Right brain versus left brain. Art versus math. We subscribe to one side or the other. When we’re stumped by a problem, it’s not because we’re not trying; it’s simply not in our DNA. Creativity, it seems, blesses only a few. In a 2007 TED Talk, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, said that synesthesia—a condition that causes people to link two sensory perceptions involuntarily—is eight times more common in artists, poets and novelists.
Related: How to Be Constantly Creative
“This is the basis for creativity—linking seemingly unrelated ideas, concepts or thoughts,” Ramachandran says.
So that’s it, right? If we don’t fall into one of those categories, we should give up and head back to the spreadsheets. Not necessarily. Gerard Puccio, department chair and professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College in New York, says creativity is a survival skill. Industries rise and fall in sync with creativity—think Silicon Valley rising while the Rust Belt manufacturing industry falls.
At Buffalo State, students are taught that creativity comes in four stages: clarifying, ideating, developing and implementing. Thinking unconventionally isn’t necessarily inherent. Although Puccio argues that creativity training should begin during the school years, rewiring your brain to think unconventionally isn’t something you can learn only in school.
Start your own creativity crash course with these techniques.
1. Use your (six) thinking hats.
Created by Edward de Bono, M.D., Ph.D., and published in the 1985 book Six Thinking Hats, this exercise forces your brain to move outside of its habitual way of solving problems. Each thinking hat represents a different style of thinking. It works like this:
- White hat: Focus on the available data. Look for past trends and attempt to fill in any knowledge gaps.
- Red hat: Use your intuition, gut reaction and emotion. Also consider how others might react emotionally.
- Black hat: Consider all of the ways this idea might not work. Take a critical view.
- Yellow hat: Conversely, look at the problem with a positive eye. What are the benefits of the decision?
- Green hat: Get crazy with your ideas. Let your creative spirit run free, and imagine the most unusual solutions to the problem. Don’t hinder your thinking.
- Blue hat: This represents thinking-process control. Imagine yourself as the leader of a brainstorm group. How would you assign others to find a solution?
2. Be bored.
Instead of staring at a blank sheet of paper, willing yourself to produce the next Moby Dick, step away from the project to allow your mind to wander. A study conducted by the University of California, Santa Barbara found that daydreaming led to creative problem-solving.
After working on your project for a short time, step away and do an undemanding task, such as doodling or loading the dishwasher. The task allows your mind to wander while still engaging your hands and various parts of the brain. Once you step back to the project, your mind will have a fresh perspective.
3. Invert your day.
If you’re a morning person, you like to jump out of bed and get your toughest tasks out of the way first. It makes sense; your brain is sharp and you feel most alert. However, research says some of our best creative thinking can happen when our brains are foggy. That’s why some brilliant ideas come to you after a couple of glasses of wine.
If you’re stuck in a creative rut, switch up your routine. If you’re a night owl, wake up early one morning and start free-writing and brainstorming about your project. Your half-awake brain might just produce an idea so ridiculous it works.
4. Enjoy the process.
Nothing is more frustrating than the days when bad ideas seem to flow effortlessly. Before you let that negative inner voice bash any remnants of self-esteem, take a deep breath and enjoy the sometimes frustrating part of the creative process. To do this, take a blank sheet of paper and write down every ridiculous idea you can think of. Make an effort to let your thoughts flow, and silence the snark. Remind yourself that even the greatest masterpieces began with hundreds or even thousands of unusable first drafts.
Related: How to Train Your Brain to Focus
5. Make it difficult.
Sometimes we need to let our mind wander. But sometimes we need to challenge it with specific rules. One study found that placing constraints on creativity actually led to more creative expression than freethinking. Try building a LEGO airplane using only one kind of block, for example.
6. Understand yourself.
We can offer all of the creative hacks in the world, but the greatest creativity boost of all is self-knowledge. Knowing the people, environment and props that inhibit or boost your creativity allows you to efficiently plan your day around what works for you. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Which people offer me the best feedback and creative motivation?
- Which time of day do I feel the most inspired? When do I feel the rush in my chest, as if I’m on the edge of something amazing?
- Do I prefer ambient noise, loud beats or complete silence?
- Does a computer distract me or help me churn out ideas faster? How about a pen and paper? Coloring or doodling?
Play around with the answers and find a combination that works for you.
“Sometimes we need to let our minds wander.”
7. Nourish your brain.
Start the day with a hearty breakfast. Include a mixture of protein, a healthy source of fat (like an avocado), fruit and some multigrain carbs for a boost of energy. Keep a small container of nuts around for snacks throughout the day. When you’re hungry, your brain struggles to focus on a single task, making creative expression nearly impossible.
8. Get weird.
Collected and published by Amantha Imber, Ph.D., author of The Innovation Formula, the following scientifically proven hacks might just be weird enough to work.
- Squeeze a ball with your left hand.
- Raise your eyebrows.
- Fall asleep while thinking about the problem.
- Look at a photo depicting an “odd one out,” such as a photo of cows, all brown except for a single black and white cow.
- Imagine yourself on a hot date.
- Look at your favorite company’s logo.
9. Stay in good company.
In 1956 Louis R. Mobley broke new ground by telling IBM that its success depended on the creativity of the executives. The resulting IBM Executive School was built around his six insights. One of them was the importance of surrounding yourself with creative people, even if it makes you feel stupid or self-conscious. Try this by visiting art galleries, sitting in (or taking) local art classes or shadowing a graphic design team for a day.
10. Take a page from their books.
Sometimes a little inspiration is all you need. Below are the creative routines of some of history’s most famous writers. Try a few and see if it doesn’t spark something new.
- Ray Bradbury typed whenever and wherever inspiration struck. Schedules suffocated him.
- Joan Didion scheduled an hour before dinner with a drink to recap the day and plan for edits the following day.
- Jack Kerouac lit a candle and wrote until the candle burned down.
- Susan Sontag aimed for consistency, writing in spurts every single day.
- Henry Miller followed his moods, switching to painting if the words didn’t seem to flow.
- The unconventional Ernest Hemingway stood when he wrote.
“Make an effort to let your thoughts flow, and silence the snark.”
11. Ditch your idea debt.
We all have a list of half-formed ideas that, periodically, we revisit to see if anything new forms. It doesn’t and it likely won’t. Just like your overstuffed closet makes you feel guilty, stressed, overwhelmed and unhappy, your idea debt is also diminishing your creative spark down to a barely visible ember. To ditch your debt, write down all of your half-baked ideas. Imagine that you’re physically moving them from your brain to the page, thereby opening space for new and better ideas to emerge.
12. Step into someone else’s shoes.
It’s called psychological halloweenism. Srini Pillay, M.D., a Harvard University assistant professor, says that “believing in yourself”—a long-held belief of achievement—isn’t always as effective as pretending you’re someone else. Identifying yourself with creativity, he argues, is less powerful than imagining you’re someone who has achieved amazing feats.
So the next time you’re having an “I’m just not creative moment,” imagine yourself as Steve Jobs, Miranda Lambert or Superwoman.