Life Reimagined

5 Ways to Jump-Start Your Creativity

When you need to solve a problem or just want to shake things up, remember: Good ideas spring forth at the most unexpected times

You know that dreaded feeling. Into every life comes that moment when you think: “I’d be so much happier if only I could change:

a) my job

b) my home

c) my mind

d) my ball 'n chain

e) my cable TV provider

f) All of the above

Unfortunately, way too many of us are quick to select “f.” At midlife, our urge to shake things up feels particularly urgent. That’s where creativity comes in — the art of producing an idea that’s novel and but also appropriate (example: lighter fluid may be a novel soup ingredient, but not an appropriate one, explains Marily Oppezzo, Ph.D., a creativity researcher at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education). Don’t think you’re especially creative? These five tactics can fire up your thinking.

1. Think when you’re groggy. The kinds of problems that require insight (a.k.a. an “aha moment”), such as charting a life change, are often best solved at your less-than-optimal time of day, say Maeike B. Wieth, Ph.D., a psychological science researcher at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, and co-author of a study on how time of day affects problem solving. She says that imaginative insights are more likely to occur when you’re slightly sleepy, because that’s when your mind’s inhibitive thought processes are less active. So, if you’re a morning person, your best creative thinking time is late in the evening; night owls should arise earlier than usual to experience their creative breakthroughs.

2. Reimagine the problem. Overcoming something called functional fixedness not only helps you get out of a rut, it could even save your life, says Tony McCaffrey, Ph.D., who develops creativity tools at his company Innovation Accelerator. If you’re sunk in a gulley at work, say, and can’t see your way clear, make a date with a creative, well-trusted friend to look at the problem with a fresh eye. If the Titanic crew had had such a friend on the bridge, McCaffrey says, they might have noticed that the iceberg was between 200 and 400 feet long and flat, according to eyewitnesses. The crew had enough engine power to pull alongside, allowing passengers to climb onto the glacier’s flattest spots until help arrived four hours later. “Fixated on the fact that ‘icebergs sink ships,’ the crew neglected to notice its size and shape, which could have led them to think of the situation differently,” says McCaffrey.

3. Crack your thesaurus. “How many ways can you fasten two things together?” asks McCaffrey. Most of us can name between 5 and 10 ways. But look up fasten in a thesaurus and you’ll find 60 ways to do it, including tie, tether and truss (and that’s just the T’s). “So, a thesaurus can help you widen your thinking about ways to solve a problem,” he says. Applied to a life change, thesaurus-hunting can be eye-opening. Take the word “change” itself. Under it, you’ll find “substitute,” “shuffle,” “alternate,” “commute,” “interchange,” “switch,” “barter” and “swap,” any of which could send you in a new direction for constructing your own change.

4. Take a walk, anywhere. Got something to ponder? Walk it out. Whether you walk on a treadmill or a leafy lane, walking (as opposed to sitting) can double your creativity. However, people who walked outside experienced a bigger creative boost than treadmill walkers, according to a study published by Stanford University researchers earlier this spring. “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas,” wrote study co-author Marily Oppezzo, Ph.D., of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.

5. Hit the road. Spending time someplace unfamiliar to you fosters creativity because it offers access to new ideas and concepts, says William W. Maddux, Ph.D., assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD Business School, Fontainebleau, France. So if you’re from the Northeast, head to the deep south. Midwesterners, try the desert. Californians might consider journeying to Alaska. Or, go the distance: leaving the country has inspired artists. Hemingway wrote "The Sun Also Rises" in France and Austria based on his experiences in Pamplona, Spain. Gauguin’s escape to Tahiti produced exquisite studies of island life, and Handel, Prokofiev and Stravinsky all composed major works while living abroad.

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