Leadership and entrepreneurial breakthroughs depend on creativity. But we don’t always feel very creative, do we? Thankfully, research suggests we all have access to the kind of creativity we need to get the results we want—even if you don’t feel especially creative.
Last week I went fly fishing on Hesse Creek in East Tennessee. Nothing takes my mind off work like fishing. Worries and challenges fade into the background, and I find myself fully immersed in the present moment.
But it’s not about avoiding difficulties. When I’m finished I often find I have the clarity I lacked when I started. There’s something about the relaxation that actually sparks my best thinking.
I know fishing works for others too, and there’s good research to explain why. But the great news is that breakthrough creativity doesn’t require a quiet stream and a fly rod—and that’s a big plus because I need breakthroughs more often than I fish.
So what does it take? It’s different for everyone, but here are ten research-backed ways to trigger the breakthrough you need. See which works best for you.
- Relax. It’s not just fishing. For you it could be gardening, reading, or swinging in a hammock. What matters is unstructured think time—especially if you’re an introvert. Creative breakthroughs depend on making connections that aren’t obvious at first, so focused concentration can actually slow us down. Relaxation lets our minds wander into the sorts of novel associations that trigger breakthroughs.
Move your feet. We’ve known for a while that going outdoors can spark creative thinking. But it turns out you can benefit from a walk even without the breeze, trees, and bees. A treadmill or few trips around the city block can prompt creative breakthroughs.
Play. When we need a breakthrough, it’s about something serious. But don’t dismiss play as trivial. “Play nurtures a supple mind, a willingness to think in new categories, and an ability to make unexpected associations,” says Virginia Postrel after reviewing the growing research on the importance of play. “The spirit of play not only encourages problem solving but, through novel analogies, fosters originality and clarity.”
Take a step back. The more we work on a problem, the closer we get to it. But that can limit our perspective. When we stand back from a problem, we can see different angles and approaches. “[A]bstract thinking makes it easier for people to form surprising connections between seemingly unrelated concepts,” say Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman. Sometimes the solution becomes obvious with a few steps back.
Stay positive. Researchers find people are better at solving problems when they’re upbeat. “The basic idea is that a positive mood loosens the grip of attention, so that stimuli and ideas that used to get filtered out can now have a greater impact on [mental] processing,” says cognitive neuroscientist Mark Beeman. And it’s self-perpetuating because the creative process also boosts our mood.
Team up. We sometimes think creative work is solo work. Not always. Outside opinions can spark outstanding work. The relationship of Paul McCartney and John Lennon was sometimes competitive. Other times it was collaborative. But either way, they could not have accomplished what they did without each other. Study after study demonstrates the creative power of a familiar team with diverse personalities and talents.
Set constraints. We don’t like limitations, but the right constraints can clear our heads and challenge us to work with available resources. Think of budgetary limits, deadlines, and even totally arbitrary restrictions (e.g., paint an orchard with no green!). Constraints can trigger breakthroughs by forcing the creative process.
Get some sleep. Our brains process information while we sleep, helping us sort the significant from all the meaningless stuff we pick up. Even dreaming is critical to this process. To really get the benefit, consider doing your most creative work first thing in the morning.
Be persistent. We don’t get breakthroughs on demand. The best thinking usually comes with persistence. “People consistently underestimate the value of persisting on creative tasks,” say Northwestern University researchers Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren. Their research shows we usually do our best work later in the creative process—after many people have already dropped out.
Fake it till you make it. What if you still don’t feel like you can trigger a breakthrough? Well, just imagining you’re creative might help. In two studies, researchers had students identify as an “eccentric poet,” “rigid librarian,” or nothing in particular. Identifying with the stereotype had a direct effect on creative thinking. When students saw themselves as uncreative, they actually were uncreative. But students were measurably more creative when they imagined they were.
Chances are good you’re probably closer to a breakthrough than you know. Do you walk, ponder, sleep, and all the rest? Of course! The goal now is just being intentional about it.
Question: What breakthroughs do you need for your life or business right now?