Nowadays creativity is valued in the workplace, even though it is not often fostered in the workplace. In a survey among CEOs, participants reported that the skill they valued most in an employee is creativity and the ability to problem solve. However, 75% of people don’t believe they are living up to their creative potential. How can this conundrum be addressed? If we want to learn how to improve creativity, we must first understand what creativity is.
What is Creativity?
Creativity is an abstract concept that is difficult to define. Per Teresa Amabile, a Harvard professor known for her work on creativity, the definition of creativity is “the production of a novel and appropriate response, product, or solution to an open-ended task.” This definition closely coincides with divergent thinking, the capacity to generate creative ideas by combining separate types of information in novel ways (Guilford, 1959). It’s the brain’s way of exploring new ideas and territories for use. However, divergent thinking is not exclusively synonymous with creativity. There also exists convergent thinking, the ability to generate the best single solution to a specific problem. This is the brain’s way of exploiting a known method that already works. To be creative, one must utilize convergent and divergent thinking in tandem to develop a novel and appropriate solution to a problem.
A Creative Brain
The brain organizes thoughts and memories in schemata, which are internal networks organizing information based on relationships. Think of it as a mind map. For example, if I say dog, you might think collar, bone, bark, fur, veterinarian, etc. These associations make up your schema for the word “dog.” However, branching out, the schema for “bark” might then be dog, tree, leaves, fall, roots, etc. By branching out once, our mind went from the word “dog” to the word “leaves” in a relatively logical manner.
Behind the essence of a creative brain is the ability to reach across distant schemata and associate two seemingly disparate concepts in a unique and useful way. Linking the words “dog” and “collar” together takes little cognitive effort. To be creative, one must exert the effort and reach across schemata to make the connection that nobody has thought of yet.
The 5 common elements of creative output are originality, fluency, flexibility, usefulness, and elaboration.
- Originality is equivalent to novelty, meaning that an idea is not identical to another and holds its own unique properties.
- Fluency is the ability to generate large quantities of ideas.
- Flexibility is the ability to generate ideas across categories, not just in a linear path.
- Usefulness is self-explanatory. Does the idea assist in moving toward a goal or is it a complete waste of time?
- Elaboration refers to the articulation of an idea. Detailing each and every attribute of an idea would be elaborate.
Now that we understand a little more about what goes on in a creative mind, you’re ready to boost your own creativity.
How To Be More Creative
There are various priming techniques you can try to enhance creative abilities. In fact, a study done by O’Connor and colleagues (2013) showed that simply holding the belief that creativity can be increased led to higher measures of creativity. By continuously exercising our creative muscles in the brain, we can become inherently more creative. Whether you’re generating new product ideas or looking to paint the next Mona Lisa, here are 6 activities to boost your creativity.
Alternate Uses Task (AUT)
The alternate uses task is commonly used as a measure of creativity, although it is mostly a measure of divergent thinking. The task itself is simple. It prompts you to think of as many alternative uses for a common object as you can. For example, an alternative use for a brick would be to break a window with it, or to stabilize a wobbly table. In a 2013 study by Wen, Butler, and Koutstaal, they showed that the completion of an AUT led to increased ill-defined insight problem-solving performance. An ill-defined problem means there are many ways to arrive at a solution. A creative mind can pull disparate ideas together to find the solution in a novel way. So next time you need to come up with a creative solution, find an object in front of you and spend 5 minutes generating alternate uses for it. Really try to stretch your thinking beyond the norm.
Think of a guided fantasy like a focused daydream. All you need to do is imagine yourself somewhere you’re not—for example in a spaceship or on a beach. The key is to be as detailed as possible as you imagine yourself there. If you are on a beach, how does the sand feel on your feet? Are there people with you? What sounds do you hear? What color is your swimsuit? Garfield and colleagues (2001) showed that people who were led through a guided fantasy increased their levels of creativity in fluency, flexibility, and originality. So next time you get caught daydreaming at work, just claim you were trying to be more creative!
That’s right folks, there’s a reason to get up from your desk. Walking increases creative thought processes, both during and after the actual act of walking. Oppezzo & Schwartz (2014) hypothesize that the increase in creativity may be due to a relaxation effect or mood boost stirred up by walking. Another explanation is that walking demands attention from the brain and suppresses inhibitory competition of memory recall (more on this later, under Exhausting Inhibition). Bottom line—when you hit a creative roadblock, go for a walk.
Thinking Like a Child
A study by Zabelina & Robinson (2010) prompted participants to write about what they would do if school were canceled for a day. One group was told to think like a child, while the other group was not. The group thinking like kids generated more original responses. This is because children are less aware of the rules about the world around them. They use objects in ways they weren’t intended for and interpret things differently from adults. Most adults think the only use for a pen is to write with it, but to a kid that pen has hundreds of possible uses. It could be a finger skateboard for riding on the desk, or a rocket ship going to space.
To illustrate the fact that children view the world different from adults, look at the image below. Which direction is the bus traveling?
Image via National Geographic / Brain Games
Over 80% of children will give you the right answer (the bus is moving to the left), but for adults, we have a 50/50 chance. How do the kids know the bus is traveling left? The door is always on the right side of the bus. If you want someone to be more creative, just tell them to think like a child.
Need a creativity and mood booster? This one is for you. Self-affirmation, a task that enhances mood and self-confidence through the recollection of a positive memory, increases ill-defined insight problem solving abilities (Wen, Butler, & Koutstaal, 2013). These self-affirmations also reduce defensiveness and open people’s minds to counter attitudinal perspectives (Steele, 1988), both of which are vital to the Forness® Thinking model. So remember to compliment yourself every once in a while!
Your mind is used to living in a world full of set rules. It creates shortcuts so that it doesn’t have to consciously think about everything it does. However, that isn’t great for creativity. The brain is constantly inhibiting connections from being made between useless schemata—but when we want to generate new and creative ideas, we need these connections to occur. Remember, the further apart two connections are, the more likely it is to be a creative answer. Radel and colleagues (2015) found that by exhausting the mind, it inhibited fewer connections, allowing for more creative solutions to various problems. By tiring the brain, we actually become more creative. Take the Stroop Effect for example in the video below.
Your mind wants to read the words because, when it sees words, its main job is to read them. But in this task, the job is to recognize the color. You must inhibit your brain from reading and just say the color you see. Repeatedly performing this task will exhaust the brain’s inhibition and elevate your creativity.
Remember, most CEOs value creative employees, and odds are that your boss does too. Bosses might not overtly express it, but once they catch a glimpse of your creativity, they'll only want more. And, now that you understand more about creativity and the way the brain works to find solutions, it's time to put your knowledge to use—at work, at home, or wherever you are. Spend 5 minutes on any of these research-backed methods before engaging in creative efforts and you will see a significant increase in your creative abilities.
Want more tips on creativity? Learn 10 ways to make your environment more creative.