The power of creativity is well documented and expansive: Studies show that it helps with everything from unlocking economic growth to driving business success. What you might not know is that creativity is not just a trait, it’s a tool—one you can use for something you do every day: thinking.
Creative thinking is defined as analyzing or seeing new things in new ways. It allows you to solve problems, focus, and innovate when you need to most, like when your boss puts out a call for fresh and exciting ideas, or you’re facing a dilemma in your personal life that requires a new approach.
There are three steps to finding and then harnessing creative thinking: Setting the stage for inspiration, getting into a more expansive mindset, and then working with the ideas that come to make sure they aren’t too out of the box.
Step 1. Create the right environment.
Researchers seeking to understand what fosters creativity have found some specific conditions that help people come up innovative ideas—such as the ambient noises of a coffee shop or dim lighting. By giving your rational, information-processing mind either more (the whir of an espresso machine and conversations at a café) or less (the blurring of details that happens when lights are low) to process, you are creating space in your mind for more inspired thinking to arise. It’s the same idea behind meditation: When you give your rational mind a focus, your more creative thoughts can rise to the top.
What happens: You’ll get in the “flow.”
Pinpoint where you do your best thinking, whether that’s in the shower, on a walk, or at your desk. In that situation, are you giving your brain more stimulation or less? If you can determine what the underlying condition is that suits your particular mind’s needs for creative thinking, you can seek out a similar context when you need to brainstorm and then let the good ideas flow.
Step 2. Challenge your assumptions.
To open yourself up to seeing old issues in a new way, you’ve got to question what you think you know, according to Rachael Ellison, an executive coach who specializes in work-life balance. When facing a seemingly intractable problem, make a list of what you “know” and go item by item to parse out what is a true fact and what is a belief that can be reframed.
What happens: You’ll problem solve like a pro.
Many times, the most elegant solution to any problem is right under our noses—but we’ve looked at it too many times to be able to see it. “By regularly getting in the habit of asking why things are the way they are, you can identify solutions to that particular problem and also build creative thinking skills that can be used in your day-to-day life,” says Ellison.
Step 3. Get curious.
It’s easy to dismiss an idea that seems outlandish, but there’s often a nugget of genius buried inside an out-there idea. To find it, you’ve got to rein in your propensity to judge ideas as right or wrong, says Polly Campbell, author of How to Live an Awesome Life. Judgment isn’t always bad—it helps filter the information we’re bombarded with all day long—but too much of it can squash an idea that simply needs a bit of time and questioning to fully reveal itself.
What happens: You’ll have that “a-ha” moment.
Instead of jumping to snap assessments, Campbell advises that you get curious about the idea. “Rather than being dismissive, say ‘Huh, I wonder what that’s about?’ Or, ‘How else might that work?’” Giving yourself even just a few seconds to be inquisitive keeps your mind open enough to create space for a-ha moments to arise—and where “out there” meets the real world is often where life-changing ideas are born.
Kate Hanley is the author of How to Be a Better Person and Stress Less and a personal development coach. She writes regularly on how to manage stress and take care of the many important parts of life. Visit her at katehanley.com.