When it comes to creativity, one of our biggest concerns is usually how we can be more creative, or how to come up with better ideas. Research in this area is all over the place, but I've gathered some of the most practical studies out there to help you utilise specific techniques that can boost your creativity.
Picture: Galushko Sergey/Shutterstock
All of these studies are useful for everyday creativity in daily life, so try a few out for yourself and see which ones work best for you.
The research shows an insidious problem that many people have is that they will often take the path of "least mental resistance", building on ideas they already have or trying to use every resource at hand. The thing is, the research also suggests that placing self-imposed limitations can boost creativity because it forces even creative people to work outside of their comfort zones (which they still have, even if they are a bit "weirder" than most).
One of the most famous examples is when Dr Seuss produced Green Eggs & Ham after a bet where he was challenged by his editor to produce an entire book in under 50 different words. I'm no Dr Seuss, but I've found (and I'm sure other writers can relate) that when I'm suddenly restricted to writing something in 500 words when I had planned to write it in 800 words, it can lead to some pretty creative workarounds.
Try limiting your work in some way and you may see the benefits of your brain coming up with creative solutions to finish a project around the parameters you've set.
Re-Conceptualise the Problem
One thing that researchers have noticed with especially creative people is that they tend to re-conceptualise the problem more often than their less creative counterparts. That means, instead of thinking of a cut-and-dry end goal to certain situations, they sit back and examine the problem in different ways before beginning to work.
Here's a candid example — as a writer who handles content strategy for startups, my "cookie cutter" end goal is something like "write popular articles". The problem is, if I approach an article with the mindset of "What can I write that will get a lot of tweets?", I won't come up with something very good. However, if I step back and examine the problem from another angle, such as: "What sort of articles really resonate with people and capture their interest?", I'm focusing on a far better fundamental part of the problem, and I'll achieve my other goals by coming up with something more original.
So, if you find yourself stagnating by focusing on generic problems ("What would be something cool to paint?"), try to re-conceptualize the problem by focusing on a more meaningful angle ("What sort of painting evokes the feeling of loneliness that we all encounter after a break-up?").
Create Psychological Distance
While it's long been known that abstaining from a task is useful for breaking through a creative block, it also seems that creating "psychological" distance may also be useful. Subjects in this study were able to solve twice as many insight problems when asked to think about the source of the task as distant, rather than it being close in proximity.
Try to imagine your creative task as being disconnected and distant from your current position/location. According to this research, this may make the problem more accessible and can encourage higher level thinking.
Daydream… and Then Get Back to Work!
One study in particular shows that the less work you've done on a problem, the less daydreaming will help you. That is, daydreaming and incubation are most effective on a project you've already invested a lot of creative effort into. So before you try to use naps and daydreams as an excuse for not working, be honest with yourself and don't forget to hustle first!
Embrace Something Absurd
Research suggests that reading/experiencing something absurd or surreal can help boost pattern recognition and creative thinking. (Subjects in the study read Franz Kafka, but even stories like Alice in Wonderland have been suggested by psychologists.)
The conclusion was that the mind is always seeking to make sense of the things that it sees, and surreal/absurd art puts the mind in "overdrive" for a short period while it tries to work out just exactly what it is looking at or reading. I like reading interesting short stories like The Last Question or browsing absurdist art at places like r/HeavyMind when I'm looking for some inspiration.
Separate Work from Consumption
Also known as the "absorb state," this technique has been shown to help with the incubation process and is far more effective than trying to combine work with creative thinking. It makes sense too — we are often in two very different states of mind when absorbing an activity and when we are trying to create something.
I've found that my writing breaks down when I try to handle research and writing at the same time, and I'm much better off when I just turn off my "work mode" and consume more inspiration in the form of reading, watching and observing.
Create During a Powerful Mood
For a long time, the research has pointed to happiness as being the ideal state to create in. Recently though, a relatively new study (2007) on creativity in the workplace made this bold conclusion: Creativity increased when both positive and negative emotions were running high.
The implication seems to be that while certain negative moods can be creativity killers, they aren't as universal as positive moods (joy, being excited, love, etc) in that sometimes they may spur creative thinking rather than hinder it. I don't want you to put yourself in a bad mood to create something, but next time you're in a strong emotional state, try to sit down and focus that energy on creating something, the end result could be worthwhile.
Is there any wonder that ‘exercising more" is one of the most desired good habits in the entire world? Some research even suggests that exercise can actually boost creative thinking as well, due to it's ability to get the heart pumping and put people in a positive mood. It's similar to how other research shows that thinking about love can produce more creative thoughts; it's not necessarily the act, it's the change in mood.
If you're stuck in a creative rut and want to take a break, try including exercise while your brain is subconsciously at work, it may help to speed up your "Aha!" moment.
Ask, "What Might Have Been?"
According to the research surrounding the process of counterfactual thinking, looking at a situation that has already occurred and asking yourself, "What could have happened?" can boost creativity for short periods of time.
According to an analysis by Jeremy Dean:
- Analytical problems are best tackled with a subtractive mind-set: thinking about what could have been taken away from the situation.
- Expansive problems benefited most from an additive counterfactual mind-set: thinking about what could have been added to the situation.
Gregory Ciotti is the founder of Sparring Mind, the blog that takes psychology and persuasive marketing and makes them play nice together. Download his free e-book on ‘Conversion Psychology' for more research or follow Greg on Twitter.