It’s hard to imagine a field of business that cannot benefit from a healthy dose of lateral thinking and creativity. But, in our rush-hour, results-driven world, it’s tough to find reliable methods that lend reliability to our creative faculties. Being creative is nice and all, but can we count on it in a pinch?
I’m not claiming to have found the pop-a-pill approach to producing creative ideas, but I have found that tools exist to reliably set the mood so the brain can start thinking laterally. If you’re up for it, try these tips and feel free to share your experience with them in the comments below.
The world is saturated with media input. It’s becoming harder and harder to have nothing to do. You’re probably reading this instead of doing any number of other tasks on your to-do list. As a result, it’s actually possible to go days, weeks, or months without ever feeling bored. But boredom taunts the creative mind like no other foe.
Instead of allowing our brain’s insatiable appetite to be appeased with constant stimulus like an intravenous fluid, why not use it’s most striking characteristic to our advantage? The brain will act. And, if it receives no new stimulus, it will work off of whatever fuel it already has stored up there. Odds are, the bored brain will start making connections you may never have considered before with ideas you think about everyday.
But, boredom offers more than that. In my comedy writing classes, I challenge my students to write down ideas until they have nothing left to write. In other words, I urger them to hit writers’ block on purpose. Then, once their pencil has run dry, I tell them to write for another five or ten minutes. The reason? The “being stuck” wall is the guardian to your great ideas vault. You must get past every idea that comes to mind logically–those are the ideas anyone could come up with– to get to your uniquely powerful original thoughts.
Being bored allows you to get to that wall faster and harder. And, since there is no other stimulus, your brain keeps going. Because… what else is it going to do?
Harness Your Unconscious Thought
Salvador Dalí may be most famous for his paintings of droopy, melting clocks in desolate dreamscapes. But many of his other works, such as the Burning Giraffe or Lobster Telephone, pay homage to his adept ability to hear and develop creative thought. Which demonstrates creativity as a skill that can and should be nurtured and romanced.
Dalí liked to have creative “power naps” to generate ideas. He leaned back in a chair while holding a key between his thumb and index finger above a ceramic plate. As he hit the threshold of dreamland, he unconsciously dropped the key, and the “clink” roused him back to his faculties, refreshed and full of new visual expression.
Sleep restores the mind by building new neural connections. The brain has no need to spend its energy on focused activity like it must while awake, and in dreams there are fewer restrictions for the mind to connect distantly related ideas. Of course, the downside, it’s also difficult to remember those great ideas after waking up. Dalí’s power nap tried to get the best from both worlds.
You can try his trick or, if power naps at work don’t sound plausible, try keeping a notebook by your bed or a dream journal. The idea is simple: start paying attention to what your mind comes up with when it gets an empty sandbox with which to work.
Watch the Caffeine
Studies have shown that caffeine has a positive impact on our ability to focus on tasks and concentrate for extended periods. This makes sense. A lot of people reach for a cup of coffee to wake up and alert their minds in the morning or the energy drink in order to concentrate on driving during a road trip. But, focus may be an enemy to creativity.
I know. I’m knocking years of the romanticized paperback writer in a bathrobe, surviving only off his or her indelible wit and a fine roasted dark brew. And I’m not saying to ditch the caffeine altogether. Just recognize it for what it is: a tool. If caffeine helps you focus, it’s great for drudging through the more monotonous tasks of finishing creative projects, like fleshing out outlines or hitting word counts. But, these are just some types of tasks on the pathway to finishing a piece of work. When it’s time to grind, focus up. When it’s time to unearth new material, many experts suggest allowing yourself the luxury of feeling sleepy, letting your mental guard down, and paying attention to what your spaced-out mind can do.
Think of it this way. Focus helps augment your internal editor. You can quickly divide between positive and negative, and this leads to decision making, which is productive. Yay productivity. Work machine appeased. Raise and holiday bonus to follow. Yadda yadda.
When you allow yourself time without pushing the focus button, you can more comfortably enter the brainstorm mode, which should be a party to which the internal editor is not invited. In brainstorming, you allow yourself to ask the big “what if” questions that you don’t have time to think about when you’re busy knocking out that to-do list.
As I mentioned above, these things have helped me as I work on creative projects. I’d love to hear if they work for anybody else. Good luck.