One of the most valuable skills an individual can bring is creative problem-solving—that uncanny ability to see solutions where others only see challenges and obstacles. And the larger the problem, the hairier the issue or the more difficult the challenge you overcome, the greater the respect, recognition and remuneration you’ll receive.
But if tapping the dynamic wellspring of creativity were easy, then everyone would be problem-busting savants. That’s not the case. So although few of us ooze ingenuity from every pore, there are structured habits and tactics that can trigger inspired solutions and original thinking.
1. Walk away.
Regardless of the urgency of the problem or magnitude of the issue, when you’ve been struggling for fresh perspective or an answer that just won’t come, take a break. Take a walk outside, do some Tai Chi, make some pressed coffee. Any smallish activity can help reset your thinking.
As a professional writer for more than 20 years, creative blocks simply come with the territory. I’ve come to realize that sometimes my creativity seizes up and needs a reboot in the same way that my computer does. Sometimes all my creative hard drive requires is some light physical activity or a change of scenery to reset my imagination’s server.
That kind of brief interlude is usually enough to reload my ability to download crisp insight.
2. Seek contradictions.
When creative thinking idles or stalls out, this is one of my favorite ways to kick-start the inspirational engine.
Everyone has a confirmation bias where we seek out evidence, facts and data that reinforce our existing opinions, beliefs and ideas. Confirmation bias is part of human nature, and because it happens subconsciously, it can force us into limited thinking and narrow solution sets without us even realizing it.
A quick key to turn over the ingenuity ignition is to seek out contrarian content, authors or concepts. For example, if you’re a diehard capitalist, try reading a few socialist articles to goose your mental mojo. If you’re a staunch Darwinist, perhaps a podcast on Intelligent Design can serve as a brainpan boost. If you’re a devout vegan, a YouTube video on dry-rub barbeque might ignite new ideas.
The point is not to get angry or change your beliefs, but rather to create some dynamic internal tension to shake loose mental shackles that could be holding you back.
Related: 5 Ways to Get Ideas Flowing
3. Test alternative uses.
As an undergrad, I took an Introduction to Psychology class that was simply fascinating. In addition to learning about Freud, Skinner and Maslow, we were also exposed to the idea of alternative uses testing.
Simply stated, alternative uses testing is where you take a common everyday item and think of as many different ways to use the object as you can. And you only have a certain timeframe to generate the list of those novel uses.
Although only marginally tangential to psychology, our instructor thought it was a good in-class activity that easily demonstrated divergent ideation and nimble cognitive function. Our team of three came up with more than three dozen uses for a paper clip in less than five minutes. Everything from a zipper pull, to a fingernail cleaner, to a suspension hanger for your glasses. As a teenager, that classroom exercise left an indelible mark on me.
To this day, I have a jar of common knickknacks at my desk. Whenever I get stuck, I close my eyes, reach in and pull out the first thing I grab. I give myself two minutes to come up with at least a dozen different uses for the thingamajig.
When the two minutes are up, my creative juices are moving and I’m ready to re-engage the task at hand with renewed perspective and purpose.
Each of these tactics help spur creativity by reframing the problem, distracting attention from perceived obstacles as well as serving as catalysts for previously unseen connections. They don’t cost anything, and you can do each one right now.
Although they’re not magic, by combining these tricks with a bit of cranial agitation, each of us can instantly spark creative breakthroughs and problem-solving abilities.