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You might not be a painter staring at a blank canvas. But if you’ve ever despaired late into the night, struggling to pull together a presentation about improving your company’s quarterly numbers, then you know how hard it can be to think creatively.
“To be creative isn’t to just think in the clouds and hope some random idea will come to you,” says Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Michigan who partners with companies to increase efficiency and innovation.
“In fact,” he says, “that’s usually one source of a block: no strategy or direction on how to deal with it.”
Whether your job calls for artistic, financial, or business creativity, you need a plan to overcome the innovation drought. Start with these four simple strategies.
Let Your Mind Wander
We don’t consider our lives at home to be applicable at the office, says Sanchez-Burks. But thinking about your personal life can make you more productive at work, according to a study at UC Santa Barbara.
People who took a break from working to daydream came up with an average of 41 percent more possible solutions to their problems than employees who powered through or spent their downtime doing nothing.
Try it yourself: Space out for 10 minutes, thinking about your friends, family, trips, and hobbies. Simply write down whatever comes to your mind—you don’t have to share it—then go back to your work task.
“All you’re doing is trying to bring to top of mind the reservoir of experiences and ideas that you wouldn’t normally employ [at work],” Sanchez-Burks says.
Write Down 100 Ideas Instead Of 10
“Research shows the more new ideas you come up with, the more likely you are to come up with great new ideas,” says Anne Manning, an instructor in creative thinking at Harvard University.
Pick one problem—say, how to make your product more popular—and spend the next hour taking a stab at 100 solutions, suggests Manning.
When you land on something intriguing, just keep going. “After the first plausible idea, people typically stop searching because they get stuck on why it’s good or bad,” says Sanchez-Burks. “Either way, they stop generating new ideas.”
Stick to your goal, no matter how lofty it seems. After you’ve reached your cap, you can pull out the promising ideas and get rid of all the crap.
There will be a lot of crap—but it’s a numbers game. The more ideas you have, the higher your chances are of making a breakthrough, Manning says.
Be a Wise-Ass
You’re under a lot of pressure to come up with a good solution, fast. It’s a tense situation.
It sounds strange, but it may be time to goof around. Researchers from Harvard and Columbia found that both players in a sarcastic conversation—one guy who dished it out, and the other who tried not to be offended—saw a creativity boost after they talked.
Here’s why: Sarcasm requires you to dance the line between literal and abstract, thereby activating the parts of your brain connected to creative thinking.
Walk down to your work buddy’s cubicle and try out your best deadpan joke on him. Just don’t Be careful about pulling the same move on your boss: It’s easy to misconstrue sarcasm, the researchers say, so only trade barbs with someone who trusts you.
Ditch Your Desk
You can only bang your head at your desk for so long. When Stanford researchers asked undergrads to come up with original ideas, the students produced 60 percent more solutions while walking on a treadmill than when they sat at a workstation.
Researchers aren’t sure whether walking improves your mood or whether, like daydreaming, it helps fight against your brain’s tendency to shut down out-of-the-box ideas.
Either way, the effects last long after you move around.
The Stanford team found that students were still more likely to generate ideas if they sat down at a desk after exercising, while Dutch research shows that men who break a sweat four times a week think more creatively than sedentary guys.
Can’t hit the gym in the middle of the work day? Get up every 30 minutes to stroll around the office, take the stairs to your next meeting, or channel your inner Steve Jobs and have a walking brainstorm session.
However you choose to move, Sanchez-Burks says staying active can help you facilitate what’s called “bricolage” associations—repurposing old ideas into new ones.