Whether you want to design a new product, devise a tagline for a client or solve a scheduling problem, creative thinking gives you an undeniable edge. However, we can't just summon creativity on a whim; when we need it most, it's nowhere to be seen.
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If you’re in need of more outside-the-box, inventive thinking at work, here are five ways to boost your creativity.
1. Ditch the quiet office.
Unlike detail-oriented, analytical thinking, creativity thrives amidst moderate distraction. That’s why it’s so hard to get the creative juices flowing when you shut the door and block out all distractions.
Researchers at the University of Illinois found that a moderate level of ambient noise induces “process disfluency.” In short, distractions disrupt the flow of thought, leading to more abstract, broader and creative thinking. Researchers also found that noise had to be at a moderate level (around 70 decibels, the equivalent of a radio/TV in the background or someone running a vacuum cleaner) to enhance creativity. Lower or higher levels did not have positive impacts on creativity.
If you’re attempting to think of a creative solution, try distracting yourself by working at a café or park bench.
2. Silence the inner critic.
Whenever we churn out something out-of-the-ordinary, we open ourselves to scrutiny and criticism. In many cases, our own inner critic is the most effective at shooting things down. It’s hard to be creative when you’re constantly worried that x, y or z won’t be good enough.
When children draw, they don’t worry about making mistakes; they take risks, do their own thing and have fun. Yet if most adults picked up a sketchpad, they would start thinking, "That doesn’t look right," "that’s not good enough" from the very beginning.
The inner critic tightens your mind and blocks creative flow, so find any way to silence this negative voice. For example, give yourself permission to brainstorm by automatically writing down ideas as you think of them — then worry later whether they're any good.
3. Experiment with your work environment.
While the distractions of cafés and park benches can help inspire creativity, try to make changes in your workspace itself. For example, studies have shown that the complexity and interchanging notes of Mozart’s sonatas and other classical music can have a positive (albeit short-term) impact on spatial reasoning skills and creative thinking.
In addition to music, you can experiment with color. A 2009 study at the University of British of Columbia found the color blue led to more relaxed and creative thinking, while red boosted performance on more detail-oriented tasks like proofreading.
"Thanks to stop signs, emergency vehicles and teachers' red pens, we associate red with danger, mistakes and caution," said Juliet Zhu, author of the study. "The avoidance motivation, or heightened state, that red activates makes us vigilant and thus helps us perform tasks where careful attention is required to produce a right or wrong answer.
“Through associations with the sky, the ocean and water, most people associate blue with openness, peace and tranquility. The benign cues make people feel safe about being creative and exploratory,” Zhu added.
4. Sift out the busy work.
If your days, weeks and months are packed with “getting things done,” you’re not leaving any time to experiment. Google famously lets its employees use 20% of their workweeks to pursue special projects.
Considering that strategy has worked out pretty well for Google, you might want to try something similar for yourself. Try to carve out some free time every day (even if it’s just 10-20 minutes) to step away from the computer or other obligations and let yourself think.
5. Branch out beyond your comfort zone.
Steve Jobs once said, “A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions.” Sometimes the best path to creative and inventive thinking is to be intentional about experiencing new things in life.
If you’re experiencing a creative block, try picking up a magazine you wouldn’t normally read, have lunch with a friend in a different field or attend an event way outside your industry. Since you don’t know where an idea will come from, feel free to look anywhere and everywhere for your next source of inspiration.