May 22, 2018

Science-Backed Ways to Unlock Your Creativity

Solutions to the biggest hurdles standing in your way

Sometimes you get stuck in a rut.

You may be an idea-producing machine some days, overflowing with big plans and goals. But then there are those times when you just can’t seem to generate good ideas, or any ideas at all. Sometimes they just don’t catch on.

Struggling to be more creative isn’t just a problem for those in the creative industries; creativity is necessary in all facets of life whether you’re trying to solve a problem at work or figure out how to reach a goal in less time.

So when you don’t have a lot of ideas, it’s time to get creative. But what does that mean and how can you do that?  

Keep reading for steps you can take to be more creative when you don’t have a lot of ideas.

Creativity = divergent thinking + convergent thinking

A study conducted by Simone M. Ritter and Sam Ferguson published in September 2017 nicely explains that being creative requires what’s called divergent and convergent thinking. You need both.

Divergent thinking is the ability to generate ideas and “involves producing multiple answers from available information by making unexpected combinations, recognizing links among remote associates, or transforming information into unexpected forms.”

Convergent thinking emphasizes accuracy and logic and is “the cognitive process of deriving the single best, or most correct, answer to a problem or question.”

So while creative ideas may feel like they magically come from nowhere, they actually come from your brain’s ability to do these two processes. When you combine outside-the-box thinking (divergent) with logical solutions (convergent), you get new creative ideas.

Creativity equates to innovative and unique ideas, and innovation is valued. The more value you can bring to your job, personal life, and goals, the more successful you’ll be.

Problem: Thinking too narrowly

As you try to generate ideas to resolve a question or problem, a common issue people face is focusing too much attention on the specifics of the situation in front of them. This causes you to lose sight of the bigger picture, and the realization that your situation is actually similar to another.

For example, let’s say you’re part of a small team whose end goal is to design a new software tool that will be used throughout the company. The team is made up of people from several different teams: engineering, design, etc.

People from each team are coming to the table with their team’s specific needs in mind. The engineers want to build a streamlined tool, but the design team wants lots of function. Instead of looking at the bigger problem to solve, people are getting hung up on their team’s specific needs, which keeps the problem from being solved in an efficient way.

Solution: Think abstractly. Abstraction requires you to generalize and visualize concepts; basically the opposite of thinking narrowly – think broadly. It might be the ability to see patterns across different situations, thinking about something on a deeper level, etc. But the intent is to not focus on the details of your specific situation.

Dr. Boriana Marintcheva at Bridgewater State University, Department of Biological Sciences uses an optical illusion to demonstrate abstract thinking to her students, provoking them to think about how they acquire knowledge. Optical illusions are a good example of what abstract thinking looks like, e.g. how something can be perceived in more than one way. Brain Den has many optical illusion examples that can inspire you to see the problem you’re working on from a different angle.

So when you’re stuck, try simplifying the issue. Strip the specifics from the example above and just think about collaboration; what are the the most essential outcomes that you need from this software tool? Work backwards from the bare bones solution and build logically from there.

Problem: Not having all of the information you need

It’s really hard to think of creative ideas that will make you more innovative when you don’t have all of the information you need, or background on what others have done in a similar situation.

In the example described above, if you’re struggling to find ways to build a software tool that will actually work for your whole company, part of the problem could be that you’re trying to generate a brand new, complex idea out of thin air. You need more information in order to create a smarter plan.

Solution: Do more research. Take the time to become as knowledgeable as possible in the time you have. Talk to the people around you or reach out to people who you know have dealt with a similar issue. Their insight will give you a new perspective into wrong turns they made and wouldn’t repeat, as well as lessons learned. This is where having a strong network comes in handy.

Ask lots of questions, including “why.” Don’t let yourself end an inquiry until you feel like you’ve exhausted all possibilities. A great example of this from Mind Tools is the process of “5 Whys.” Start with the problem, ask the person why it happened, then why again 4 more times for each reason until you’ve elicited all useful responses. The more whys you ask, the more likely you’ll get to the root of the problem and find a solution.

Problem: Sitting in silence

Remember how creativity requires both divergent and convergent thinking? It’s often divergent thinking that needs a boost (because the possibilities for new ideas are endless, which can sometimes feel paralyzing). Without it, we just sit there staring at the blank page…

Solution: Listen to happy music. Ritter and Ferguson found that listening to music facilitates creative cognition, specifically divergent thinking. The next time you need to come up with creative ideas, listen to happy and upbeat music, defined in the study as “classical music high on arousal and positive mood.” Happy music, not surprisingly, puts you in a “positive mood [which] facilitates flexible thinking and consequently leads to the production of unconventional or atypical ideas.”

So instead of sitting in silence, listen to Antonio Vivaldi’s piece titled The Four Seasons, Spring to get your creative juices flowing.

If you want to be more scientific, try the Alternative Uses Test. The process makes you come up with new ways to use everyday, simple objects; for example, how many uses can you think of for a ping pong ball in 2 minutes?

Problem: Pushing yourself nonstop

When you’re trying to solve a problem, a common approach is sticking with it until you come up with an idea you like. You push through exhaustion and hunger because you don’t want to give up. But creativity happens when you least expect it.  

Solution: Take small breaks and disengage from the task you’re thinking about in order to maintain focus. Go for a walk, do another task that requires you to think about something else, etc. It won’t help you to stay vigilant and continue to work through a problem to exhaustion. A study conducted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed that prolonged focus on a task actually has a detrimental effect on performance. You lose focus the longer you work on something.

And even if a break doesn’t help you generate more ideas, it will allow your unconscious mind to select the best idea you generated when you come back to thinking about it, which is really helpful. A study found that participants could better select the most creative idea from ones they generated when they were given time to unconsciously think about them.

Problem: You think you’re bad at being creative

When you don’t have a lot of ideas, you feel like there’s not much to write down. Then the blank page sits in front of you, reminding you that you had no ideas. It’s a vicious cycle.

The cycle creates feelings of stress, frustration, inadequacy, panic…which worsens if what you’re trying to generate ideas about is time sensitive or tied to your efforts to be more successful and innovative. If you let your confidence be shaken, you’ll have even fewer ideas.

Solution: Break the cycle and recognize all of your ideas are getting you steps closer to the best, most creative one yet. It is a process. You are learning.

The prolific writer Nora Roberts said in an interview when asked if she ever has writer’s block or thinks she’s written all there is about relationships and murders answered “Oh no. There are 88 keys on the piano, but do you run out of music?” Every idea may not be what you consider good, but it can be massaged, fixed, and spruced up if you explore it and give it a chance.

And maybe you’re not the reason the page is blank. Maybe it’s what you’re brainstorming ideas on. You may not have been faced with an issue like this before, or it could be you’re not familiar with another way of seeing the problem.

The answer is to stop being hard on yourself, and fix your focus back on the problem itself. You can solve any problem if you have the right tools — so don’t think about your personal inadequacies, but instead focus on getting what you need in order to start working effectively.

Practice makes perfect, and patience with yourself and with your process will help you go the distance.

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