been watching the recent TV series about his early life, and he doesn’t look like someone who was easy to get along with.

      Thanks, as always, for breaking out your quote file.

    • Moe Vyas

      Impressive Ernie. I like and agree everything I read in your this message.
      All the best to you.
      Moe Vyas, An aspiring writer:



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