A global study found that 75% of people feel like they’re not reaching their creative potential. It’s a skill deficit that’s become urgent to fix now that creativity is key to business success.
Luckily, plenty of research has found that creativity is like a muscle; the more you exercise it, the stronger the skill becomes. And, being more inventive doesn’t require doing art or other stereotypically creative things. Spending a couple of hours throughout the week on simple activities that improve your cognitive flexibility can have a dramatic impact on your performance.
Here are five research-backed ways to boost your creativity and problem-solving abilities.
1) Put Yourself in Unusual Situations
If you follow a steady workday routine and spend your free time engaging similar activities with your close group of friends/family, you’re killing your creativity. Research shows that having a lifestyle that is full of diverse experiences plays a significant role in people’s creative abilities.
Unusual experiences expose you to knowledge and ideas that you wouldn’t think of your own. With each additional one, your brain can make new connections. To leverage this, you need to continually try new things and pivot from your routines.
Here are some ways to diversify your lifestyle:
- Attend events targeted toward communities you don’t regularly interact with. Go alone and silence your phone so you don’t have anything familiar to fall back on.
- Volunteer for nonprofits that allow you to do hands-on work with their causes. Taking actions to help struggling groups of people or natural areas suffering from severe degradation will expose you to injustices you may not have been aware of.
- Visit places with cultures and/or appearances that vary from your home base. You don’t have to travel to do this. Just spending a few hours with an open mind in a part of town you never drive through, or a neighboring city whose local culture differs from yours can give you creative insights.
- Temporarily try lots of new hobbies. Vary your activities from art forms to outdoor activities to playing little-known games. Spending a couple hours a month on various activities will stimulate less-used parts of your brain and enable you to have more divergent thoughts.
Creativity involves generating things that are new. To do that, you must continuously seek out experiences that deepen your understanding of the world.
2) Learn Things that Have Nothing to Do with Your Job
According to a researcher at HEC Business School in Paris, frequently learning information that is unrelated to your job has a powerful ability to stimulate creativity. When you explore different topics, it improves your cognitive abilities.
For example, if you’re a sales executive, your days revolve around starting conversations with people and building relationships. So, the parts of your brain that enable interpersonal skills are the strongest. Taking a couple hours per week to read articles or watch TED talks about technical subjects like biology or engineering will improve your brain’s ability to make surprising connections and improve your ability to solve your prospects’ problems.
Or, if you’re a supply chain analyst who spends most of your day crunching numbers, the analytical part of your brain is the strongest. To counterbalance that, spend time each week learning about softer subjects like history and art.
Learning about topics that are irrelevant to your career may seem like a waste of time but, the cognitive flexibility you gain from it will have a powerful impact on your ability to generate creative solutions.
3) Find New Ways to Use Common Objects
A study published in the British Journal of Psychology found that when people brainstorm numerous ways to use ordinary objects such as cups, chairs, paperclips, etc. it enhances their problem-solving abilities.
At first, it will be difficult, and you may only be able to come up with a couple of ideas. Push yourself to increase the amount each time and strive to generate unique thoughts rather than use the same ideas for multiple objects.
This exercise is beneficial because it gives you the cognitive skills to develop creative, useful solutions in situations that seemingly have few options.
4) Read Fiction Stories
A study published in the creativity research journal found that people who read fiction have a reduced need for cognitive closure.
Cognitive closure is your instinctive desire to eliminate uncertainty and draw definitive conclusions. This instinct is detrimental to creativity because it drives you to make fast decisions based only on obvious facts.
Stories guide you through unfamiliar worlds and experiences where you lack facts and any sense of control. You can’t achieve full cognitive closure when you immerse yourself in fiction so, the more you read it, the more comfortable you become with uncertainty and unusual ideas - both of which are at the core of creativity.
If you don’t have time to read novels, opt for short stories instead. Many are about the length of a couple of industry-related articles, so they’re easy to incorporate into your reading habits one to two days a week.
5) Take Breaks to Daydream
If you’re like most busy professionals, you likely feel an intense pressure to optimize every minute of the day as you strive to reach your growth goals and balance your many other obligations.
However, attempting to focus all day is counter-productive. A study in the journal Psychological Science found that allowing taking breaks from difficult tasks to let your mind to wander boosts your creative problem-solving abilities.
The key is to let your thoughts meander organically and not focus on any one subject. Your brain is not designed to focus all day so, to remain sharp, you need to give yourself brief periods to relax.
If you’re on-the-go constantly and feel like you don’t have time to pause and think about topics that aren’t urgent, try doing it during times when your brain has the least ability to focus such as:
- When you’re transitioning between tasks
- While you’re on a bus, train, plane, or in a car with another driver
- During the 30 minutes when you first wake up and before you go to bed
- While you’re trying to refocus during the afternoon energy slump
Short breaks contemplating nothing, in particular, give your brain the rest it needs to think creatively.
About the Author: Emily leads Prialto's content production and distribution team with a special passion for helping people realize success. Her work and collaborations have appeared in Entrepreneur, Inc. and the Observer among others.