If you continuously come up with compelling and novel ideas at a moment’s notice, you won’t need to read this article. But for the rest of us, there are times when it’s difficult to be creative on demand even though our occupations require it.
According to Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, you are probably part of the creative class, a new societal group whose “function is to create new meaningful forms.” When you’re working under tough time pressures, feeling stressed from overwork, or situated in a drab environment, it’s easy to get stuck or to feel spent.
Creativity Can Be Developed
Contrary to what many people believe, however, creativity is not handed out to anointed individuals at birth. Many psychologists agree that creativity is distributed throughout the population. Some think that people use less of their natural creative abilities as they mature and become more conventional. Others say that creativity doesn’t wane, but creativity tests aren’t valid for measuring creative thinking and innovation in the real world.
However you think about your own creativity, know that you can develop and enhance your skills. Research shows that in terms of divergent thinking, problem solving, performance, and creative attitudes, creativity training is effective (Scott et. al., 2004). What follows are research-based techniques for generating more ideas or for increasing flexible and original thinking.
1. Seek Out Ambient Noise
If you feel more creative when you work at a coffee shop, there is research-based evidence to back up your claim. Apparently, a moderate level of ambient noise can improve creativity, when compared to no, low or high levels of ambient noise.
The theory underlying this phenomenon is that moderate ambient noise is distracting, which causes some difficulty processing information (known as disfluency). When mental processing is made somewhat more difficult, it induces a higher level of abstract thinking, which can enhance creativity.
On the other hand, a low amount of ambient noise does not cause sufficient distraction to disrupt processing and induce abstract thinking. A high level of ambient noise causes so much distraction it reduces the extent of information processing and impairs creativity. So yes, you can use this research for permission to work in a nearby coffee shop (Mehta et al., 2012).
2. Widen Your Sphere of Information
Psychologists refer to the range of information and events (stimuli) that a person attends to at one time as their “breadth of attention.” Research shows that finding creative and effective solutions to complex problems is more likely when you widen your breadth of attention than when you narrow it.
A wider sphere of information allows you to associate more varied stimuli that you may not pay attention to because it seems irrelevant. When you simultaneously focus on many elements, your mind is more likely to combine this information into unique and original ideas (Memmert, 2007).
3. Try This Hierarchical List Method
This little known method could be just what you need to generate lots of unique solutions to a problem. It’s known as the Hierarchical Heuristic. Start out by creating an initial list of solutions. Analyze this list to find the solutions that have something in common. The commonality becomes the general category of solutions, known as the superordinate. Then find additional solutions that are examples or subordinate to your superordinate.
Continue in this way to find new categories of solutions and again generate subordinate examples for your new category. This approach has been shown to facilitate the generation of many high quality solutions (Butler and Thomas, 1999).
4. Move, Walk, Get Out of Your Chair
Multiple experiments have shown that some form of body movement—away from a chair—can enhance creativity. Your physical activity can be as simple as pacing around a room or as energetic as walking outdoors. The idea is that body movement activates abstract processes that help you overcome fixated thinking (Leung et al., 2011).
Interestingly, one experiment showed that adults and children improved their cognitive performance when they walked at their naturally preferred speed rather than walking at at a non-preferred speed or at a fixed speed—as on a treadmill. These researchers theorized that physical activity provides more energy, which can be invested in renewed mental resources (Schaefer et al., 2010).
5. Create an Adhocracy
If you are in a position to influence your work environment, make a push toward a more social atmosphere that promotes creativity. Research suggests that creativity improves when a person’s work environment is perceived as an adhocracy. Wikipedia defines this as “any form of organization that cuts across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results.”
Other social factors that enhance workplace creativity include high levels of employee participation and knowledge sharing. Generally, high employee participation has been shown to enhance innovation. This includes employees setting goals, making decisions and appraising results. Knowledge sharing gives employees exposure to varied ideas, important feedback and social interaction, all of which enhance creativity at work (Schepers & van den Berg, 2007).
Get The eLearning Coach delivered to your Inbox twice a month, with articles, tips and resources. Sign up below.
- Butler, D.L. and Klein, M. (1998). Good Versus Creative Solutions: A Comparison of Brainstorming, Hierarchical, and Perspective Changing Heuristics, Creativity Research Journal, Vol. 11, No. 4, 325-331.
- Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class (2012). Basic Books; Second Edition.
- Leung, A. et al., Embodied Metaphors and Creative “Acts” (2011). Cornell University ILR Collection.
- Mehta, R., Zhu, R., & Cheema, A. (2012). Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition. Journal of Consumer Research, electronically published March 21, 2012.
- Memmert, Daniel (2007). Can Creativity Be Improved by an Attention-Broadening Training Program?
- An Exploratory Study Focusing on Team Sports, Creativity Research Journal: Vol. 19, Nos. 2–3, 281–291.
- Schaefer, S., Lövdén, M., Wieckhorst, B., & Lindenberger, U. (2010). Cognitive performance is improved while walking: Differences in cognitive–sensorimotor couplings between children and young adults. European Journal of Developmental Psychology: Volume 7, Issue 3, 2010.
- Schepers, P. & van den Berg, P.T. (2007). Social Factors of Work-Environment Creativity, Journal of Business and Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 407-428.
- Scott, G., Leritz, L. E. and Mumford, M. D. (2004). The Effectiveness of Creativity Training: A Quantitative Review. Creativity Research Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4, 361–388.