10 steps to propel your creativity into outer space

A plan to maximise your creative thinking ability

Much of our lives is weighed down by analytical thinking – exercising judgement, the need to follow a logical argument, figuring out the correct answer; we eliminate wrong turns and keep to the right path. In contrast creative thinking is an exploratory approach where your mind looks at new ideas and the worlds branching off those ideas; this generates new possibilities where we examine many potential best answers rather than settle on the one perceived to be correct. This plan aims to get you into that orbit.

Creativity rocketImage credit: Marxchivist

  1. Above all you have to suspend your judgment and self-criticism, allowing yourself to explore the wildest suggestions as well as the sensible. Any idea can contain the seeds of something potentially useful so avoid any judgment early in the process.
  2. Re-phrasing the question is an important first step in creative thinking; when you stand back and examine the problem from another angle it lets you broaden the issue and perceive a wider question. For instance, a business problem might be expressed as “Our expenses are too high,” which could result in a knee-jerk cost-cutting exercise. However without much effort this problem may be re-phrased as: “Our revenue doesn’t cover our expenses,” and this sets in motion questions such as: “How can we increase our revenue?” – an entirely more positive outlook with more possibilities.

    This illustrates what you already know – instead of jumping in to address an end-goal it’s important to take time to examine the problem to make sure you’re seeing the real issue.

  3. Allow yourself to say something silly. Research has shown that the absurd or the surreal can help boost creative thinking by making the mind ‘blink’ and look again. When your creativity needs a boost delve into an episode of Monty Python or pick up a Kafka. This advice is most useful when you’re searching for something serious, such as a business idea.
  4. Diversion tactics – exercising, sleeping, doing anything different… it’s long been recognised that taking a break from an activity is a good way to clear a blocked mind. A break allows your subconscious to do the creative thinking. It was in a dream that after years of calculations our old friend Albert found the solution to the general theory of relativity.
    1. Note that for Einstein the first stage in the process involved years of analytical thinking. Diversion tactics are most effective when you’ve already invested a lot of creative effort into the idea, i.e. the problem has to be in the back of your head for the answer to make it through to the front.
    2. Time of day is a key component of diversion; individuals often define themselves by the time of day when their analytical skills peak, e.g. they may be ‘an afternoon person’ or ‘not a morning person’. However, creative thinking actually works better at non-optimal times; a morning person may be better at finding creative insights at night, when the tired brain is more likely to wander around ideas without filtering out diversions.

  1. You may feel that freedom is what you need to think creatively: however research has shown that constraints can actually increase creative output. It is believed that the constraints free us from overwhelming choices. In the arts self-imposed limitations often result in innovative outcomes, such as the new work of fiction by David Mitchell released in Twitter chunks. So paradoxically you may find some success if you constrain your creative thinking, such as by searching for a connection between your idea and one random object (for example, find a way of relating your hi-tech idea to a brussels sprout) – you can of course choose to abandon the artificial constraint at a later point.
  1. Some people say that nothing is truly original and everything is plagiarised – indeed creativity is all about making connections between unrelated existing ideas (a good example is when Johannes Gutenberg combined a coin punch with a wine press to create the first printing press). Generating new ideas is much less daunting when you see it as combining, changing or re-applying ideas you already have in your head.
  2. Switch off – when you recognise the difference in approach required between analytical and creative thinking you see that you need to set aside time when your mind will be free to think creatively. Slotting it into your analytical routine when you’re in a totally different mindset is not going to be effective.

Creativity rocketImage credit: Marxchivist

  1. Exercise can increase our ability to think creatively. On the one hand a run or a swim gives us the time to step away from an idea allowing our subconscious to see what it is that we can’t. However research also suggests that regular exercise can itself boost creative thinking. It’s been shown that physical movement improves the ability to think flexibly, so get your Nikes on.
  2. Ambient noise improves creative thinking – this is in contrast to the silence we know helps focus our attention in detailed analytical thinking. To create a perfect atmosphere for creativity close your eyes and turn on your cooker hood courtesy of Amazon.

Psychological distance and creativity

A problem becomes more accessible when you imagine that it is disconnected from your current position, i.e. it is someone else’s problem, unlikely to even happen or of no consequence to you at all. In research at Indiana University participants were much more successful when told the issue was geographically distant, even when the geographical location was irrelevant to the question; some had been told simply that the questions had been written at another location yet this was enough to trigger psychological distance.

This theory suggests that you’ll be more creative if you transport yourself (even in your imagination) to a galaxy far far away. Or the local park.

People represent distant things in a relatively abstract way while things that are psychologically closer seem more concrete. For example, a concrete representation of an apple would refer to the shape, colour and taste and its most common use as a healthy snack. On the other hand, an abstract representation might refer to the apple as a portable source of energy. Such abstract thoughts might lead us to contemplate other uses for apples, such as a green battery for a mobile phone. What this example demonstrates is how abstract thinking allows you to form connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.

  1. Long deadlines – this is an aspect of the theory of psychological distance that may be difficult to accommodate. You probably know from experience that an impending deadline blocks creativity; the whole thinking process becomes one of judging practical consequences to an all-too real situation rather than a free-ranging exploration of possibilities. Where circumstances allow give your mind a long leash to wander into the future.

To sum it up, creative thinking explores questions from new angles that enable you to look at ideas with fresh eyes. You can break through creative boundaries with skills targeted at maintaining this freshness – teasing your brain with artificial limitations, waking up your outlook with bursts of the absurd or distracting your mind with any activity other than the one on the agenda. Learn to distance yourself from the task at hand and let your subconscious make the connections. So put some birdsong on your iPod, go for a run and at the end of the day your mind might be in a place to give up its most sparkling gem.You’ll find some helpful quotes with just the right advice in the article 10 tweetable quotes to clear your mind, and 5 for Pinterest too.

And I mustn’t forget, an essential tool you’ll need is an ideas notebook. Be prepared for unexpected flashes of inspiration that can slip so easily from your grasp in a zero-gravity environment.

Now try it out and tell me in the comments, ok?

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10 steps to propel your creativity into outer space
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Creative thinking is an exploratory approach where your mind looks at new ideas and the worlds branching off those ideas.
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