Creativity helps us become more innovative and adaptable when circumstances change. In fact, research shows that business leaders know creativity is valuable, and an IBM survey of more than 1,500 CEOs representing 33 industries and 60 countries found that creativity is the most important quality they look for when hiring.
But it can feel impossible to make time for creativity amid the daily pressures of emails, meetings, and unexpected fires to put out.
So the Daily Briefing team set out to compile a list of simple changes you can make to think more creatively—without sacrificing productivity. Devoting a few minutes to these creativity exercises may even boost your productivity by pushing you to work smarter—not harder.
Here’s how you can get inspired in under 15 minutes:
1: Take frequent breaks
To unleash your creativity, you need space to allow your ideas to take shape. And that space can come in the form of psychological distance, according to Lile Jia, an assistant psychology professor at the National University of Singapore. He recommends taking frequent breaks so that you can return to the problem with a new perspective. After all, staring at the same problem for hours rarely leads to new ideas.
2: Adjust your workflow
Rearrange your calendar to make time for deep analysis during the hours when you feel most alert.
“There are a few optimal windows for doing your most creative and focused work,” says Christopher Barnes, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington‘s Foster School of Business. Detail-oriented work and strategic thinking should occur during high-energy windows, which for most people come in the mid-morning and late afternoon. Low-focus tasks “that are like muscle memory work”—such as clearing out your inbox—can fill in the gaps, says Carson Tate, author of a book on personal productivity.
To identify your optimal workflow, observe your energy, focus, and motivation throughout the day, recommends Chris Bailey, a productivity consultant.
3: Set constraints
It may seem counterintuitive to impose constraints while trying to nurture creativity, but setting limits can actually grease the wheels of free thinking, Emma Seppala wrote for Harvard Business Review in 2016. Researchers have found that constraints, like limited resources, can fuel creative problem-solving. Take advantage of this by imposing an arbitrary limit on yourself, such as restricting your materials or doing a process backwards.
For example, Hannah Jones, chief sustainability officer and vice president of the Innovation Accelerator at Nike, gives her team challenging constraints that force employees to push the boundaries of what they think is possible. The method has paid off: The Nike Flyknit shoe delivered on its goal of promoting athletic performance while cutting 60% of production waste.
In another popular example, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Suess) once accepted a $50 wager from his editor that he couldn’t write a children’s book using only 50 words. The result? Green Eggs and Ham.
When you’re stressed, you may be less open to new ideas. Author and theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow explains that relaxing your mind can let ideas flow unrestricted. To relax your mind, he recommends going for a walk or a run.
You can also let your mind wander through meditation. “I meditate so that I can let go of existing thoughts and patterns in my mind and make space for new ones,” says Terykson Fernando, creative director at Sattva. “To me, creativity is all about letting things well up from within.”
But even if you don’t have 15 minutes to spare for meditation, a few deep belly breaths will give you a boost of energy by promoting the flow of oxygen, according to Barnes.
5: Get bored
Being bored brings the mind to new places, says U.K. psychologist Sandi Mann. In one of her own studies on boredom, Mann found that those engaging in a boring task, like copying numbers out of a phone book, produced more novel ideas immediately afterward than did those engaging in more stimulating activities.
“We might go off in our heads to try and find that stimulation by our minds wandering, daydreaming and you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit in the subconscious which allows sort of different connections to take place,” she says.
6: Change locations
A quick way to boost your creativity is to give yourself a change of scenery. Your surroundings affect the way you think, and high ceilings, spacious rooms, and dim lights can all help you get into a creative frame of mind. The typical office environment has the opposite effect.
Neuroscientists suggest relocating to spaces with high ceilings and architectural diversity to provoke creative ideas.
7: Turn off your phone
In any setting, be sure to remove yourself from interruptions and distractions. “A short phone call, email or even a text message can redirect your attention and thoughts,” explains Mlodinow. “Even the thought that some message may be awaiting you can have the same effect.” Turn off your phone or block out phone-free time in your day to both relieve anxiety and allow you to become more focused and engaged in your work.
8: Confront existing beliefs
The best way to generate new ideas is to question your strongly held beliefs, says Mlodinow. Leave your comfort zone and try thinking about the situation from a new perspective. Former Google CCO Lars Bastholm says he regularly encouraged employees to reframe assignments with a new target audience in mind. Stepping into unfamiliar territory may be the catalyst for innovation.
9: Visualize your thought process
Creative people don’t always think in a linear way and may link together seemingly disparate ideas, wrote Karla Lant-Zapier for Fast Company in 2018. Mind mapping allows you to trace the connections between your ideas and give others a glimpse into your thought process.
10: Seek criticism
A diverse range of perspectives, including from people outside your industry, can help you view challenges in a new way.
“When I have a promising business idea, I literally share it with every smart person I encounter who has any interest in it,” says Heleo CEO and founder Rufus Griscom. “This results in introductions and new information, and it increases the likelihood that the idea will one day turn into a business.”
11: Be positive
When we’re happy, we’re more willing to take a risk or experiment, explains Mlodinow. As he puts it, “Happiness, contentment, and gratitude are not just important life goals; they also prompt us to widen our range of thoughts and actions, explore our environment, and open ourselves to new information, all of which are important to success.”
(Cook, Scientific American, 3/21/18; Lant-Zapier, Fast Company, 3/19/18; NPR Staff, NPR, 1/12/15; Seppala, Harvard Business Review, 9/14/16)
Learn more about how to think creatively
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