Ever been told to think outside the box?
It’s a pretty common cliché to encourage people to be creatively and constructively nonconformist.
The idea is to break the status quo to find an innovative solution or create something that will stand out from the crowd.
That may be a request you hear from a boss at work, a phrase you tell yourself when trying to create art, or just general advice on improving your life.
Whatever it may be, wherever it may come from – creativity is much like a plant. The plant needs fertile soil, care, and nourishment to help it grow and flourish.
A person’s creativity needs the right kind of environment and care so it can grow and flourish too.
Though there are some immediate ways to generate ideas, thinking outside the box is a habit that we develop over a period of time.
Here are 10 tips to help you increase your creative thinking.
1. Ask someone unfamiliar with the problem for their thoughts.
A big part of the problem with thinking outside of the box is the box itself.
How do we wind up in a box?
Well, it’s typically because we fall into a pattern with a thing that we are regularly doing, because that’s what is required for the thing to be done.
There’s only so many ways you can sweep a floor, write a business proposal, or draw a picture.
One way to facilitate out-of-the-box thinking is to ask someone who is not familiar with the thing for their opinion on it.
The point isn’t to get a direct answer about the situation; it’s to help you see the problem through a different set of eyes.
They may not have an understanding of the problem, but listening to them talk about their opinion on it can help you think of things that may be relevant that you overlooked.
These may be things that you haven’t thought about in a long time because you’re just so used to thinking in a particular way.
2. Explore opposing opinions, perceptions, and beliefs.
A shift in perspective may help you spot solutions and generate different ideas.
One way to shift your perspective is to explore a thing from the other side of the argument.
You may have good reasons for doing or believing a thing in the way that you are, but other people will have reasons for their opposing beliefs as well.
They aren’t always good or smart reasons, but yours might not be either. It’s easy to be influenced by misinformation because something sounds good and it panders to our emotions, instead of questioning the validity of that information.
You may also find that the opposing beliefs don’t have validity to them, but by exploring them, you give yourself the chance to see the world in a different way.
Changing up your thinking is exercise for your creative mind. You may not end up changing your opinion at all, but that isn’t the point.
Instead, the point is just doing the exercise so you can prepare yourself for creative thinking later.
It’s really not any different from training and jogging to get prepared for a marathon.
3. Ask yourself, “What would I do differently if I had to start from scratch?”
The great thing about having experience with the problem is that you already have a working knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work.
One way to encourage creative thinking is to go back to the beginning and consider what you would have done differently from the start.
What pitfalls could you have avoided?
What benefits could you have nurtured and grown?
What could be done more efficiently?
What did you waste too much time on with no real benefit?
What rewards and setbacks helped define your journey?
Try planning out your course as though you were starting from the beginning and see what other ideas pop up along the way.
You may even find it worthwhile to actually start your project over from scratch, avoiding the mistakes and capitalizing on what you’ve learned along the way.
4. Use idea generation techniques like mind mapping, freewriting, and brainstorming.
Idea generation techniques nurture creativity by forcing you to think outside of the box.
These three techniques – mind mapping, freewriting, and brainstorming – all have specific approaches on how to do them correctly.
Mind mapping starts with a central idea you write in the middle of a page and circle it.
From there, you branch off of the central idea with whatever relevant ideas come to mind about it.
From those ideas, you branch off again. And you just continue to consider the different questions and ideas that come up.
You can use sentences, phrases, or even single words to build the associations.
Freewriting is a mental dump of information and ideas onto a page.
It’s highly suggested to use pen and paper to freewrite, because handwriting engages different parts of the brain than typing.
Basically, what you do is set a timer for any amount of time, and then start writing about the subject.
The idea is to write for the entire length of time without stopping, editing, or doing anything other than writing what you know about the subject. Five minutes is a good place to start.
Brainstorming is similar to freewriting, but without the timer.
You sit down with your problem and just start writing out whatever ideas occur to you.
The act of getting those ideas out of your mind helps with creativity because your mind is no longer focusing on that particular thought.
Once it’s out of your brain, you can clear your mind to let other ideas come to you.
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5. Set the problem aside, get out, and get some exercise.
A person who constantly dwells on the problem can end up narrowing their perspective on it.
Overthinking a problem is rarely a good approach to finding an outside-the-box solution. Set the problem aside for a while, get up, and get active.
As a long-term improvement, several studies have shown that exercise helps improve creative thought by fostering healthier functioning in the brain.
In the short-term, a break from trying to think outside the box and focusing on something else for a while can help reset your perspective.
It’s difficult to find a solution to a challenging problem if you’re getting angry or frustrated with it.
Give the problem some time to rest, let your mind reset, and come back to it.
6. Always be asking “Why?”
Creative thinking is all about exploration.
Continuously asking and answering the question “Why?” will build your knowledge and flexibility of thinking.
You’ll find new and different avenues to explore by delving into the why, because you’ll uncover things that you didn’t know before.
Asking “Why?” also keeps you from falling into the same ruts and routines.
Why am I doing this?
Why are we doing this in this particular way?
Why can’t I do this in a different way?
Why was this way chosen?
7. Disrupt your regular routines and change your environment.
It’s easy to fall into familiar patterns of behavior and thought, particularly if the activity is something you do regularly.
If you’re at work, then you’re likely going to be handling some similar matters in a repeated pattern, multiple days a week.
That work just becomes regular and your mind gets familiar with that routine.
Or maybe you’re an artist who specializes in a particular style of painting. Continuously painting in that style will certainly help you refine and build your skills within the discipline, but taking some time to create in other disciplines can help generate new ideas just by doing something different.
Disrupting your routine gives your mind an opportunity to seek solutions from other directions.
A change in environment can provide a similar benefit. Instead of staying cooped up in an office, a brisk walk out in nature can give you an opportunity to clear your mind and find other inspiration.
8. Take some time to daydream and let your mind wander.
Daydreaming is an activity we don’t get enough of.
Sometimes it’s good to just sit down and let your mind wander wherever it wants to go rather than trying to keep it shoved into a small box.
Humans are creative creatures, even in fields and disciplines that may not appear creative on the surface.
Daydreaming helps boost creativity because it encourages activity in the areas of the mind most responsible for creativity.
Let your mind wander from time to time and you may find ideas that you had not previously considered.
9. Eliminate negativity and say “Yes!” more often.
Negativity is an anchor that weighs down the creative spirit.
Telling yourself what you can and cannot do is a sure way to force yourself into a small box that you just don’t belong in, regardless of the type of person you happen to be.
There are more than enough critics in the world ready to tell you what you shouldn’t do. Strive to not be one to yourself, to say yes to your own ideas more often, and explore them thoroughly.
Make it a habit to say yes to your creative ideas and experiences more often.
Do the things that you may not be good at, but you have an interest in anyway.
Again, this goes back to nurturing the parts of the mind that are responsible for creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. New stimuli and environment can open a lot of doors for the creative spirit.
10. Get involved with other creative groups of people.
Other creative people can be an excellent source of inspiration and outside-the-box thinking.
Do make sure you consider whether or not the group is actually helpful or not. Creative communities, like any group of people, can be hit or miss on being a positive place for growth and reinforcement.
Finding a solid group of creative people gives you a sounding board to bounce your ideas off of, additional knowledge and wisdom to mine for ideas, and the option for collaborative efforts which can teach you so much.
Not every creative endeavor we have or problem we face need be addressed alone.