Break open your mind – Boost creative problem solving in 5 steps

Have you ever wished you could be more creative? Perhaps you need to solve a challenging problem or want to develop a novel idea? Or maybe you’re an organization that wants to encourage employees to be more creative in order to stay ahead of the competition? Today’s your lucky day! Read the following post to help understand and improve divergent thinking skills, which are responsible for creative thinking and problem solving.

Many people feel as though they’re just not creative types–they struggle to think outside the box or dive deep into their brain to come up with creative ideas and solutions. The good news is that you can improve your creative thinking. Specifically, you can practice something called “divergent thinking” that will help you think more creatively in the future.

“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.” – Edward de Bono

Our team of PhDs have reviewed 100s of papers on creative problem solving, divergent thinking, associative networks, approach motivation, and incubation to bring you this post, which will hopefully be the starting point for great things to come.

Specifically, we are going to outline the key processes involved in creative thinking and give you the following 5 steps to help encourage and improve your divergent thinking and creative problem solving:

  1. Exercise two types of thinking involved in creativity–divergent and convergent
  2. Understand and capitalize on what happens in the brain during divergent thinking
  3. Induce approach orientation before creative thinking
  4. Take breaks in the process of creative thinking
  5. Practice your divergent thinking skills by brainstorming, free writing, or playing a game

Step 1. Exercise two types of thinking involved in creativity–divergent and convergent

Creativity is characterized by novelty, and there are two broad processes that produce effective novelty: divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking can be described as generating ideas. Convergent thinking occurs when people evaluate their ideas to reach appropriate conclusions. In this sense, convergent thinking judges the ideas that arise during divergent thinking to determine their suitability.

For example, a civil engineer might look at both steel reinforcing rods and spaghetti, and recognize that they have some similarities: long, tubular, sometimes flexible. This recognition requires observing and processing spaghetti in a different way than its intended use (divergent thinking). At this point, the engineer would assess that using spaghetti in place of metal rods would be a poor decision, and reject the idea as unfeasible (convergent thinking).

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Exercise your divergent thinking. Follow these steps to test your divergent thinking skills:

  1. Set a timer for three minutes.
  2. Look around and find the object that is closest to you.
  3. Start the timer.
  4. Write down as many uses for that object as you can think of.
    • Be as silly or “out there” as you would like.
    • Write down every idea, even if you think it’s bad.
  5. When the three minutes are up, take a look at your list to see how many creative, or novel uses, you were able to come up with for the object.

Now evaluate your ideas based on the three aspects of divergent thinking:

  1. Fluency – How many ideas did you come up with? Did you struggle to come up with uses, or did ideas flow quickly?
  2. Flexibility – How diverse were the ideas? Did they tend to be similar to one another, or did they cut across many different types of uses?
  3. Originality – How novel were the ideas? How did the uses you wrote down compare to the typical use of that object? Were they similar to the typical use or vastly different?

Exercise your convergent thinking. Next use your convergent thinking skills to determine which of the ideas is the most suitable.

Convergent thinking relies on knowledge and evaluation, which may require you to slowly build your experience and fact-base over time. By realizing that convergent thinking is a separate process from divergent thinking, you can practice allowing yourself to generate ideas without judgement. Then you can apply convergent thinking to evaluate the suitability of the ideas that you come up with through divergent thinking.

Let’s go back to the ideas generated from the divergent thinking exercise.

  1. Pick out the most creative ideas you wrote down.
  2. Examine each one to determine whether it is actually possible.
  3. Use your logic and knowledge to narrow down the list of ideas to find the best one.

Another way to exercise your convergent thinking is with the Remote Associates Test, which presents three words and requires you to come up with a fourth word that links the original three together. For instance, when given the words “cottage”, “swiss”, and “cake”, the linking word is “cheese.”

Step 2. Understanding the importance of a defocused and associative brain

What’s happening in the brain. Before we jump into our tips for improving divergent thinking to maximize your creative potential, let’s take a look at what’s happening in the brain during divergent thinking.

Perhaps surprisingly, the brain is less active overall when engaging in divergent thinking. This is because divergent thinking leads to a state of low excitability and requires defocused attention rather than focused attention. Defocused attention allows people to process multiple aspects of a situation, and to activate additional neural structures in long-term memory (including the hippocampus and inferior frontal gyrus) to find new associations.

Specifically, the brain activates memory traces (mostly in the left temporal, central, and parietal regions) that include primary associations, which are superficial representations. For instance, if you look at a tin can, your brain might make the primary association that it is a round, aluminum container.

This primary association is the gateway to more complex representations. For example, when your aluminum container association is activated, all other neural structures related to aluminum are also activated (e.g. pop can, window frame). Activating these secondary associations can, in turn, activate more complex and distant tertiary associations, such as recycling, durability, or even personal experiences related to tin cans. The deeper into the associative network you go, the more creative the ideas you generate are.

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So how can you help cultivate a defocused, associative state of mind in order to improve your divergent thinking and generate more creative ideas?

Next we’ll discuss how to do just that by inducing an “approach orientation”, taking productive breaks, and practicing.

Step 3. Induce an approach orientation before creative thinking. That is, think about what you want to achieve, not what you want to avoid

There are two types of motivation that drive individuals – approach and avoidance motivation. When people are driven by approach motivation, they seek out what they want. In contrast, when people are driven by avoidance motivation, they try to avoid what they don’t want. For example, one person could decide to join a gym to get in shape (approach motivation), whereas another person might join a gym in order to not gain weight (avoidance motivation).

In the context of creativity, approach motivated people typically generate more creative ideas than those who are avoidance motivated. In an approach motivated state, people’s attention scope is broad, making it easier to access and restructure different mental associations. They don’t want to leave things out, even if they might be wrong.

In contrast, when in an avoidance motivated state, attentional scope is narrow, and people are more focused on local perceptual details. They don’t want to risk including something that might be incorrect. Research finds that cueing approach motivation, compared to avoidance motivation, can lead to greater creative insight and creative generation.

Getting into an approach state of mind:

  1. Set aside a couple of minutes.
  2. Take the allotted time to write down your current goals and what you want to achieve.
    • This can be anything, ranging from goals that are extremely short-term to ones that are very long-term. If you want to achieve it, write it down!
  3. Make sure to include how and why achieving these goals will lead to positive outcomes in your life.

Not only does this put you in an approach state of mind, it also strengthens your goals.

Handling specific tasks or problems with an approach mindset:

What to do when you’re facing a task you really don’t want to complete or a problem you aren’t sure how to solve:

  1. Think about the task.
  2. Take a step back and think about the different ways that solving the problem or completing the task could actually be enjoyable.
    • For example, maybe you’re having an issue with your boss and don’t know how to talk to him or her. Instead of worrying about the outcome of your interaction, think about how overcoming this issue will be a learning experience and personal accomplishment.
  3. Think about the long-term benefits of completing the task or solving the problem.
    • For instance, if you resolve the issue with your boss, you will ultimately be more satisfied at work. This can have far-reaching benefits.

Step 4. Take a break.

One of the easiest ways to help your brain defocus and become more associative in order to bolster your divergent thinking skills is to simply take a break from what you’re doing.

Oftentimes when people put aside a complex problem, they experience an “aha” moment in which a solution emerges seemingly out of nowhere. Temporarily shifting focus away from an unsolved problem is called the incubation period.

Each time you come back to the problem after taking a break, you improve your performance by extending your mental search to previously unexplored areas.

Incubation is especially effective for creative problem solving. This reflects the fact that such problems often have a variety of possible solutions. When faced with a creative problem, individuals benefit from performing a wide search of their knowledge to identify as many relevant connections as possible with the presented stimuli.

Every time individuals re-approach the problem after taking a break, they improve their performance by extending their search to previously unexplored areas of their associative network.

Make the most of the incubation period

  1. Take frequent breaks: By doing this, you engage in a more diverse mental search.
  2. Take strategic breaks: By taking a break after you’ve spent time exhausting one line of thought, it is more likely that you will explore a new domain in your second phase of problem solving. However, the initial think-time doesn’t have to be long. It can be as short as 1 minute.
  3. Take longer breaks: The longer the break you take, the more time your brain has to make associations, and the more original your ideas will be.
  4. Take busy breaks: Maximize your incubation period by engaging in low demand tasks, such as easy Sudoku puzzles or simple crosswords that don’t require elaborate thought. This ensures that you actually stop directing your attention to the problem, and gives your brain a chance to process in the background.

Step 5. Practice 

In general, the best way to get better at something is to practice. There are a wide variety of methods people can use to practice divergent thinking, such as brainstorming, free writing, and playing games.

Brainstorm: Brainstorming is a tried and tested method of generating a large number of creative ideas. It’s important that when engaging in brainstorming, you do not simultaneously judge the ideas you’re generating.

Rather than putting on your convergent thinking cap, you want to remain in the divergent thinking mode and generate as many ideas as you can. Evaluating them comes later, after you’re finished brainstorming.

Pro tip: If your organization has several people working on a project, consider having them brainstorm individually before coming together to brainstorm collectively and discuss ideas. This has been shown to increase originality.

Free write: Free writing is another method of divergent thinking. When attempting to solve a problem, set aside a predetermined chunk of time (e.g., 5, 10, or 15 minutes) and record whatever ideas come to mind when writing about the problem or situation.

Don’t stop to think about what you’re writing or to proofread. Think of it as a stream-of-consciousness that should not be interrupted. When the allocated time is up, you can read through what you’ve written down and restructure or reorganize in whatever way is most useful to you.

Play a game: Games are a great and fun way to practice divergent thinking and making creative and unique associations. There are a wide range of games that capitalize on divergent thinking abilities, including Scattergories, Codenames, or Taboo.

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Recap of Break open your mind – Boost creative problem solving in 5 steps

Overall, creativity and creative problem solving play important roles in not just your personal life, but your work life too. Divergent thinking is responsible for generating creative ideas, therefore it can be beneficial to capitalize on the techniques outlined in this blog. Next time you’re dealing with a problem and are having a difficult time coming up with a solution, use one (or more!) of the techniques outlined in this post.

  1. Take a step back to consider the distinction between divergent and convergent thinking so that you know which type of thinking is more appropriate for the task at hand.
  2. Remind yourself that it can be beneficial to be in a defocused and associative frame of mind.
  3. Becoming more approach motivated – think about what you want to achieve and how it will benefit you.
  4. Take a lot of breaks to stimulate incubation and more creative ideas.
  5. Practice your divergent thinking skills by brainstorming, free writing, or playing a game

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