Legendary business guru Peter Drucker once observed that “the business enterprise has two — and only two — basic functions: marketing and innovation.” While most of our time is caught up in the day-to-day grind of the business, we know we have to block out time for developing new ideas and to find ways to innovate on our products and services. But it can be difficult to be creative on demand. Even if we do grab a moment to sit down and think, it’s often difficult to come up with something creative.
As it turns out, it isn’t a case of “haves” and “have nots.” Research has shown that the human brain actually isn’t predisposed to being creative. In fact, it’s actively trying to not be creative, by resorting to learned systems and pathways from our prior experiences.
You see, our brains are designed to be highly efficient. Any unused or extraneous information gets pruned, and the less energy that can be spent processing something, the better. The more we experience something, the less energy the brain needs to spend on it because it’s become familiar and those neural networks have been strengthened. So when we are asked to call up an image or concept, the first thing that pops into mind is usually something we’ve seen or heard.
Let’s try it. I want you to imagine a bike. What does it look like? Chances are, you probably conjured up a bike from your childhood, the Citi bike you saw on the street, or a bike you saw in a shop that you wanted. As you’ve just experienced, the brain more readily refers back to our past experiences instead of conjuring up something new, because creating something new takes more energy, and the brain is a greedy miser. So how do we break out of this cycle?
Here are some ways to trick your brain into giving up some more of its energy stores, allowing you to be more creative.
1. Change your workspace.
Go work somewhere you usually don’t, maybe work outside, or from home one day or a different part of the office. When your brain is put in an unfamiliar setting, it can’t rely on past experiences, so it’s forced out of its energy-saving mode.
2. Ideate differently.
Try out a new brainstorming method. If you usually hammer out ideas alone, work with someone on the team you don’t typically reach out to, and if you usually brainstorm in a group, try going it alone. You’re more likely to have fresh ideas and novel insights because you keep your brain from being able to predict and fall into what usually comes next.
3. Avoid analogies or comparisons to past experiences.
This allows you to short-circuit your brain’s tendency to reach for what it knows. Instead, write down what comes to mind immediately and access your instincts so you can think beyond what you already think you know.
4. Purposely inject novelty into your daily routine.
Approach a new project using a new workflow, new software, or a new set of parameters. If you normally make a plan and stick to it, try taking a more fluid approach. If you usually work with one vendor, try seeking out a new option. This keeps your brain from referring back to learned patterns. You’ve changed the game on your brain, forcing it to play along.
5. Seek new information.
If you’re stuck on a problem, look for ways to supplement your existing knowledge base. Maybe there’s something you missed in the spreadsheet, deck, or email you were just looking at, a key piece of information that could change how you’re approaching the solution. That fresh piece of information resets your neural networks and helps you see things differently.
These techniques are useful ways to avoid routine and are used by creative people from every industry to breathe new life into their ideas. The novelty keeps their creative engines fresh. It prevents the brain from using shortcuts, and forces it to generate new thoughts. Employ these techniques and experience a newfound creativity as you work on your next project.