5 Tips to Boost Creativity

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 Henrik Sorensen / Getty Images

We’ve heard going for a walk can boost our creativity, but after a mid-day lap around the block, that sheet of paper might still be blank. So what’s the secret to coming up with that perfect pitch? And if we aren’t born creative people, will we ever come up with the next great solution?

“A lot of people think creativity is about having that one, big brilliant idea,” says Keith Sawyer, professor of educational innovations at UNC Chapel Hill and author of Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. “It will be like the heavens opening and the angels singing — and that really isn’t the way creativity works. Creative people have tons of ideas, and they don’t know yet which one is the right one, or which will work out.”

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But you aren’t a fountain of ideas, right? Wrong. According to Sawyer, everyone has creative potential, and while you cannot set the timer on your Eureka! moment, you can lay the groundwork. We might think certain people have creative dispositions and therefore, the best ideas, but Sawyer says the research doesn’t point to that. Creative insight comes from flooding your mind with many concepts, allowing the subconscious to mix and match them into something original. With that in mind, here are five tips to light the fire for your own creative process.

Start with a good question.
“What is the idea for my app?” is a bad one. A better question is more specific and digs deeper into the question, maybe asking how the app could help a specific issue. “There’s a lot of creativity involved in asking the right question,” Sawyer says, “and I think a lot of people don’t spend enough time identifying the real opportunity of what the real problem is.” Knowing exactly what you want can help you get to the point faster.

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Become an expert …
It is a myth that people can come up with creative solutions by having an outsider’s perspective. “Exceptionally creative people have really done their homework, and they know a lot about the area they’re working in,” Sawyer says. Take the time to educate yourself and fill your mind with information that is relative to your problem. Knowing all the ideas, concepts, and facts in a certain area prepares you for the moment your creative insight strikes.

But still know a little bit about everything.
A creative person’s knowledge spans the horizon — they’re dilettantes who know lots of little things about many different topics. “The reason why that enhances your creativity is that we know you have better ideas if you can make distant connections,” Sawyer says. The history of invention is built on stories where people thought to combine unrelated things, and you can’t do this unless you fill your mind with very different ideas. Carve out time during the week to learn about something you might be interested in — the Civil War, juggling, how an elbow works — even if you don’t think it is related to your job, or what you are doing today. “It takes curiosity and open-mindedness, but you never know when these random ideas are going to become relevant.”

Give your brain a rest with a relaxing activity.
Research shows that people have their best ideas when they take time off — something Sawyer refers to as “imagination incubation.” The trick is to distract your mind with an activity that is not intellectual, but still keeps you focused. “Exercise is particularly good at helping your mind engage in that subconscious process of bouncing ideas against each other,” Sawyer says. When we exercise or chop vegetables or work in the yard, the activity captures our conscious mind, but leaves our subconscious free to roam and relax. According to Sawyer, you need to tap into the power of your unconscious to make those distant connections that you wouldn’t necessarily think of consciously.

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Practice creative thinking — seriously.
You need a technique to get your brain to start thinking differently than it is accustomed to. Try a game called “toppling.” Say the first word that comes to mind, and then say another word that is related to it. The third word must be related, but in a different way, and so on. Here’s what it looks like:

First word: Mushroom.
Second word: Carrot (The relationship is vegetables.)
Third word: Rabbit (Now, we’ve named an animal.)
Fourth word: Cartoon

Of course, it’s only natural to think of similar ideas, so a game like this helps you come up with ones that are unrelated. Try playing it with the problem you want to solve, and you’ll end up with a bunch of disconnected ideas around the same topic. “Everyone’s minds are structured in the same way — we know this from cognitive psychology. So all of our minds have potential to come up with creative ideas,” Sawyer says. “And most of us just don’t have the experience. It’s just like exercising anything.”