We all grew up thinking that left-brained people were creative and right-brained people analytical. That’s been laid to rest. The reality is that creative thinking is more about what happens when different regions that usually do not work together communicate with one another.

Today’s research points to the idea that three distinct networks are working together in creative thought. These networks loosely fall into brainstorming/daydreaming, focus, and one devoted to switching between the two.

We still understand so little about our brains. We still continue to see experiments yield very interesting results. With them come a range of hacks that can be used to modify our behavior, and in the process, improve how the creative brain functions.

Here are 12 techniques that you can experiment with that will help you deliver your strongest creative thinking.

Develop Cognitive Flexibility

We are pretty obsessed with IQ, whether it’s Einstein’s or feeling “smarter” than the latest celebrity. What we really need to be focussing on is cognitive flexibility. Studies show that cognitive flexibility is a stronger predictor of success.

Cognitive flexibility enables our brains to think about multiple ideas simultaneously while also pivoting based on either unexpected outcomes or changing needs.  Being able to adapt ideas to any situation is often way more important than, say, your typical high IQ measurement.

Cognitive flexibility allows you to adapt your thinking rapidly when ideas are challenged. There are a lot of ways to retrain your cognitive rigidity.

But like any multi-step process, simply acknowledging rigidity as an issue is a good place to start.

Challenge Your Assumptions

To continue along the path of cognitive flexibility, what if you took the most obvious elements of an idea and said we can’t do that? What if you did the opposite of what you were supposed to do?

Challenging assumptions can be creatively liberating.

A good illustration of this is to think of the restaurant experience. Does a restaurant need to have a kitchen? Do restaurant workers need to be polite? Do you need tasteful decor? You can answer no to any of these questions and be successful.

The next time you get a creative brief, perhaps the best idea is to do the exact opposite?

Change How You Brainstorm

Most of the time, for a wide range of reasons, you might not want to do the exact opposite of the brief. That said if you can take a “there are no bad ideas” approach to brainstorming, maybe there are ways to produce counterintuitive ideas that can be home runs.

Some ideas to test can include:

  • Bad Ideas First – Let the bad ideas go first and in the process understand a shared framework for good ideas.
  • Rapid Ideation – Share ideas without judgment with the objective of getting everyone involved.
  • Brainsketching – Everyone works on one idea at a time, building off it in a constructive way.

There are plenty more brainstorming session ideas – try some out the next time you need to shift creative gears.

Think Inside the Box

There are so many clichés out there (looking at all you synergy-building, paradigm-shifting hustlers).

“Think outside the box” has to be one of the more offensive ones. The expression comes from a 1970s psychologist named J. P. Guilford who was studying creativity and challenged his research subject to connect the nine dots in the puzzle below with four straight lines without lifting your pen.

 9-dots-4-lines-puzzle creative thinking processes

To solve the puzzle you need to draw “outside the box”. Because of this 50-year-old experiment, this expression haunts us at every conference we’ve ever attended.

Beyond the philosophical dilemma of examining if one can actually think outside the box, thinking inside the box gives us the option of being truly constructive within the limits needed to achieve real and practical innovation.

Oh and if you are really an outside the box thinker, it’s apparently possible to do this possible in three lines.

Change Your Luck

Is being creative about luck? Well, kind of.

You make your luck…by working really hard, repeating the same tasks over and over, until eventually, after many attempts, you get lucky.

In fact, simply believing that you are lucky can be enough to trick yourself into being lucky. Believing you are lucky allows you to embrace ideas with confidence.

You can absolutely change your luck and have more and better creative breakthroughs. The trick might just be optimism and a frame of mind.

Have a To-Do List? Change Your Approach

Getting more into the mechanics of creative productivity, the to-do list is an essential piece of the creative process and workflow. Everyone has them. Everyone has a preferred method of working through them. And nearly everyone hates them.

There are a few to-do hacks you might want to use to make sure you are being productive:

  • Try the A/B schedule to ensure you are managing context switching, grouping similar activities to optimize how your brain functions.
  • Arrange to-do list tasks in an importance versus urgency matrix (also called Eisenhower’s Principle).
  • Use the 1-3-5 rule (1big thing, 3 medium things, 5 small things) to ensure you are being productive and building momentum.

However you choose to go through your to-dos, what matters most is staying relaxed, focussed and not worrying too much about what you aren’t accomplishing. That creates a downward unproductivity spiral.

Create and Nurture a Ritual or Routine

Does creativity happen spontaneously or is it the result of ritual? It seems to be a bit of both.

The epiphany can’t be planned. The flip side is that without a ritual or routine you are bound to abandon progress just before you are about to strike creative gold.

There is no recipe for an individual’s creativity, everyone will have a unique process. The goal is to find a pattern that works and use it to foster a creative ritual that works for you.

Find Your Tribe

Having people to bounce ideas off of or even use as inspiration is a must. Being creative in a bubble is much more difficult.

There are so many great creative communities out there. Engaging, contributing or even just being there will give you a solid creative inspiration boost.

Cure Your Creative Block

When you get stuck, which is inevitable on your path to your best creative output, you’ll need to have a library of tricks to get your creative juices flowing again.

Here are five quick ideas to help you cure your creative block:

  1. Write it out: Putting a pen to the paper can change your perspective.
  2. Talk it out: Often simply talking about something can clarify things.
  3. Try something for the first time: Anytime something happens for the first time, it sparks new connections in your cognitive network.
  4. Read a biography (or any book): Find a person or ideas that inspire you and take it in.
  5. Take a long walk: Sometimes all you need is to get away from an idea for a while.

Change Your Means of Creative Production

What are your creative tools? If you are a writer, are you typing everything on a laptop? Are you designing on an iPad?

Regardless of what your output is, changing your means of creative production, whether from a laptop to a typewriter, iPad to a paper pad, or whiteboard marker to Post-Its can change your output and expose you to new ways of creative productivity.

Knowledge is Key

To get the job, it’s about who you know. To deliver great work, it’s what you know that will make you stand out. There are so many ways to improve what you know – and a remarkable amount of it is free.

Take a free online course or two. Identify an area you think you could improve in and work at it.

Be Conscious of Your Feedback Process

Another important consideration is removing barriers to your productivity. And one that can kill your creativity very early is a poorly structured feedback process (especially when dealing with many stakeholders in a project with many revisions). Any feedback process has people managing creative systems and focus systems – like your cognitive functions. Having a good feedback workflow will help you connect the two. Getting a clear feedback process established from as early as is possible will pay strong dividends.

At the end of the day, these hacks are all just tools and materials. What you decide to build and how you do so is entirely up to you. And that is the beauty of it.

There are so many variables to the creative process. The best you can do is to improve the odds, giving yourself better tools and materials along the way.

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