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Divergent Thinking: The Mental Muscle Behind Consistent Creative Output

Nick Wignall

Sometimes I feel a little stuck in the mud creatively.

I’ll sit down at my computer to write a new article and nothing seems to flow:

  • Write a sentence
  • Delete sentence.
  • Write another sentence
  • Delete sentence.
  • Take a swig of coffee.
  • Write a sentence.
  • Delete a sentence…

On the other hand, there are those rare days when I can’t write fast enough to capture all the good ideas that are buzzing through my mind. They seem to hit me out of nowhere, at all times of day and situations — in the shower, of course, but also while I’m running, on the toilet, eating dinner, or talking with a client.

Creativity is a roller coaster, and sometimes I wish I could just even it out a bit. Instead of a flood of ideas one day and a drought for the next five, it would be nice to have a modest but steady stream of new ideas every day.

How Divergent Thinking Leads to Creativity

A few years ago, while doing some research for a talk on IQ testing in children, I discovered a concept called Divergent Thinking.

Proposed by the mid-twentieth century psychologist JP Guilford, Divergent Thinking is the ability to generate many ideas or solutions from a single idea or piece of information. It’s thought to be one of, if not the most, important factor in creativity.

And yet, it’s a mostly ignored skill. In school and most workplaces, we’re taught and encouraged primarily to practice Convergent Thinking, which is the ability to take many pieces of information or data and generate one solution. Think of solving a math equation with many variables or generating a report and action plan for your consulting client.

Most of us get lots of training and practice in Convergent Thinking but very little in Divergent Thinking. Which is a problem because our ability to be creative and generate new ideas depends heavily on Divergent Thinking. But if we don’t practice and exercise that muscle, it’s likely that we’ll suffer the creativity roller coast I mentioned above: Occasional floods of creativity surrounded by large droughts.

How to Exercise Your Divergent Thinking Muscle

Below are five techniques for building your Divergent Thinking muscle and becoming more consistently creative.

Initially, I recommend choosing one and practicing it daily for a week, then try another the next week. Once you’ve got a sense for each one, make a plan for how you want to incorporate them into your life on an ongoing basis. I’ve found that having even a very brief daily exercise in Divergent Thinking makes a huge difference for my creativity overall.

1. The Many Uses Exercise

Pick an ordinary object like a paper clip. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Now try to come up with as many alternative uses for a paperclip as you can. For example:

  • Power cord organizer
  • SIM card opener
  • Easter egg holder for dying
  • Shower head de-clogger
  • Bookmark
  • Etc…

What’s really valuable about this exercise is that if you do it enough, your mind starts to do this automatically outside the confines of the little exercises. You start to look at ordinary things from new and unusual perspectives, which is a hallmark of a creative mind.

Learn More: What I call the Many Uses Exercise is really just a version of JP Guilford’s initial test of Divergent Thinking called the Alternative Uses Test. Creative Huddle has a nice article about The Alternative Uses Test and how it relates to creativity.

2. 10 New Ideas

Every day for a week, try to come up with 10 new ideas within a specific topic or category. For example, Monday might be to come up with 10 ideas for a new business. Tuesday might be 10 ideas for a new book. Wednesday might be 10 ideas for a new living room layout. Etc.

A few tips and guidelines:

  • Pick a specific time and place to do this exercise and schedule it. I like to do it right after I’ve worked out as I’m cooling down. Not sure why, but that works for me.
  • Physically write down your ideas. Pen and paper seems to be best, but typing them into a notes file on your phone or computer is fine. Just don’t try and do it in your head.
  • Understand that actually coming up with good ideas is not the point; it’s the act of generating new ideas that we’re working on.
  • An extension of the above point is that you don’t want to censor or edit your ideas. Just get them out.

Learn More: This exercise is based on an article and idea from James Altucher on How to Become an Idea Machine. Highly recommended.

3. Daily Headlines

On your way home from work, or at some point in the evening, imagine that your day was a news story in the New York Times. Spend a few minutes thinking of the major events and story arcs of your day, key players and characters, points of drama or conflict, etc.

Then ask yourself: What would the headline be? Try to come up with at least three different headlines each day.

A few tips:

  • Don’t worry if your day wasn’t actually newsworthy or seems boring (most of us don’t have newsworthy days all that often!). Pretend that it was. Imagine that the entire country is breathlessly awaking your detailed account of that meeting with your accountant and the sprinkled donuts Sally brought to work.
  • If you’re having a hard time thinking of headlines, go check out the actual New York Times or some other major paper and flip through a few to get a sense for how their headlines are constructed.
  • Again, writing these down is better than just doing them in your head. Something about the specificity of having to get something down in real words is clarifying.

What’s really cool, I think, about this exercise is that it combines Divergent and Convergent Thinking. Coming up a with a headline involves a good amount of Convergent Thinking — taking many aspects of your day and summarizing or picking out the most important ones. But generating multiple headlines forces you to get divergent again with your thinking.

4. Articles on Trial

If you’re anything like me, you tend to read (or at least skim) a lot of articles online. Most of the time when we read articles, we employ a lot of Convergent Thinking — either we’re looking for the one big idea or takeaway, or we’re fitting the whole article into some pre-existing mental category we have (e.g.: sleep tips).

But reading articles online is actually a great opportunity to practice Divergent Thinking. All you have to do is challenge or question the conclusion of the article (or some aspect of the conclusion) by coming up with one question you’d like to ask the author.

For example, yesterday I was reading an interesting Medium article about the importance of letting go of our past selves in order to continue to grow and seek out new experiences and idea. That’s a compelling idea that makes a lot of intuitive sense.

But then I thought to myself, “Wait, obviously we can’t leave all of ourselves behind! How do we know which parts to leave behind and which parts to carry forward? So I left a comment asking the author what he thought about that.

To make this exercise specific, once a day for a week, leave a comment on one article you read online, asking a question that challenges the conclusion of the article. As a bonus, offer a potential alternative of your own to the conclusion the author offered.

5. Automatic to Alternative Thoughts

As a therapist, one of the first little techniques I try to teach people who are struggling with their mental health is to identify their Automatic Thoughts.

Automatic Thoughts are quick, habitual thoughts we have in response to specific events or situations:

  • Your boss says, “Hey Jones, stop by my office later today when you get a chance.” And the first thing that runs through your mind is, “Uh oh, did she not like that report I just submitted?”
  • A blue Chevy cuts you off on the freeway and your first thought in response is “What an A$$hole!”
  • You get a package in the mail and instantly think to yourself, “YES! My new jacket’s here!”

In the case of something like anxiety or depression, Automatic Thoughts are problematic because they’re often unrealistic or overly negative and get people caught in vicious cycles of negative self-talk.

But even outside of mental health struggles, Automatic Thoughts can be problematic because they’re often not very original or new. And so often we keep thinking along the lines of our first thought without questioning it at all.

A great exercise in Divergent Thinking is to A) start to notice your Automatic Thoughts, and B) get in the habit of generating alternatives to them.

At least once a day, try to catch an automatic thought, then pause and jot down 3–5 alternative thoughts that also fit the situation. In the above example of the boss calling you into their office, some alternative thoughts could be:

  • I’m due for a raise, so maybe she’s calling me in to discuss that?
  • She wants to see if I’d be interested in taking over some of Katie’s responsibilities before she takes off on maternity leave.
  • Maybe she wants to gab about the Cowboys losing on Sunday?

Learn More: Shane Parrish (@farnamstreet) has a great article called Your First Thought Is Rarely Your Best Thought: Lessons on Thinking which talks about this idea in more depth.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +401,714 people.

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Nick Wignall

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Clinical Psychologist and author interested in practical psychology for rigorous personal growth.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +479K people. Follow to join our community.