They’re the kinds of problems you can’t seem to think your way out of. Whether it’s a unique layout for your site, a concept for a blog post, or an intriguing interface, new ideas are hard to come up with. They usually seem to come out of nowhere, but research suggests there are ways cause these sudden flashes of insight to happen more readily.
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1. Avoid Uncertainty
A study by Jennifer Mueller found that when people were made to feel uncertain about the future, in this case by paying them with a random lottery, it caused them to reject creative ideas.
They actually associated creativity with words like “vomit,” and “hell,” but this bias was completely invisible to them. While you might not necessarily be able to avoid feelings of uncertainty, you may be able to recognize when you are rejecting all of your ideas.
If you think you’re having trouble coming up with good ideas, it’s worth considering the possibility that you are just rejecting them because you have a subconscious fear of new ideas. It’s far better to pick an idea that may be less than perfect than to pick no ideas at all.
2. Recognize multiple solutions
The same study also found that if you tell people to write an essay about how all problems only have one solution, we are also more likely to reject genuinely creative ideas.
If you find yourself saying, “This isn’t the right idea,” it’s best to stop yourself, and instead ask yourself if it’s a good idea.
3. Think about contradictions
Ella Miron-Spektor conducted an experiment where the participants were asked to write down some thoughts. One group was asked to write interesting thoughts, while the other was asked to write paradoxical thoughts.
The group that was asked to write paradoxical thoughts did almost twice as well on a problem that required creative insight.
If you’re having trouble solving a design problem, it can be helpful to think about contradictory thoughts, like how walking is sometimes less tiring than standing. These kinds of thoughts seem to make it easier to arrive at solutions you otherwise wouldn’t come up with. The thoughts don’t even have to be closely related to the task at hand, although this may help.
4. Look for relationships
Paul Thagard has advanced a theory for how new ideas are formed in the brain. It involves a complex mathematical process called convolution, which combines two ideas together in a way that makes them distinguishable from the originals.
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He points to examples like Darwin’s “natural selection,” which is a combination of the idea of artificial selection with ideas from nature, or the creation of “wireless email,” which is a combination of the ideas “wireless” and “email.”
If you can’t solve a problem by analyzing it, or you’re having trouble coming up with new ideas, it can be useful to expose yourself to ideas that might be “outside your comfort zone.” Look for analogies, similarities, and differences with the task at hand. This is often where new ideas come from.
5. Have a good laugh
Alice Isen has conducted a few experiments on how mood effects creativity, and one of the strongest results comes from humor. She discovered that people who watched a funny video were over three times better at solving a creative problem than people who watched a math video. Other experiments suggested that a good mood in general has a similar effect.
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If you are having trouble solving a problem or coming up with a new idea, try exercising some positive thinking exercises or just looking for something to laugh about. Provided you don’t spend the rest of the day looking at cats on the internet, the boost in mood will actually make it easier for you to solve the task at hand.
6. How to Brainstorm
It would be a waste of time to tell you to brainstorm, since you’ve undoubtedly heard this before. Instead, it’s worth pointing out some of the ways brainstorming might not work how you expect.
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For starters, most experiments suggest that brainstorming groups actually do worse than the same number of people brainstorming alone, so there’s no need to seek out a special team of people to help you brainstorm.
At the same time, Karen Dugosh has conducted several experiments that suggest exposure to other people’s ideas is helpful. People who listened to ideas from a tape recording came up with more ideas that people who didn’t have the recording. Still, they only did better during a brainstorming session by themselves afterward.
She also discovered that people who shared ideas through a computer had the best results of all. Presumably, this was because they could take inspiration from each other without distracting each other.
In short, look for inspiration from as many different sources as you can, but don’t bother doing the actual brainstorming until you are alone and have time to concentrate.
7. Let your mind wander
There appear to be two kinds of problems you might encounter, those that require analysis and those that require a sudden burst of insight.
If what you need is the latter, it turns out focus is actually bad. An experiment conducted by Mareike Wieth found that people who came in during their least focused time of day actually did better on insightful problems. Oddly enough, patients with damage to their frontal lobe and people under the influence of alcohol appear to achieve the same results.
The lesson here is that if focus isn’t helping you solve a problem, it’s better to start daydreaming than to force yourself to think your way to a solution. Focus is for getting the work done, not for getting the ideas in the first place.