7 ways to think like a creative genius


— Whether you’re a world leader, a high-level executive, or a customer service agent, to be effective at your job, you need innovative solutions to challenging problems.

Once, creativity was the domain of scarf-wearing sculptors, espresso-drinking poets, and musicians who dreamed up melodies in their sleep. Not anymore. To succeed in a knowledge economy, we all need to produce creative solutions on a regular basis.

So how do you do it? After all, you can force yourself to work harder. But you can’t simply will yourself to be creative. Or can you?

Over the past decade, social scientists have uncovered a variety of simple techniques that we can all use to open ourselves up to creative thinking. Some of them will be discussing their recommendations in a summit in January. Here are some of their best tips:

1. Do this first thing in the morning

Studies show that happiness can have a profound impact on creative thinking. When we’re feeling positive about our lives we think more broadly and free up valuable mental resources to explore novel ideas.

But let’s face it: Experiencing happiness at work can often be a challenge, especially first thing in the morning, after a stressful commute. To elevate your mood at the beginning of the workday, psychologist Shawn Achor recommends writing down three things for which you are grateful. Spending just 60 seconds doing this exercise has been shown to improve mood instantly, making creative insights more likely.

2. Stop being so organized

Looking to generate novel ideas? Then avoid working on an empty desk.

In 2013, researchers at the University of Minnesota randomly assigned volunteers to work in either a clean or messy room. They then asked them to take a test measuring creativity. The results were startling. Those working in a cluttered environment produced nearly five times as many creative ideas.

Why would a messy desk boost your creativity? One reason, according to creativity expert David Burkus, is that a messy environment forces you to consider seemingly irrelevant ideas, making new idea combinations more likely. Creative genius Albert Einstein suspected as much way back in the 1950s. When asked why his office seemed disorganized, he posed this question: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?”

3. Visit a coffee shop

Research suggests working in a café can also boost your creativity — and not, as you might assume, simply because of the caffeine. A 2012 University of Illinois study found that the ambient noise level common in coffee shops prevents our minds from being too focused and keeps our thinking at a high level. In other words, if you want to see the big picture, visiting a coffee shop can help.

Can’t leave the office during the workday? Sociologist Tracy Brower recommends visiting Coffitivity, a free website that immerses you in the bustle of a coffee shop without requiring you to leave your desk.

4. Spend time with people outside your field

Creative solutions rarely appear out of nowhere. More often, they come about when we combine two or more existing ideas in surprising ways. As writer Matt Ridley so eloquently put it: “Creativity is what happens when ideas have sex.”

The more ideas you consume, the more likely you are to stumble upon creative solutions. One way of increasing your creative output is by strategically exposing yourself to new people and fresh perspectives. Writer Todd Henry recommends forming a circle of five to seven people from different backgrounds and meeting once a month. If keeping a monthly appointment proves too challenging, consider picking up a book in a genre you rarely read, or taking in a foreign movie. Both can also serve to expose you to new ways of thinking.

5. Leave important assignments incomplete

When tackling challenging projects at work, we often seek to finish quickly, so that we can move on to the next item on our list. But psychologist Adam Grant argues that we’re more creative when we intentionally stretch out assignments that require insight.

Instead of aiming to complete an important task in one sitting, try leaving it incomplete. Doing so will encourage you to continue thinking about it in settings outside the office and, in the process, make you more likely to find connections you weren’t expecting.

6. Schedule alone time

Ever wonder why many of us get our best ideas in the shower, on a business trip, or during our evening commute? To be creative, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman argues, you need to make time for solitude.

Why would being alone foster creativity? It’s because when we’re on our own, we let our minds wander, and mind wandering is a creativity catalyst. The next time you’re working on a project that requires creativity, remember to carve out small blocks of solitude on your calendar, when you can do some deep thinking away from your colleagues.

7. Go for a run before lunch

When we think about the value of exercise, we often think of looking good or losing weight. But studies indicate that one of the biggest benefits of exercise is its influence over the way we think. We now have definitive evidence that exercise fosters creative insight, in part by lifting our mood and opening us up to new ways of thinking.

Sociologist Christine Carter recommends leveraging this insight by taking a 15 minute walk around the office the next time you’re feeling stuck. Personally, Carter uses the treadmill in her office when she needs a creative spark and turns it off when she’s found an idea and is ready to type.

No matter what you do for a living, creativity can help you do it better. And once you recognize — as scientists now do — that creativity is not something magical that appears from thin air or a genetic gift, the formula for increasing your creativity becomes simple: Start using evidence-based techniques that are proven to work.

Ron Friedman,Ph.D., is a social psychologist and the host of The Peak Work Performance Summit, a not-for-profit event held in January 2016 that features 26 productivity experts with the goal of helping people live happier, healthier and more productive lives. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.