5 proven ways to boost creativity to solve tough problems

Consider these activities and tools to help build your ability to think outside the box and bring new ideas to intransigent challenges.

How to boost creativity

Are you creative? Unless you paint masterpieces in your free time or spend your days figuring out how to get humans to Mars, it can be tempting to say “no.”

But while creativity might seem like something only the Da Vinci’s and Walt Disney’s of the world are blessed with, there’s a growing body of research that suggests the trait lies with everyone. Here are five proven ways to boost your creativity and stimulate breakthroughs in your professional and personal life.

1. Look at your problems in a different light.

Could you solve the candle problem?

In this classic psychology test, subjects are given a candle, a box of matches and some thumbtacks. They’re then asked to attach the lit candle to a corkboard so the candle doesn’t drip wax onto the table below. Most people either try to pin the candle to the wall with the thumbtacks or melt the side of the candle with a match to stick it to the wall.

The solution? Reframe the matchbox as a platform for the candle to stand on and then fix that to the board with tacks.

Psychologist Robert Adamson ran a version of the candle problem in which he was able to double subjects’ chances of getting the solution by simply presenting the matches sitting beside—rather than inside—the open matchbox. This broke the subjects’ “functional fixedness”—the inability to see a use for an object beyond its intended one. These subjects found it far easiest to see the box as something other than a container for matches.

For comms pros, the candle problem is a reminder to look at your problems in a different light. Think about how you could leverage the people, resources and tools at your disposal in a new way to reach a breakthrough.

2. Surround yourself with diversity.

Florence, Italy in the 15th Century was the birthplace of some of history’s most iconic works of art and groundbreaking ideas.

Frans Johansson attributes this to the Medici effect—the creative explosion that was triggered when the wealthy Medici family brought some of the world’s most accomplished scientists, artists and philosophers together in Florence. This melting pot of diverse disciplines and idiosyncratic ideas sparked some of the greatest breakthroughs in human thinking and paved the way for the Renaissance.

This isn’t just one of the many reasons companies should strive for diversity at every level. It’s also a clear sign that you should aim to collect a diverse range of life experiences if you want to be as creative as possible.

As Steve Jobs, tech icon and Apple cofounder, said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” Travel the world. Start a new hobby.  Pick up a book you would never normally read. It’s this kind of diversity of experiences that allowed Jobs to create the innovative typefaces for the original Macintosh. His inspiration? A college calligraphy class he took on a whim.

3. Cultivate a positive mindset.

A 2019 study suggests that people are more creative when they’re in a good mood. So, if you want to boost your creativity, be sure to cultivate a positive mindset.

There’s a whole branch of psychology dedicated to figuring out what makes us happy that has unearthed several scientifically proven ways to boost your happiness. By trying these life hacks, you will not only be happier, you will also improve your ability to come up with innovative ideas.

And if you’re trying to generate ideas as a team, kick things off with an exercise that gets everyone smiling. Starting your meeting with an ice breaker might seem silly, but if it leads to your team generating twice as many ideas then it’s time well spent.

4. Brainstorm (with an open mind).

There are two kinds of thinking: divergent and convergent. During divergent thinking, we don’t think about constraints, possibilities, or budgets. We create a stream of options—both good and bad—without judging them. Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is when we put our “editor” hat on and decide which ideas are any good.

If you want to come up with as many creative ideas as possible, divergent thinking needs to come first.

Take it from four-time Grammy winner Ed Sheeran, who compares his songwriting process to turning on a dirty tap. At first, only dirty water (bad ideas) comes out. But after a while, the water will start running clean and a flow of good ideas will be unlocked.

But not until you’ve cleared the pipes of dirty water.

You can spark divergent thinking on your own or with your team by using brainstorming techniques to come up with as many unfiltered ideas as possible. Then you’ll have the raw materials you can shape into breakthroughs in your business and life.

5. Unplug.

Do you have your best ideas in the shower? When your mind is occupied by a mindless task like driving, jogging, or washing the dishes, your subconscious mind has a chance to wander freely, making connections at random.

This is known as “diffuse thinking,” and it’s where most creative breakthroughs happen. Despite this, roughly 80% of Americans reported that they spend no time whatsoever “relaxing or thinking” in a 2017 survey.

If you want to unlock your creativity you need to be the exception to the rule. Go for long walks without headphones. And instead of putting on a playlist or podcast when you’re driving or doing chores, let your mind wander. You could well be rewarded with your next breakthrough.

Georgi Todorov is the SEO manager at Semrush, responsible for establishing new processes at the company. Connect with him on Twitter and Linkedin.

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